Celebrating 35 Years in Montgomery | Alabama Shakespeare Festival //Explore Media - Fairy Doors
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Celebrating 35 years in Montgomery

Since its founding in Anniston in 1972, Alabama Shakespeare Festival has produced 491 plays and musicals, developed over 100 new scripts through the Southern Writers Festival, and completed the entire Shakespearean canon. The relocation to Montgomery in 1985 propelled the theater to national status and gave it the capacity to produce at a level unseen in the South.
— Rick Dildine, ASF Artistic Director

On December 7, 1985, the Carolyn Blount Theatre opened its doors as the permanent home of Alabama Shakespeare Festival. To celebrate the occasion, here are words, stories, and memories from some of the people who’ve been an integral part of the theater’s success over the years.

Martin Platt (Artistic Director, 1972-1989)

In early 1971, I was completing my final year of my BFA in directing at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The draft lottery had passed me by, and I was looking for options. The theatre department posted job openings, and one showed up for the artistic director position at the Anniston, Alabama-based Little Theatre. I wasn’t predisposed to think that Alabama was where a nice Jewish boy from Beverly Hills should look to begin his career. But a classmate, James Canada, was from Anniston, and he convinced me to apply. I did, I got the gig, and in summer 1972, after my first season at the Little Theatre, I opened the first season of the Shakespeare Festival. James Canada played Hamlet for me that year. The people I met in Anniston took me to their hearts, and they made ASF possible. Brandy and Josie Ayers and Cody and Barbara Hall at the Anniston Star were a big part of this, as were so many others then, and later in Montgomery. I know that ASF changed me and made all that was to follow possible. And I know that ASF has changed Alabama in many ways and affected many lives — all to the good! As John Kander explained our lives in the theatre to me, and why we never stop, “It’s the people. It’s about the people you meet, the people you work with.”

Sometime in the early 80s, I was at Stratford-Upon-Avon, seeing a play at the Royal Shakespeare’s Swan Theatre. A young couple came up to me and said, somewhat awkwardly, “Excuse me. Are you Martin Platt?” I replied in the affirmative. They introduced themselves, and then they said, “We’re from Alabama. We used to go to the SchoolFest matinees, and later to other performances. We loved them… and we just got married — and this is where we wanted to come on our honeymoon. Thank you so much!”

That’s what ASF means to me. That’s what ASF means to Alabama.

Dr. Laurie Jean Weil (Former Board Chair)

Thirty-five years ago, when I drove into Blount Cultural Park and, a few minutes later, walked into the Carolyn Blount Theatre, I felt immediately connected to it. “This is mine,” I thought. I continued to muse, “This belongs to every one of us in Alabama!”

The first play produced, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was a sumptuous feast of sets, costumes, actors all world-class, matching the soaring inspiration of the building. Red Blount’s gift to Alabama provides every one of us something we can be proud of, something magnificent and excellent to offer to the region and the nation.

Several years ago, the ASF Board adopted a mission statement that captured the essence of what we do at ASF: “Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the State’s theater, builds community by engaging, entertaining, and inspiring people with transformative theatrical performances and compelling educational and outreach programs.”

When we enter the Festival Stage or Octagon spaces, we sit among people we know and people who are strangers. In our own little world, each of us watches actors respond to the challenges and opportunities life offers to us. Sometimes, the characters meet their challenges; sometimes, they fail. We can identify with them. We may even learn from them, but mostly, we are touched by their vulnerability, courage, playfulness, and intensity.

Often the plays suggest what we have in common and the ways we can help one another live into our best selves. Through drama or comedy, history or fantasy, the plays prove, “All the world’s a stage,” and our awareness is broadened, our sympathies deepened as we recognize ourselves as “… all the men and women merely players,” with our entrances and our exits,” playing all the different roles of life. Sharing this experience to mutual effect connects us!

As in the past and once the pandemic is subdued, Alabama Shakespeare Festival will continue to be an economic engine for the River Region and the state; it will continue to be an irreplaceable investment in the education of our school students; it will continue to be an unparalleled enhancer of quality of life.

Some twenty years ago, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival established the Southern Writers’ Project (SWP) to commission playwrights to create new plays about Southern history, cultures, people. More than any other region of the country, the South is thick and sticky with stories. 

Our history is complex, both tragic and redemptive. Our cultures complex and direct. Our characters larger than life and memorable. 

