Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bama and the Bard

Magnet # 349:  Alabama Shakespeare Festival Photo

Material:  Acrylic

Purchased By:  Mom & Dad

Years ago, some might have claimed that the Deep South was not a place where William Shakespeare was very popular, but that's clearly not the case. 2010 marks the 25th season of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, located in my hometown of Montgomery. This theatre has enjoyed great success over the years and tomorrow its season will open with the premiere of the play The Nacrima Society featuring Jasmine Guy, who did a great job starring on the television show A Different World back in the late eighties and early nineties.  This will be the world premiere of the play - it sounds like the anniversary season is off to a great start.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, or ASF, actually began north of Montgomery in Anniston, Alabama back in 1972.  It was created as a summer-stock theatre and when a critic took in its first performance, he disparaged it and predicted that the ASF would fail.  And he was almost right - by the early 1980s, it was on the verge of bankruptcy.  Fortunately, they had a very important board member, Carolyn Blount, who approached her wealthy husband, Wynton, who agreed to provide for the ASF if it would move to Montgomery.  Blount donated 250 acres from his own estate on which to build the complex, along with over twenty million dollars to construct it, the largest single donation in the history of American theater.  Because of his generosity, the ASF has remained financially sound throughout the years, a feat few American theaters can claim.  In December of 1985, the ASF reopened in its massive new home. The complex consists of two stages - the Carolyn Blount Theatre, which seats 750 and the smaller Octagon Theatre, which as its name suggests, consists of eight sides and can accommodate 225.  With time, Shakespeare's Garden has been added on the grounds, complete with a stage where outside performances can be given.  The ASF has gone on to become the seventh largest Shakespeare Festival in the world, drawing in over 300,000 visitors each year from all over the country and the world.

Given that the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is located where I grew up, I've had nearly a lifelong relationship with it. I still remember when it first opened and I'm pretty sure the first play I saw there was A Christmas Carol. When I was still in grade school, I attended Camp Shakespeare, a two-week summer day camp held there, for two summers in a row. There, we learned all the different aspects of putting on plays - acting, singing, set design, costume design, dance, and even more. It was pretty fun and my favorite part was creating models of sets. I used it as an excuse to make a dollhouse both years. I also saw quite a few performances there over the years. My parents had season tickets for a long time, and sometimes I would join them there. I remember seeing some of Shakespeare's greatest works, like Hamlet, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer's Night Dream, as well as plays by writers from the South. I also attended a performance of Huckleberry Finn, a musical, with the Girl Scouts, and that was pretty fun. I also went there with my school, but that didn't always go so well. During a performance of Romeo and Juliet, I seem to remember something flying onstage between acts, but I don't think I paid much attention until an employee came on and somewhat angrily lectured us on not endangering the safety of the performers. Later, I learned one of my classmates had thrown a golfball on the stage. It certainly wasn't one of my school's proudest moments. And I don't know if it was just the power of suggestion or not, but I still think I may have seen it fly up there. Sometimes, I'd also see the ASF pop up on national television. On The E! True Hollywood Story episode that talked about where the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 was now, they mentioned actor Mark David Espinoza, who had once played the husband of one of the show's main characters. At that time, he was acting at ASF and I'm not sure if they mentioned it by name, but I do remember they included exterior shots of the lovely building. Also, when former Dharma & Greg actor Thomas Gibson was being interviewed by Jay Leno, he mentioned having interned at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Of course, that was back in 1980, before the Carolyn Blount Theatre had even been built. Still, Jay seemed to think it was pretty funny that there was a Shakespeare Festival in Alabama. Too bad he's never seen it - I think he'd stop laughing then. I imagine there are plenty more out there who, like Jay, would find the concept amusing but would change their minds if they ever saw this incredible venue. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival has no doubt impressed millions during the quarter century it's been open. And while I'm not able to visit it as much as I once did, it remains dear to me and I hope to take in more plays there in the future - here's to the first twenty-five years, and to many more!

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