First thing first: If your image of Alabama and Georgia is a bunch of buck-toothed Billy-Bob’s driving around with pickup trucks, spitting tobacco and wondering ‘why in tar-nation’ that tornado took the mobile home away again….think again.
America’s deep South is rich in history, culture… and live theatre. It has a solid industrial base anchored in the auto sector, numerous prestigious colleges and universities at the leading edge of medical, engineering and technology development. And it has an incredibly diverse range of first-class theatre.
The Green Room knew this already, of course. But join us on an epic Theatrical March across the South, wherein your Green Room scribe sees 5 very different stage productions in 6 days (taking a day off for University of Alabama basketball of course!). From community theatre to intense drama to innovative programming to musical spectaculars….the South has it all!
Thursday March 7th
We arrive in Birmingham, are met by out remarkable hosts Gina and Rex, battle the inexplicable traffic, enjoy a quick tappas meal, then arrive at…..Terrific New Theatre!
Circle Mirror Transformation
This simple but brilliant play has won numerous Obbie and Drama Desk Awards, including Best New American Drama in 2009. Anyone remotely familiar with acting classes or improv will be chuckling within seconds: It starts with 4 actors and their instructor lying on the floor in a circle, eyes closed. Then the ‘number counting game’ begins, that famous acting school game counting 1 – 2- 3- and up, randomly around the circle….but when two people speak at once, the counting starts again. You have to laugh, because you’ve probably all been there once. But this single set, seemingly innocent story of people enrolled in a series of 6 weekly sessions walks the fine line between acting class and open therapy. It’s packed with much more: a touch of romance, a touch of sadness, and some great humour that exposes our human vulnerabilities. What more can one ask from a story? This is a play that could be produced by any of our community theatre groups on a traditional stage, or more interestingly ‘in the round.’
Terrific New Theatre is a community theatre group that presents 6 shows each season from September to July. They typically take 4 weeks to rehearse each show. In their 27th season, they are led by the charismatic Artistic and co-founder Carl Stewart. Their 130 seat theatre is located in a renovated Dr. Pepper bottling plant. The plant is a quasi-cultural-commercial complex called ‘Pepper Place’, featuring galleries, design companies and suppliers as well as the theatre.
The quality of this presentation could only be described as absolutely outstanding. The characters were so well cast, and utterly natural and believable. Perhaps this was the finest piece of ensemble theatre I have ever seen anywhere. In fact, I had no idea this was amateur theatre until I was so informed at the after-show cocktail reception with the actors. Then again, in a greater metropolitan area of close to 1 million like Birmingham, perhaps it is not surprising that Terrific New Theatre can attract terrific young actors. Sadly, they must compete with large professional productions with correspondingly high promotional budgets; community theatre can get very lost in the mix in a big city. This opening night performances attracted only about 40. Their strong and loyal base of supporters must now do what all community theatre groups do everywhere…spread the word, and fast! With our smaller cities and towns and less professional competition, we are truly blessed when productions like Spamalot can sell out a 400 seat house, or when the Huronia Players can fill their 12 seat theatre for 10 or 12 shows!
On to Montgomery….
Friday March 8th
While the antebellum attitudes of the Conference have by and large gone the way of political incorrectness, there’s no escaping the civil rights history of the 50’sand 60’s in the South. It’s in the air and in the mind. The South, while admitting that racial divisions still exist in certain pockets, has embraced its recent past. It knows the world watched events unfold on television. They acknowledge they have a reputation to overcome. And today they want to tell you about it, how far they have come, how much more they want to do, not just here but as an example to the world.
If in Birmingham, the biggest single event was probably the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by the Ku Klux Klan that killed four little girls; in Montgomery, Alabama’s state capital, it’s Martin Luther King (1929-1968) and the city bus boycott of 1955. We take the Interstate south, and arrive for lunch at the Capital Club, on the 23rd floor of Montgomery’s tallest building. We meet our celebrity tour guide for the afternoon, civil rights legend Doris Crenshaw and her staff assistant Michael Thomas. A civil rights activist from the age of 12, Doris worked alongside Dr. King in the 60’s and was a close friend of his wife, Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) and Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005). She takes us to King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where the 1955 bus boycott was born in his office. From his window King could see the state capital building, symbol of the repression suffered by his people and where Governor George Wallace ruled supreme in the 60’s. We visit the parsonage where he lived with his family, the home that was bombed by the KKK while his wife and young children were inside. We visit Dr. King’s barber shop where I get a trim from King’s own barber and sit in the very chair that he did, and listen to stories of the great man and his humility. The stories are told by Ms. Crenshaw, Dr. Collier, Mrs. Cherry with passion and emotion about a time when whites literally could and did get away with murder. Not only do our new friends know about those events, they were there, with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. They don’t just talk about the history; they made the history. At times it is an overwhelming experience hearing their voices.
Why is it important to understand this? As Atticus Finch says in this play ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….’. And now we are off to a stage adaptation of perhaps the most famous of all southern stories.
To Kill a Mockingbird: The Passion Play of the South
by Christopher Sergel
Montgomery Shakespeare Festival Theater
If theatre is about telling stories about a place and time, then what could better set our minds to the next journey; opening night of a stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at the Montgomery Shakespeare Theater. We are honored to be included with 60 other guests a special pre-show dinner with the cast, directors and artistic director of this outstanding theater and production. I sit with Kurt Rhoads, a seasoned Broadway (and elsewhere) actor who plays ‘Atticus Finch’. We become engrossed in conversations that range from the movie and TV stars who come to back to the try the stage, to the significance of Mockingbird being produced in this location, to the complexities of making ice for curling competitions (his father is a renowned ice technician). Director Dianna Van Fossen and Artistic Director Geoffrey Sherman take Q & A’s regarding the use of local children and actors…and although this is clearly this is NOT a community theatre production, ‘Yes, they do’…’Yes, they feel it is a positive experience’ and ‘Yes, it is important for the community’…and ‘Yes, about 40% of the cast is equity, 30 % are apprentices, and the rest are non-equity locals’…(Anyone from the Orillia Opera House reading this?) They discuss their determination to stay true to the raw grit of the original script, including the controversial ‘n-word’, against the current climate of political correctness and sensitivity to such language and behavior in the South.
We sit front row centre and watch a performance of the story often referred to as ‘The Passion Play of the South’ The magnificent 790 seat auditorium, sold out for this opening night, falls breathlessly silent during the court scenes, finds joy in the performances of the children, and at last leaps to its feet at the conclusion of this revolutionary morality tale. We have a quick word with Director Van Fossen in the lobby afterward; she is clearly pleased.
One wonders if this same play would resonate the same way with an audience in the north. Inspired by true events that occurred only a short distance away in Monroeville, I can’t help feeling that, no…this is a very special audience assembled tonight, and homage to a history that no one wishes to see repeated.
Saturday March 9th
A break from theater…It’s down the Interstate again, to Tuscaloosa to celebrate 100 years of basketball at the University of Alabama, and to take in the game between ‘Bama and the University of Georgia. It’s a half-court Hail Mary buzzer beater that carries ’Bama past Georgian 61-58…and I wonder how that was scripted. Drama like that only happens on stage!
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.
Still to come in the next few days….
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf
A Festival of 10 minute Plays
The Million Dollar Quartet (Fox Theater, Atlanta Georgia)