Kent Thompson has been artistic director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival since 1989. He was president of the TCG board from 1998 through June of 2001.On His Early Life
I was born in Jackson, Miss. I grew up mostly in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Richmond, Va., so I’m very much a Southern boy. My father was a Southern Baptist preacher. That’s really where I probably had my first exposure to theatre-in church. My father was a very good preacher. He was not the hellfire and brimstone type—he was a storyteller. That’s what he was known for. I think that interest in storytelling was what first sparked my interest in theatre.
But literally, I think my first theatre experience was playing Roger Williams, who was the founder of the Baptists in this country, in a church play when I was in the third or fourth grade. I don’t know if that was the thing that sparked my love of theatre, but I remember that as my first experience. I had a great time. I also remember that feeling of being under the lights and in front of people.
Of course, I watched my father perform every week, and he would do two services on Sunday morning and a service on Sunday night and a service on Wednesday night. So I went to church a lot and I watched that kind of communal experience. There were always several hundred, if not several thousand people present. There was something about people gathering in a room, listening to a story, albeit for a different purpose than theatre, that I think eventually hooked me.
For a long time I thought that I wanted to be an actor, and my father hoped that I would be a preacher. I didn’t really have that kind of religious leaning. I got significantly involved in theatre again when I was in high school, and that’s when I really pursued becoming an actor. I was helping backstage on My Fair Lady, and there was something so thrilling about the experience of watching this musical and also watching someone transform herself into Eliza Doolittle that I remember so vividly. After that I did everything I could to become an actor. I tried out for every production and I played various parts.
I was very involved in other activities in high school such as journalism and the Debate Club and the Latin Club, but there was something about the theatre that gave me a feeling of release. It was interesting, because my father had changed jobs when I was 13 and gone to Richmond, Va., and it had been a very hard time for him. My family, like many Southern families, seems to have depression running through it, like the vein in the marble, and my father became badly depressed. It was tough at home.
I remember that the theatre was the place where in some way I escaped from that, but it also gave me a certain self-expression. In a funny way it also put me in contact with my father again—with what he wanted to do—because there’s something in the preacher that is very much the performer. Its for a congregation rather than an audience, but in some way he came alive in a way that I rarely saw other than when he was in the pulpit.
Even though he was severely depressed, he was able to turn himself around to perform on Sunday. It was harder. It was much harder. He had stage fright, which he didn’t have normally. He also was somebody who wrote his sermons and then virtually memorized them. That was very hard for him when he was depressed. That went on, I guess, for eight or nine months and then he slowly improved and emerged from his sickness.
On His College Years
I never really lost that desire for expression or self-expression that theatre and acting brought me, when I left for college at William and Mary, I continued to be active in a couple of different things, but the theatre really hooked me somewhere in my freshmen year. Then it was about gathering the courage to tell my parents that that’s what I really wanted to do. I don’t think that they were opposed to the theatre from a religious or moral stance as Southern Baptists, as people might think. They were more opposed to it because of the financial insecurity and personal instability of the profession.
If my father wanted me to be a preacher, I think my mother wanted me to be a university professor, a teacher of some kind. I had long talked about being a teacher. So for a while I was living a double identity. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know if my parents would go along with it. I think that finally I just felt like I had to do it, and I expressed it to them. They were supportive, although they kept trying to get me to train for a second career.
In my last year at William and Mary, I won a scholarship for graduate work in England, and I chose to apply to an acting school. The scholarship was given by the Drapers Guild, formerly a trade guild of the wool merchants of England. Through their Drapers Foundation they give the Commonwealth Scholarships, which are for British students studying in any Commonwealth country, but in 1692, they also had been the commercial sponsor for the College of William and Mary. By the 1960's the Drapers Guild had established an exchange program with William and Mary - two graduating seniors received scholarships to study in England. Everybody before me who had won the scholarship had gone to Oxford or Cambridge. I changed the course of that and I went to an acting school.
On Starting as a Director
I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, because the acting program had recently been entrusted to the Royal Shakespeare Company. That’s probably where my love of Shakespeare was sealed. In my final year, I directed a student production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember the voice teacher, Cicely Berry, coming up to me and saying, "You know, I think you may be our director," which I took to mean that I wasn’t a very good actor. And she said, "No, I think that you may have the sensibility of a director."
I thought about that for a while, and I began to agree with her. I loved the process of rehearsal. I loved the process of working on a play, of getting the play up, of telling the story. I didn’t like performing it, then repeating it. I got stage fright. I was very hard on myself. I kept trying to correct things or improve things. I got bored, I think. So it took me a few years to find my way into directing, but that’s what I ended up doing.
