Sunday March 10th
A Sunday matinée performance of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf’. Really? In many ways, it’s an oxymoron. Edward Albee exploration of the intense, passionate relationship of a middle-aged couple George and Martha, fuelled by a toxic blend of alcohol, anger and love, super-charged by arrival of a younger married couple for the evening is not the type of subject one would consider for the Sabbath Day. The ferocity of the language and the adult nature of this work would normally make it more suitable for a late week evening.
The 300 seat Virginia Samford Theatre, renovated and revived from its 1927 roots as the Birmingham Little Theatre, is a thing of absolute period beauty. Upstairs is a smaller space, suitable for workshops or studio in-the-round performances. In 1950, the University of Alabama Birmingham took over the theatre and renamed it the Town & Gown, but in 1999 announced plans to close and sell. However, the Metropolitan Arts Council stepped forward to restore this beloved Birmingham landmark and renamed it in honor of their generous donor Virginia Samford Donovan, who along with along with MAC and a $3 million capital campaign provided the funds to preserve this treasured historic structure. Thus Birmingham has been provided with a tremendous new resource – The Metropolitan Arts Center and the Virginia Samford Theatre. The Theatre was re-opened in May 2002 and now serves as a beacon for local talent and performers are drawn to showcase their creativity.
Aside from the drama of the theatre’s birth and double re-birth is the remarkable performance we see on stage. The line between amateur and professional is truly blurred. This was a cast and production worthy of any stage anywhere. The 4-person cast delivers almost 3 hours of Albee’s intense dialogue with a pace and fury rarely seen on the stage anywhere. Seeing this level of quality on a ‘community stage’ could easily leave one depressed about the state of one’s home product; or one could come away determined to raise the bar. I choose to adopt the latter attitude.
This is the second so-called Am Dram (Amateur Drama) we’ve seen in three days, sandwiching a true professional company performance in Montgomery of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and we cannot see any discernible difference in quality. In fact, we are gob-smacked again to learn that area amateur productions typically have only 2 to 4 weeks of rehearsal. Virginia Wolf had three.
Yet these actors, directors and crew are from the local community, are not equity actors, and have day jobs. How is this possible?
The obvious explanation is that the cast comes to their first rehearsal completely off-book, ready to block and prepared to work three week nights plus a full Sunday until opening night. It’s an intense schedule, but has certain attractions over the typical 3 month rehearsal period used in our region by community theatres. Something to think about.
Monday March 11th
As the expression goes ‘And now for something completely different’: a festival of 10 minute plays. This is the 10th anniversary of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s showcase of student acting and writing, one of five productions in the theatre department’s season of performances. This year, to celebrate its 10th year, the 10 Minute Play Festival features their Greatest Hits, short plays that audiences have repeatedly requested to see again. All are student written, acted and produced. It’s a challenge intended to test and develop writing skills and to tell a story in a very limited period of time, all with minimum props and set pieces. As each show ends and the cast rush their prop off stage to make way for the next work.
The University of Alabama Birmingham boasts one of America’s most prestigious theatre departments. And is a past winner of university theatre’s highest honors, including regional and national recognition by the Kennedy Center / American College Theatre Festival. The Alys Steens Center is a theater multiplex; several performance spaces of different sizes and configurations. Ours tonight is a black that seats just under one hundred. The audience is seated on two sides, with the upstage corner cut to face the apex of the audience seating. This is a unique and very effective setting for the short works that follow.
The beauty of The 10 Minute Play Festival and its format is that if you don’t care for one play, it’s over quickly….and you might like the next. And that’s what in fact happens. We see some actors with skills and potential, others who could use a bit more direction. There are one or two well-structured stories, some that just miss out on greatness, and others that are simply obscure. It’s an interesting experience, filled with the youthful enthusiasm one would expect but clearly leaving the impression that a good script makes acting much easier.
Tuesday March 12th
A Broadway Musical on Tour
Nearing the end of our Theatrical March through the Confederacy, we have seen an extremely wide range of live performances: the poignant and amusing, drama of the highest intensity, stories of the most historical local significance. We’ve seen the next wave of writers and actors who will soon emerge from the American South. We’ve seen the lines between amateur and professional and equity theatre blur so completely that few trace exist to tell one from the other.
We end our Theatrical March by driving 3 hours east from our Birmingham base to Atlanta for the opening night of ‘The Million Dollar Quartet’, the Tony Award winning musical now on tour across the USA. The music is bright and alive, the musicians are highly skilled, and the staging at the level that one would expect of a first class Broadway production. But it is after all a touring show, and although the music has its roots just a state or two away, the production’s connection with the audience is not what we have experienced in previous shows. However, combine this energetic show with the setting of the legendary Fox Theater, and it is an experience to remember. The Fox is the most outstanding and ornate theater I have ever seen anywhere, and by that I mean in either London or New York. The interior motif is an Arabian castle in an oasis, with a moonlit sky, minarets, and balconies that seem to have designed by Ali Babba himself (see photo montage).They just don’t build them like this anymore, not to mention that the seating capacity of 4700 is larger than what one today could justify from a business point of view. The theatre is as much an attraction as the show itself.
But what one takes away from this show, this theatre and the experience of being in the Fox on that night in fact parallels the story of ‘The Million Dollar Quartet’ itself: Theatre is about stories set in a time and place, and those stories told in the theatre are unique to that specific moment and can never be rewound for future viewing. ‘The Million Dollar Quartet’ is the true story about a few hours in 1956 when Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley played and sang in the tiny studios of Sun Records under the fatherly eye of Sam Phillips. Those short moments, retold in this story, captures the magic of the theatre experience and of life itself… special fragments in life’s experience that only come to full significance when we recognise afterwards that they can never be repeated.
And so our tour is over. From all this we’ve considered some interesting notions that might apply to live theatre in our own region:
Perhaps rehearsal periods do not have to stretch over an entire season of the calendar year;
Perhaps programme variety is the spice of life, and that good plays are worth searching for;
Perhaps we should not be afraid to experiment with new ideas in programming and staging;
Perhaps a show with a small number of highly skilled actors has distinct advantages over large shows that are open to everyone;
And that we are blessed to have audiences so large and so loyal as to make our local groups viable and prominent cornerstones of our cultural communities.
There’s nothing like getting out and seeing other expressions of live theatre. It is far too easy to circle one’s cultural wagons, restrict input, and as a result draw ill-informed conclusions. The Green Room’s mission to experience the breadth of live theatre in Alabama and Georgia has left your trusty scribe energised and enthused about what could be accomplished in our home region.