 

The newly-minted plays developed through SWP help to grow the nation’s canon of plays, and in time, will be the most enduring contribution of ASF to the nation as our plays go out to the nation and transform lives through the connections they make to our minds and hearts which bring us closer together, in community.

 

Greta Lambert (Former Associate Artistic Director & Acting Company Member)

There are so many moments of joy, sharing, feeling the audience’s emotion, feeling profound sorrow of a character. I remember other artists and collaborations. I have witnessed great acting in others and learned from their performances. I remember characters who have taken root and bloomed in my heart, my body, my soul. I have stood on the cliffs just above madness whirl-pooling before me. I have laughed uncontrollably — on stage — when an audience is beside themselves with laughter for so long that the actors had nothing to do but fill the long moment with more hilarity. 

I remember, during the first preview of Hedda Gabler, I put Eilert Lovborg’s manuscript in the stove in a jealous rage, missed the pan of water, and smoke came pouring out of the furnace. The auditorium was cleared for about 20 minutes while the smoke disappeared. I was mortified.  

I will never forget the few moments before the curtain rose on that first A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in 1985. I stood in the wings breathing in the palpable excitement in the air. This Alabama girl was opening a new, magnificent theatre in Montgomery. I was overcome with pride, joy, amazement, and tears. I felt I was home. Not just in Alabama, but in my heart as an actor. My life in the theatre made sense.  

ASF gave me a road map and I journeyed down paths I never dreamed I would travel. I met my husband, found a home, all because of my odyssey. My work is my life-long project, ever-changing, and in need of improvement and upgrades. ASF gave me a haven to work on my long-term assignment and the opportunity to play great roles. Women who taught me strength, passion, tactics, madness, humor, darkness, hope, and love.

ASF has given Montgomery and the River Region a place to see world-class theatre produced by theatre professionals and has made a tremendous contribution to education. Imagine that student in one of the SchoolFest student-matinee performances seeing live theatre for the first time. Does he/she/they see themselves in the actors, the stage crew, the designers? How many times have students seen the classics come to life onstage?

Through theatre and the arts, students learn empathy, vocabulary, values, imagination, and the art of storytelling. As a teaching artist, I have learned the joy of watching students find their special light. The interns and fellows taught me what is possible in the theatre of the future. I am grateful and brimming.  

Father Manuel Williams, C.R. (Board Member)

One of my most powerful memories of ASF centers on our production of Romulus Linney’s adaptation of Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. It had been my custom to treat my late high school English teacher to many plays each year.

Miss Helen Hoyt, formerly Sister Rose Marie of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity at St. Jude High School, inspired hundreds of her students, primarily African American young people, to love the works of the Bard and other great literature. We memorized several of Shakespeare’s sonnets and scenes from the plays in addition to the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Gwendolyn Brooks and Emily Dickinson; it was truly a catholic exposure to the world of letters.

Twenty years ago, I took Miss Hoyt to see the production of A Lesson Before Dying at ASF. I remember as we entered the Octagon, the attendants offered patrons Kleenex tissues. I thought at that moment that might be a tad presumptive. Of course, by the time we were well into the second act, I was grateful for those tissues. The entire cast was outstanding, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who played the condemned man, Wiggins, was heartbreaking. He has gone on to have a very distinguished career in television and film. I am not moved to public tears too often, but the poignancy of that story and ASF’s superb presentation was an incredibly moving experience.

In these 35 years, what ASF has done for me and thousands of others is make us think, delight us with pageantry and humor, anger us as some of the realities of our world portrayed some brilliantly on our stages, make us bellow with laughter, and reach for our Kleenex and hankies.

Michael Emerson (Emmy-Award Winning Actor & ASF MFA Graduate)

Kent Thompson (Artistic Director, 1989-2005)

My time at ASF was wonderful and heady, with lots of organizational growth and artistic achievement. With the board and many donors’ support, we expanded our reach, attracting audiences from 19 states and several foreign countries, doubled our operating budget, mounted national tours of Shakespeare productions, and created a major new play program—the Southern Writers’ Project. The Festival Forever Endowment grew from $345,000 to more than $18 million. And we diversified our programming, artists, and staff in the 1990s, long before it became the focus of our industry. 

ASF made significant contributions to American theatre with the many world premiere plays created by the Southern Writers’ Project. Many of these scripts have gone on to follow-on professional productions across the United States, taking the name of ASF, Alabama, and Montgomery with them.