My early career actually took me back to William and Mary. The Theatre and Speech Department had started the Virginia Shakespeare Festival. I’d gone back between my second and third years and been an actor. In my third year, they called me in England and asked me if I wanted to be the artistic director—I was, you know, 23 or 24—and I said "Yes!" It was a summer Shakespeare festival. It was a very unusual experience, because the people who were working for me now were the professors who had taught me three or four years before at William and Mary, and they had founded the Shakespeare Festival. So there were certain arduous political challenges in the entire situation.
I started directing Shakespeare. I don’t know that I knew what an artistic director did. I don’t know that I knew what a director did, but I started down that path, and I stayed with that company for almost four years. That, in combination with my schooling in England, sealed my love of Shakespeare, and it probably sent my career in that direction.
After that, I moved to New York City. I felt like I needed to find out more about this world of professional theatre. I actually started acting again, because I thought, no, I really want to be an actor. Within a year and a half or two years, though, I was back to directing, and I’ve never really looked back and I’ve never regretted that decision. It’s been a wonderful experience, and part of the joy of that experience is collaboration—bringing people together to tell a story. How the actors can realize a part and how you can help lead them through it.
I remember when I was growing up we would go to church, of course, every Sunday, and I’d go to one or two services and then we’d go home. I would sit in the back seat with my older brother, and my parents would be in the front seat. My father would always ask my mother what she thought of his sermon, what she thought of how he had handled the day. In retrospect, I see that my mother made a mistake. She would always tell him. She would always give him criticism. So by the time we got home, often as not, he would be kind of wired, nervous, jumpy, because I think he really wanted what an actor really wants and deserves after opening night, which is, "You did great. You did great." And then maybe on Monday or Tuesday he'd be ready to talk about what didn’t go so well.
It occurred to me much later in life that I thought I wanted to follow the role model of my father, but in fact I wanted to follow the role model of my mother I had her sensibilities I was more fascinated by directing than acting. In school as a student, when I was bored, I would watch the teacher and think, "Well, now, how could they explain that better?" And I think it’s the same impulse in a way, the director in directing versus acting.
The way I got into directing is very typical. I think almost everybody starts out wanting to be an actor on some level. They may never actually do it very much or they may do it in school. Now, of course, there’s a whole series of graduate programs at conservatories that do provide people with training, a way into the profession. But previously, there really weren't. I didn't train as a director, because I went to acting school. I brought what I knew about acting and what I’d seen in other directors to that task. But I do think it’s a common kind of career move that people make. Many of us start under one impulse, be it to create or write or sometimes direct, and then we end up going into another way, whether it’s lighting design or technical theatre or stage management. I think we find where we belong in that family, in that company, in that profession. Although it’s a very arduous profession in terms of the work hours and the pay and the instability and sometimes the lack of work, I think as we go through that experience, we often find our true calling in the theatre.
On the Differences Between English and American Theatre
There were several differences in the way they trained an actor in America and in England. In England, of course, the English speak in such a precise way, and I have a voice teacher, Jan Gist, who says that in British speech they stress the consonants. See, I’m doing the American thing. In American speech we tend to stress the vowels. I think it’s very true that they talk that way; that’s why their language is so clear and so specific. To them Shakespeare is a native playwright, so they don’t have the same reverence for him that we often do—the sense that there’s a certain way to do it, that there’s a certain traditional viewpoint. But for them, language is so much a means of expression and a means of acting—the way that they talk, the way they use their voice, the way they respond to the text.
I remember in acting school in England one of the things that was so unusual was that directors would give you notes based on how something sounded, how you read a line, how it sounded to their ear. In America—this is, of course, an overgeneralization—directors would give you notes based on emotional or psychological state. What fascinated me was the way that America and England took the same material and applied such different means of looking at it. They looked at it through a different prism. The English also tended to look at it in a sociopolitical context more often in their productions. In America we tended to look at things from more of a behavioral viewpoint.
Although most of our guest directors are American, we've also hired British directors at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It depends upon the project. We do a wide variety of projects. We do Shakespeare. We do musicals. We do new plays. We do classics—American classics, British classics, European classics. So it depends upon the individual project, but we do have some British directors. We also have some British actors in our company, but only two or three. Mostly it’s an American company.
