“It’s an anomaly,” director Jeffrey Sherman says of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the performing arts centre it is housed in. “It’s certainly the largest theatre of its size in a city this size.”
The festival, amongst the 10 largest Shakespeare festivals in the world, is permanently based in Montgomery, capital of Alabama. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is bigger, but Montgomery is a small capital by US standards, with a population of only 200,000. And a theatre company celebrating works of the great bard is not something I’d expected to find in America’s Deep South.
But in a similar story to that which you’ll hear in many parts of the US, the philanthropic Blount family decided that Alabama needed a theatre, and so it gave it one. It’s set in a particularly beautiful park with manicured lawns, small undulating hills and views across to the Museum of Fine Arts (which Blount also donated generously to). Built in the mid-80s at a cost of $21.5 million, the performing arts complex remains the largest single gift to a theatre company in America.
It has two theatres (one seating 792, the other 225), a bistro and bar, and a Shakeapearean Garden. Visitors are greeted by a full-length statue of Shakespeare in the foyer. The festival has pulled out all stops this year to commemorate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, with a rare opportunity to see Timon of Athens, a production that marks the festival’s completion of Shakespeare’s canon of plays – all 37 of them.
The festival operates with a $7 million budget and 25 full-time staff, 50 part-time staff and actors who are cast per show. The backstage areas are impressive to say the least, and when I toured them, staff members were hard at work getting ready for a new production of the Mary Poppins musical.
The ASF puts on six to nine productions each year, typically including three works of William Shakespeare. But it also does other genres and playwrights, both classical and modern. It has a long-standing commitment to fostering new work, which it does through its Southern Writers Project Festival of New Plays.
The Southern Writers Project focuses on works either from southern writers or works that are devoted to southern themes. Now in its 23rd year, the Festival of New Plays will be held this weekend (May 16 – 18, 2014).
Nancy Rominger, who heads the Southern Writers Project, reads hundreds of submissions in a quest to find scripts with development potential. She says it is one of very few theatres in the country to accept unsolicited submissions.
“Fifty percent of plays here have been world premieres and have gone on to other theatres around the country. The whole Southern storytelling is so rich in this area and it’s lovely to embrace that,” says Nancy. “It’s a glorious place for theatre junkies.”
Alabama Shakespeare Festival: www.asf.net
Southern Writers Project: www.southernwritersproject.net