My favorite memories surround directing the ASF and then the follow-on Signature Theatre productions of A Lesson Before Dying adapted by Romulus Linney from the novel by Ernest Gaines. This was a high mark for the Southern Writers’ Project and a powerful and moving tragedy—I remember audiences being silent at the play’s end in both Montgomery and New York City—they were so moved and devastated you could hear a pin drop—which was broken by thunderous applause.

ASF is a gem of the state of Alabama—a leading cultural institution that brings acclaim, attention, and audiences from across the nation and the world. With its magnificent settings, combined programming of Shakespeare and the classics, new Black and Southern plays, and family fare, ASF has burnished the reputation of Alabama and Montgomery. It has brought hundreds of thousands of people to Montgomery to enjoy staged productions.

Greg Thornton (Former Acting Company Member)

Actors tend to the nomadic life. Bags packed, home sublet, gas in the car, and off you go for six-to-eight weeks. Toward the end of the run, call your agent/manager, line-up the next gig, if luck holds, you’re on the road again, as Willie Nelson echoes. 

I was cast in New York by Martin Platt, the founding artistic director of ASF, to play Amundsen in Terra Nova. For me, it was new land. Not ever having traveled below the Mason-Dixon line, I left the New York area and drove south, motored through a Tennessee snowstorm, rounded the “jaw drop” curve, and found myself on the grounds of ASF. Taking in the view of that magnificent theater across the lake, little did I realize this place built by Mr. Red Blount would be my home for the next twenty years.

ASF enabled our family to have a place to live, to watch our children grow up, to be among a huge-hearted community onstage and off, to have a home. When I look back on this, Shakespeare, as is his wont, whispers to me: “And his great love, sharp as his spur, hath holp him to his home.” 

For its outstanding artistic accomplishments, its significant educational contributions, and its important economic impact on the city, the state, and the country, stand up and raise a glass to ASF on its 35th birthday in Montgomery!

Carrie Preston (Emmy-Award Winning Actor & ASF Alum)

Rick Dildine (Artistic Director, 2017-present)

Since our founding in Anniston in 1972, Alabama Shakespeare Festival has produced 491 plays and musicals, developed over 100 new scripts through the Southern Writers Festival, and completed the entire Shakespearean canon. The relocation to Montgomery in 1985 propelled the theater to national status and gave it the capacity to produce at a level unseen in the South.

Today the company is recognized as one of the jewels in American theatre. Our vision continues to be ambitious as we seek to build community with transformative theatrical performances and capture the human experience of Alabama, the South, and the nation. I came here in 2017 because I believed deeply that the theater can be the community’s center and that storytelling is our best way to bridge divides. Over thousands of years, stories have been used to dehumanize, destroy, and humiliate; stories have also been used to empower, empathize, and embolden communities. With a grand plan to commission a new Southern canon, ASF will play a significant role in the future of American storytelling for decades to come.

Todd Schmidt (Executive Director, 2018-present)

Alabama Shakespeare Festival has had a significant impact on my life. The first professional theater I saw was at ASF — a 1976 production of King Lear in Anniston, Alabama. I was a teenage boy fascinated by theater and the arts but from very far away. My parents were not “artistic;” we never went to live theater (and very few movies). The thought of a career in the arts hadn’t entered my mind. And if it had, my pragmatic mother would have pushed it far away. But something about that production (and others I had the opportunity to see in Anniston in subsequent years) opened my eyes.

The magnificence of the acting, the beautiful use of language, the regal costumes – all combined to spark a fire in me that ignited into a long and fruitful career. I am eternally grateful to ASF for exposing this young Alabama boy to the power of a great story told by a skilled group of professionals.  

Dr. Susan Willis (Dramaturg and Shakespeare Scholar)

Some of my top memories of ASF over the years include:

  • The Anniston core acting company and staff that brought ASF’s spunk and savvy to Montgomery: Betty Leighton, Philip Pleasants, Robert Browning, Jim Donadio, plus Charles Killian and Carol Ogus and more to be joined by “newcomers” we kept for years: Greta Lambert, Greg Thornton, Ray Chambers, Steven David Martin, Barry Boys, Paul Hebron, Sonja Lanzener, Rodney Clark, plus Alice Ortega, Le Hook, Terry Cermak, and so many more. 
  • Seeing Red and Carolyn Blount standing quietly in the Grand Lobby watching busloads of school children fill the theatre for a SchoolFest student-matinee performance. 
  • The screams and laughter at the actors’ backstage, repertory-end, show-and-tell “Velveeta” awards for cheesy acting, hosted by Steven David Martin. 
  • The talent and growth and dedication of every MFA class from 1985 to 2009, their in-house projects and understudy runs (and rushing to the theater if an MFA went on), and every Saturday morning’s fierce discussions in Theatre History class. 
  • The passionate curiosity of BardTalk attendees in the Octagon lobby and of Theatre in the Mind audiences. 
  • ASF and Kent Thompson starting the Southern Writers’ Project and the diversity of new work it has developed, from the initial children’s show commissions (never staged) to Fair and Tender Ladies, A Lesson Before Dying, Gee’s Bend, Bear, and so many more. 
  • Greta Lambert’s wizened Ivy Rowe shuffling to the edge of the platform and with a step down becoming vibrant 12-year-old Ivy, ready for life and love amid that expressive music (and so much more from that show which is “a little chunk of my heart”) … amid so many memories of her ASF performances, Titania (her first ASF role), Rosalind, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Eliza Doolittle, Sarah Bernhardt, Eliza Doolittle, and in Kent Thompson’s first ASF production, On the Verge. 
  • Philip Pleasants as Oberon, Lear, Dogberry, Richard III, Scrooge, a butler, everything… Ray Chambers’ Brick with crutch and bottle in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (his first ASF role), to his Count of Monte Cristo in a white tuxedo, to his Prince Hal and Henry V and both his Richard IIIs… Greg Thornton’s first role as Amundsen in that huge bear coat, his Atticus Finch, Platonov, and his performance in the first Noises Off…

Mayor Steven L. Reed (Mayor of Montgomery, AL)

Alabama Shakespeare Festival is a foundational asset to Montgomery’s cultural and tourism industries. However – and most importantly, ASF works to portray the diversity of lived experiences, not only those in Montgomery or Alabama but throughout the world. In doing so, this institution and its story will be a relevant and essential component in Montgomery’s narrative for decades to come.

Diana Van Fossen, on behalf of the late Geoffrey Sherman (Producing Artistic Director, 2005-2017)

Geoffrey came to Alabama as an established director. Still, his breath was taken away by ASF! First, by the majestic sight of the building nestled in its pastoral landscape. Then, by the architectural grace and functionality of Tom Blount’s design. And, after three times as a visiting director, he understood that ASF’s technological capability, along with the artistry of its actors and artisans, promised a capacity for great work. ASF could be even “better than Broadway!” The productions that came to life on the stages, on tour, and in the Shakespeare Garden proved him right. 

Geoffrey’s time at ASF was a Camelot time in his career. So many strands of his life’s work came together. His lifelong support of developing playwrights and BIPOC artists, addressing issues of social justice starting in his Off-Broadway days; his love of high comedy and the classics American and British; his native affinity for the drama of Shakespeare; and his born-in-a-trunk musicality and skill with musicals — all came together at ASF.

In addition to being Geoffrey’s wife and hosting incoming casts for great welcome parties at our home, I was also an ASF artist for 12 years, both as a director and as an actress. From my dance movement-based Trojan Women through Shakespeare plays I had the privilege of directing, I also realized joys and triumphs. As an actress, I had the thrill of playing Lettice Duffet and Lady Bracknell as well many times rendering the goofy Mrs. Dilber in A Christmas Carol. Both Geoffrey and I took pride in the company cabaret nights, which we hoped gave cohesion to staff, performers, and the community.

So, “… at this festive time of year, it is pleasant to reflect…” on the many joys of our years in Montgomery!

Gordon G. Martin (Board Chair)

Thirty-five years ago, Wynton “Red” Blount made an extraordinary gift to the people of Alabama in the form of a state-of-the-art $21.5 million performing arts theater. This incredible private investment, now the state’s cultural crown jewel, has transformed the cultural image of Alabama much as the Mercedes-Benz plant and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail transformed Alabama’s business and tourism images, respectively.

Three-and-a-half decades later, millions of students and patrons have been enlightened, entertained, and enthralled by the hundreds of hand-crafted performances produced by the artisans at ASF. ASF is Alabama’s only fully professional, producing regional theatre. It has a significant economic impact in Montgomery and has played a critical role in recruiting major corporations to the state.

ASF has enriched my life and the life of my family in myriad ways: engaging us, challenging us, enlightening us, and entertaining us. My favorite memories of ASF usually involve Greta Lambert, as well as any time one of my kids says, “Hey, remember when you took us to ASF and….”

Hand-crafted theatre is expensive to produce – but vital to our community. It is up to all of us to ensure that ASF continues to make memories for another 35 years – and beyond!