On Early Mentors
I was at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival for about three and a half years. I moved to New York. I stayed unemployed as an actor, worked a little bit. I started directing then in the training programs, the actor training programs around the country—the North Carolina School of the Arts, the Juilliard School, University of Washington, Temple University—often classics, often Shakespeare. And then I assisted in Stratford, Ontario, at the Stratford Festival, and that was one of my formative experiences as a director.
I assisted Michael Langham on a production of Henry IV, Part I. Then shortly thereafter I assisted Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage on a production of Anatol, in which he directed and played the title role. In many ways, Michael and Mark were my early career mentors. They provided me with insight into theatre, into Shakespeare, into the way that a director works, that I don’t think I would have gained without that experience.
Michael Langham was undoubtedly the most brilliant kind of parser of text, unbelievably gifted in taking verse and text and Shakespeare and making it exciting and active and making an actor connect with it in a seamless way, with clarity. He was really brilliant at taking the text apart and putting it back together, so that the actor knew what to do with it and make the scene come alive.
Mark Lamos, on the other hand, was remarkably imaginative, always working from intuition and imagination, always impulsive, always trying to find a new way, a new form, a new idea in the presentation of something. They’d also had a history together, because Mark Lamos had been in Michael Langham’s acting company at the Guthrie. When Mark started directing, it was Michael who first gave him a chance.
It was fascinating to work with two brilliant directors in a very close period of time who approached their work in profoundly different ways. Increasingly I believe that those two poles—one that is about the imagination and what a director can bring to it, the impulsive, creative act, what is new about this performance, and one which is about excavating the text, finding out everything one can about the play and defining it in human psychological terms—those are the poles of modern directing, as I understand it.
On the Alabama Shakespeare Festival
I came to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 1989. I was asked to guest direct an Eric Overmyer play, On the Verge. Timing is all. I first went down there in early December for the design production meeting when the designers and the director come together to work on the play, and by the time I returned in March and April for rehearsals, founding artistic director, Martin Platt, had resigned. ASF was looking for an artistic director. I directed On the Verge and submitted my application, and somewhere in the middle of July 1989 they called me and asked me if I would become the artistic director.
By that point I’d been freelancing for almost eight or nine years as a director, and I was really ready to find a theatre and a community where I could go and build something. It seemed like the perfect congruence of what I’d been doing in my career—Shakespeare and new plays—I was a Southerner by birth, and it was an incredible facility that had been given by Winton Blount–Red Blount. It was like a dream come true for me to go to a place where I could do Shakespeare, where I could reconnect with a Southern community. I never dreamt that I would be returning to the South to work in a theatre. I knew I might go back and direct a show, but I never dreamt that I would go back to be an artistic director.
On the Difficulties of Being a Freelance Director
It was difficult at the beginning. For probably the last five or six years I would work, seven, eight months a year, which is good for a freelancer. The first four or five years were very tough. I would direct once or twice a year. I would support myself in other ways.
I temped for a while. I worked in computers. I worked in offices, and then I got steady gigs with corporations. I worked for what is now Deloitte & Touche, a big accounting firm, for a while, and they were very supportive of my theatre career. When I was in town, they would hire me. When I was out of town, it was okay if I left. So I would support myself that way. However, I made more money in four or five months with Deloitte & Touche each year than I made from five or six shows each year.
Financially, it was maddening to work in the theatre. At the time, I so much wanted to direct theatre that I don’t know that I thought of it as maddening. Although I do remember around the age of 30 deciding, "I’m going to keep this up for five, six more years, and then if I don’t have something that’s more steady, at least, in terms of income, I’m going to do something else, because it’s just too hard."
Mark Lamos told me a funny thing. He said he thought that most people became artistic directors first between the ages of 33 and, say, 38. I became an artistic director in ’89. I was 34. So it was right on cue.
I have disastrous stories from my early productions, but I think I have those experiences even now. I think in my early career one of the things that I had to learn the hard way is not to take on too much work. I directed a production of Fallen Angels at the Delaware Theatre Company. Another director friend of mine, Gavin Cameron-Webb, had to pull out of it, and recommended me. I was directing Season’s Greetings, the Alan Ayckbourn play, at the Whole Theatre Company in New Jersey, which was run by Olympia Dukakis. That show opened on a Friday, and I started rehearsals in Delaware on a Saturday.
What I learned in that case was that you really do need more preparation to go into a rehearsal. I had not cast the show. I didn’t know a single actor or person in the company. I walked right into it after that kind of opening night experience, and I don’t think it was a pleasant experience for me or anybody else. I learned the hard way.
I also learned a lot about—I’d done a lot of style comedy, but I’d never done Coward, and it was a real experience learning how to deal with that. It was also a brand-new theatre. They had opened a new building at the time. So there were all kinds of things that the staff was going through in trying to get the shows together, in addition to getting this new building opened and operating. It was not a happy experience. I also had two leading actors that had very different comic sensibilities, and I was reluctant to try to draw them together into one unit. And I felt, because I was not well prepared, that I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go with it.
Not knowing where to go is something that I’ve experienced frequently as a director. It’s a scary feeling, but it’s often a feeling that, if one can live with it in that rehearsal room, you’ll find a better direction. I think one of the joys of working with professional actors is that they bring so many ideas, so many new views about a role, about a play, about a part. If you're willing, a director can learn an enormous amount about a play from the actors in rehearsal. Then you'll discover where to go next. You'll know what you want to work on the next four or five days or the next step in the process.
For me, the big maturation point as a director was helped most by being at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and being able to direct three shows a year and oversee another ten to fourteen. As a director, I think the last third of the process is the hardest part—where you not only add the scenery, lights and the set and all that, but where in some fashion you’ve got to be able to zoom back from what you’ve been doing. You’ve got to look at it as a new audience member, and you’ve got to figure out whether the story is being told well or badly, and what you need to change–which has very little to do with perhaps an individual performance or an individual moment or an individual prop. That ability to have a kind of bifurcated view of the play—to figure out how by opening night we can make it exciting for an audience, we can move an audience, we can make them laugh and cry, think or feel—is something that only comes when you direct many times and when you watch other shows and other directors in their process of directing. You find out how they make the final third of the journey to the stage. I think that's very different from simply working with the actor, blocking the play or working with the text originally.
My first connection with TCG was an observership in the early ’80s. At that time, TCG had—well, we still do—travel observerships that allowed early career and mid-career professionals to travel, visit with staffs, and see theatres. You picked what you wanted to see. I wanted to see theatres that did the classics, particularly the theatres that were west of the Mississippi. So I went to the Denver Theatre Center, to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco, to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and to the San Diego Repertory Theatre. I believe I saw three or four Cherry Orchards in about a week. Everybody was doing The Cherry Orchard. I met a whole slew of people. It took me a couple of weeks.
I found it to be a profound experience, and I think there’s a direct connection—however mystical or however much it’s related to the chaos theory—to my having gone on that experience and ended up as an artistic director of a Shakespeare festival. I watched a lot of the theatres in action, talked to the artistic and managing directors. It was an invaluable experience for that point in my career, where I was directing more frequently around the country, working at the training programs and at Shakespeare festivals. It was certainly fascinating to watch. A politically charged Oskar Eustis production of The Cherry Orchard, and a psychologically haunting production of The Cherry Orchard directed by Garland Wright at the Denver Center.
I would watch the production. then talk with the artistic director and the managing director and I would have to chase down the director, if they weren’t there. Now, I first met Oskar Eustis at that time, because he was part of the Eureka Theatre Company. And now I serve on the board of TCG with him, and he’s at Trinity Repertory. It was just a fabulous experience to hear so many different perspectives about theatre and so many missions, because the mission of Eureka was completely different than the Denver Center’s.
That experience was a great eye-opener to what TCG was. As a guest director, we often don’t see another production, even when we work in the same theatre. We may see it in an urban center like Washington, D.C., or Chicago or New York, but we don’t get to visit the theatres around the country and see how they interact with their community, what size of operation they have, etc.
It was my first experience going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is, I believe, still the largest regional theatre in the country. It was a remarkable experience to see what had been crafted from 50 or 60 years of work as a Shakespeare festival and cultivated a huge audience. It had transformed this town into a different place.
It had a lot of influence on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival because when I became artistic director, I made sure we established ties with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We would often exchange actors, directors, designers, back and forth. It was a great help to be able to use Oregon as a model of the kind of operation we wanted to build into.
The observership—particularly going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and that experience—had a great effect on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival when I took it over. The other real advantage of an observership is that you meet so many people, that you radically increase the network of theatre professionals that you know, and that’s a terrific benefit.
On the Spirituality of Theatre
There is something in that moment of spiritual and visceral connection between the actor and the audience that resembles for me the church experience of a preacher telling a story to a congregation and eliciting a kind of call and response. It’s different, of course—we have a different etiquette in the theatre and in some ways a different intention. But that immediate palpable energy flowing from an actor performing something in front of our eyes–something as humans that we have a profound need for, even more so now in a society that isolates us from each other through technology—is on some level a spiritual connection.
Theatre provides perspective and hope about the human condition. In many ways, the act of going to the theatre is what keeps me alive. It keeps me figuring out what my life is about and what other people’s lives are about, what our culture is about, our history. Theatre has a profoundly spiritual effect with our audiences and on our audiences. It is when we move audiences to look beyond the entertainment of the moment or the spectacle of the moment that we truly are talking about the power of live theatre.
I am talking about providing a view of life, and I'm also talking about the belief that stories, words, people’s interactions, ideas, different cultures and different stories—that those things can actually help our culture. That diversity of viewpoint and idea, that live moment of interaction when a community comes together and sits together to experience art can actually change that community in some way.
For me, I think that the audience that I have in Alabama is more responsive to the words of William Shakespeare and many other stories because they regularly go to church. They have another experience in which they come into a room, they share a story, they share words, they share ideas, and they celebrate them. We provide a different kind of celebration than the church, but in many ways there’s a great similarity.
On the Evolving Theatrical Form
I believe that there’s something profoundly human in the need to hear a linear story—to hear a beginning, a middle and an end, to see a character start an experience, go through that experience and change. What we’re finding with younger artists, younger playwrights and younger actors, as well as artists of different racial, sexual, religious, philosophical and political backgrounds, is that they are interested in a different kind of storytelling that is nonlinear.
Certainly with new plays we begin to see the heavy influence of television and film, but I think it goes beyond that. It’s about a different kind of thinking, an associative thinking. The theatre, I think, will have to respond to that at the same time that we try to be curators of our past and of the great stories of the past. But we’ve also got to figure out new ways of telling those stories, and we see them all the time. Be they Angels in America, be they Blue Man Group, be they some of the forms that are now combining dance, theatre, music, video, into a new form of expression, a new way to interact with a live audience. What won’t change is that theatre is "live." But I do believe that the form is going to have to change for us to keep engaging people and making it relevant to their lives.
I think it’s hard for us to embrace a very new and radical form that we perceive as alien to us. Now, I do think that as you work in this field, in this form, you thirst for things that are new and different. So there’s a contradictory impulse and then there’s a contradictory impulse in our audiences.
I don’t know that I want to yet again see a traditional production of Hamlet unless it provides a new and startling input into the character of Hamlet or into the situation. So I keep looking for things that make it both relevant to the audience that I have today and in many ways relevant to an audience that’s younger. I’m deeply concerned about keeping them engaged in a form which, if we're not careful, could remove itself into something that is simply historical or old-fashioned.
I think that some of the struggles, for instance, of the symphony world, with classical music versus modern music, with symphony music versus anything contemporary, are some of the struggles that theatres are going through now. For our audience, I think there are whole different expectations, and the expectations include everything from the very traditional to an almost conservative maintaining of their standards, of their values, to something that is new and very, very different. I think with any professional theatre season, one of the things that we try to do, that I certainly try to do, is have the balance between those two impulses, between those two extremes.
It’s very risky financially to do particularly new and challenging ways of presenting our work, or new and challenging work, because you don’t always know that you’ll have an audience. It may, in some sense, offend or push away some of the audience that you do have. But I also think that it’s the only thing that keeps us truly alive. We can certainly enjoy a classical, traditional production of Julius Caesar, but we also need very much to do a new play like The Negro of Peter the Great at the same time, so that people understand why the theatre goes beyond simply presenting perceived values and entertainment.
The Negro of Peter the Great is a play by Carlyle Brown. At the Alabama Shakespeare Festival we have a new play commissioning and development arm that’s called the Southern Writers’ Project. This project presents a play or two each year in our mainstage season. The plays are developed by Southern and/or African-American writers. Often the plays have Southern themes, but not always. Carlyle’s play is based on an unfinished novella by Alexander Pushkin, which was based on the life of his an ancestor who was of Abyssinian decent and had been a protegé of Peter the Great. He was a lonely, racially isolated individual in a very fascinating period in Russian and French history. Carlyle has written a play about this that we’re presenting now at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
On Shakespeare in the South
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is located in an unusual and interesting place. Many people find it very contradictory that we would have a major Shakespeare Festival in a city like Montgomery, Ala. To me it makes sense, in part because of the tradition of literature and the love of language and storytelling that Southerners are known to have. But it also happened really through the largess of one man, Winton M. Blount–Red Blount–who gave this $22-million theatre in 1985 to establish a world-class Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Ala.
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1972 by Martin Platt in Anniston, Ala. By the 12th or 13th year they were encountering financial difficulties. They went to Mr. Blount. They wanted to secure a grant from his family foundation to cover their deficit. Instead he said, "If you’ll move it to Montgomery, I’ll give you the land and build you a theatre." And at that point, the theatre went to year-round operation.
It is contradictory that in a city of 250,000 you would have a theatre that now has an annual budget of $8 million, and we have an audience of about 200,000 a year. We have two theatres, and we operate year-round. We do 12 to 15 plays. On top of that, we have a masters of fine arts program that trains theatre professionals through the University of Alabama. So we have an MFA program and we have a Shakespeare Festival and a whole host of other programs that go along with it.
One of the challenges in reaching out—particularly to an African-American audience, in Montgomery, Ala.—and being a Shakespeare Festival is that many people see our title, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and assume that we only produce Shakespeare. And Shakespeare, whom I believe is the greatest playwright in the English language, is still a western European dead white guy, and in some sense there may be the feeling that the plays don’t speak directly to the African-American culture. We’ve tried very hard to do through our programming, our company, our staff, our board of directors, our new plays, is to reach out to the African-American community and involve them on every level of our company. After a decade of work, approximately 12% of our audience is African-American.
Montgomery and Alabama are primarily African-American or European-American. That’s 99 percent of the population. So those two communities live very closely with each other. One of the reasons that I created the Southern Writers’ Project was so that we could create stories that deal with the issues of those two communities, both separately and together, and the way they cross over. And one of the things that we’ve tried to do over the last few years is particularly pick plays that bring the two communities together.
For a long time, we’ve done nontraditional casting, but also nontraditional hiring, so that if you’re an African-American director, you won’t only be directing the African-American play, the August Wilson play, but you’ll be directing other things—Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or Brian Friel.
We’ve also tried to reach out to the community in new ways through our education program. We take Camp Shakespeare, which is a week-long program to introduce middle school students to theatre and to Shaekespeare, into a lot of schools.
We’ve also tried to create new community organizations and new community efforts. We created an arts festival called DESTA in January-February, that’s now its own complete separate entity, which is a celebration of African-American culture in Alabama and particularly in Montgomery. We’ve also put together a group for people who give money to support plays at the theatre from both communities—they come together for social events, both at the theatre and elsewhere. They’re called Curtain Raisers. So we’ve tried in many ways to include the community as much as we can.
We are the "State Theatre of Alabama", and that to me is part of the reason that we must include both cultures in everything we do. In Montgomery, which is about 45 percent African-American and 54 percent European-American, it is especially important that the theatre become a place where whites and blacks could come together. In Montgomery there’s an awful lot of interaction; there’s much more in a way, I guess you’d use the term "integration" in the day-to-day world than many people suspect. But there are still not many places where people come together and share an experience. It seems to happen in schools, occasionally in the churches, in sports events, in the malls. I wanted to figure out a way that ASF could become the place where that happened frequently.
The theatre is also an experience where the African-American and the white community can share stories about each other’s cultures. But they can also share the way they respond to those stories, and it can be very, very different. We’ve done plays by Regina Taylor, A Night in Tunisia last year, to which audience members from the African-American community would respond very different than white audience members. It’s a women’s play, and they would respond very vocally, versus the way an older white male patron or a child would respond to the piece. Although it can be disturbing to audience members if one audience member is shouting and clapping and the other one is trying to watch the play in a very traditional manner, I find it very exciting for the audiences, because it begins to build a new community between often separated cultures.
I think one of the profound values of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is to open the window for a lot of the people that come and see the show. We have to be very careful, so that we don't preach or espouse a certain political-religious-social viewpoint, any one particular viewpoint. But I think that for many in our audience we are a window onto the rest of the world that their culture, because it’s politically and religiously very conservative, doesn’t provide them.
One of the things that ASF & SWP does is to provide a variety of stories about culture, particularly in a small city and a relatively small state. I mean, we have three and a half to four million people that live in the state of Alabama. So, in some sense, we have a theatre that is statewide, and certainly we have to draw from the entire South, Southeast, Southwest, to make the theatre work. So it’s very important that we are a place where people can come and see different stories, different cultures, different societies, different ways of looking at the world.
On Building an Audience
We were appointed the state theatre by Governor George Wallace in 1976. Alabama’s an interesting place, because there’s really only one other professional theatre company, and that’s the Birmingham Children’s Theatre. So for many people in our audience, those are their two experiences each year in professional theatre, and that creates a different kind of responsibility for ASF. We have college, community, university theatres in Montgomery and in Alabama, but we don’t have other professional theatres, unlike even a city like Louisville, Ky., or a major city like Atlanta.
I think that brings a different kind of challenge to what you’re doing, and it’s one of the reasons that in Alabama we do such a heavy student matinee program called SchoolFest, where we bring 30 to 50 thousand school children a year in to see our productions, and they come from a seven-state region. So there are 10 a.m. matinees and we have kids that get up in Nashville at three in the morning, get on a bus and come down to Montgomery to see a show and then return home. That’s an extraordinary experience, and I believe very much in it. We have to build an audience of the future that’s going to know what theatre is and want theatre in their lives.
We’re already seeing from our SchoolFest program, because we’ve been doing it for 15 years–audience members in their late 20s returning to ASF. If you go up and ask them, "Is this your first time?" they’ll nearly always say, "No, I came here in SchoolFest." "I came here five years ago, six years ago, ten years ago, and I saw Hamlet," or, "I saw this musical."
It’s also opening up racially. Alabama’s a relatively poor state, and one of the benefits of where we’re located and the work that we’ve been able to do with incredible contributions from our state government, our city, our county, our corporate sponsors and individuals is we’ve been able to keep the ticket prices low. I think prices are something like 74th or 75th lowest in the country, although ASF is about 18th to 20th largest theatre in terms of budget.
We do that so we can guarantee that people can afford to attend. One of the real joys of being an artistic director at ASF is serving an audience from a wide socioeconomic background and from both races. We’re really biracial, bicultural, and also we have a large age spread from school children to retirees.
On the Lifestyle of Artists
We have a resident theatre company at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for two reasons. First of all, I think resident companies are very important when you’re producing William Shakespeare, because those plays are so challenging—their language, the syntax, the size of the company, the difficulty in presenting plays which are from a different time period and have different concerns and the ability to speak in an exciting way to an audience today. We believe that a resident company does that best. You develop a kind of shorthand.
We also have, very importantly, a graduate training program for actors, stage managers, designers and theatre administrators. They are a part of our company, a very important part, and they’re part of the reason we can produce Shakespeare. But given those two things and the fact that we operate almost year-round, we have a resident acting company of about a dozen who are with us for most of the year. We have probably 22 to 25 MFA students that are with us most of the year. And then we have probably 25 production personnel that are with us for the year. Resident companies are very rare in this country, and they failed in large part because the economics are so difficult. I think that one of the reasons we’ve been able to maintain a company is we’ve made it a priority, but also it’s because we’re a Shakespeare festival and we can draw audiences from beyond our geographic local region.
Companies are very difficult, though, to maintain—increasingly difficult—and that’s because it requires so many resources to keep a company going. When you’re relatively isolated from the rest of the theatrical profession in a town like Montgomery, Ala., a company makes a lot of sense because you have the ability to, let’s say, have a prop master who is very skilled, because you can hire him year-round, and you don’t have the ability you would have in a large metropolitan city, New York City or Atlanta, of hiring somebody to do props only for that show. So it makes a lot of sense to us, but it puts a lot of pressure on the organization to constantly raise more money and it puts a lot of pressure on ticket sales.
For an artistic director, there are tradeoffs. I find having a company very rewarding, watching an artist or a graduate student develop over time and be challenged by new and different material all the time. It’s the kind of system that I think my actor training in England prepared me for. In this country, because of the economic imperatives on theatres, companies are often reduced to a few artists—the artistic director, sometimes a resident scenic designer or costume designer, a literary manager, a dramaturg, and then an administrative staff and a cluster of a few other people. That’s regrettable.
It worries me very much that the future of acting in the regional theatres is going to be mostly characterized by actors as itinerant workers. For the health of our industry, we are going to need to make residencies more important.
You keep the best talent staying there and wanting to be there as actors in a variety of ways. I think that you provide challenges to resident craftspeople and actors and artists by providing them with a diversity of experiences that they can undertake in a single season and as time goes by, so that you cast them in ways that are sometimes against type. You do Shakespeare plays and musicals and new plays. You also, in my experience, involve them in the company in ways that move beyond their specialization.
The other thing about these large regional theatres is we have become very specialized. You work in properties and you only work in properties. You’re an actor and you’re only an actor. What I try to do is set up other opportunities for those 10 or 12 actors that are with us for most of the season and come back to us for multiple seasons. Sometimes it’s directing. Sometimes it’s working in the development office. We have an actress who goes out and really enjoys fundraising and she does fundraising. We have an actor who’s very good at graphics, and sometimes we involve him in the graphic work and the marketing department. He’s also a great carpenter. He’s occasionally worked in the scene shop.
All of those actors also participate in the graduate training program. They teach, they tutor, they direct, they mentor those students, etc. One of the great joys when I was in England was that we each had a mentor from the Royal Shakespeare Company, an actor to whom we were assigned in our last year. We met over tea or coffee, and we would talk about what we were doing. They would come and see the shows we were performing. We would go and see their shows. And I tried to emulate that in Alabama so that there’s an interaction between the professional company and the graduate company.
That, for me, has great benefits for the health of the organization, but it’s also about giving the graduate actors a seasoned professional to talk to. How do you work with a guest director? What’s it like to work on a text, this kind of text or this kind of part? How do you work through this difficult situation? How do you get an agent?
For the professional actor, I found that it’s very rewarding, because the sense of their contributing to the theatre goes up enormously. Also, if you have to teach something and you have to do it, you develop greater integrity in both your teaching and your doing. If you’re teaching an actor and you’re on stage with that student actor at the same time, there’s a healthy kind of an interchange that goes on.
We lose resident company members to other theatres. We lose them sometimes to film and television. Some actors do not want to be part of a resident company, and that’s fine. And some actors probably don’t want to live in Montgomery, Ala., and that’s fine. They want other stimuli, other environments. However, most actors want to engage in that kind of work, and if they discover that they can be a more significant member of the artistic team at ASF, they want to stay. For instance, I have an actor, Ray Chambers, who came to us from the Old Globe in San Diego. I thought he would stay with us a year. He’s been at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival 10 years now. When Ray played Hamlet, we started casual conversations about the play and the part two years before the rehearsals began. That process was very enriching. He was involved in the design process. He was involved all the way through the process of imagining the play. And for me it was very enriching, because when you’re reduced to a four-week rehearsal period, you can’t have that kind of exchange. You just can’t simply talk in that kind of imaginative way. That’s why to me companies and residencies are so important.
We’ve had foreign directors. British, Canadian, European directors direct at ASF. Most of the people that have worked for us as foreign directors have worked in this country enough so that they are very familiar with the typical length of rehearsals in the U.S.. What a lot of directors, particularly American directors, lack is experience in rehearsing in repertory. We do half of our season in rotating repertory, six months of our season is six different plays in two theatres, and all the actors are cast in three productions. So we may be rehearsing a play peripatetically over 11 or 12 weeks.
That's often challenging if not frustrating for directors who are used to just working on their project for four or five weeks. Also, when you’re performing in repertory, there are some things that you cannot do design-wise or technically. You just don’t have the same capabilities, because when we’re in rotation, we have to change the set, the lights, the costumes, everything, in an hour and a half between performances.
A lot of actors in our company come to us because of repertory, because they have the ability in the same period of time to play three different roles with three different directors and in different settings, and that’s very exciting. It’s riskier and more daring and it’s a lot more work, but it’s very exciting to the actor.
The whole repertory experience is a learning experience for both our professional artists and for our graduate students, because you simply do not have the time to waste in that experience. You’re constantly rehearsing and/or performing.
It is the European model to perform in repertory, to have a resident company. Of course, many European countries also have significant governmental support, some of which is now waning in those same countries. I think one of the tragedies in this country is the loss of support from the National Endowment for the Arts, which at one time supported companies of artists and actors. But it’s also the loss of the resident company idea in this country. It’s a shame. A lot of theatres have small groups of local actors that live within the city and work at the theatre regularly. But as a concept, resident companies are disappearing from our field.
Our actors earn their annual income with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, by and large. Some of them do go away regularly and work in another theatre, which is healthy.
On the Southern Writers’ Project
I started the Southern Writers’ Project in 1991. When I arrived at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 1989, one of the things I noted was that nothing in its programming related to its location. If you could pick up that gorgeous building and move it to another state, the programming wouldn’t really change. We were doing Shakespeare plays, occasionally new plays, other classics, but there was nothing that spoke artistically to the region in which we lived.
For me it seemed a double shame. Firstly because the South is known for its storytelling traditions, its literature, but it also seemed to me that if we could produce plays directly relevant to the lives of this Southern audience, ASF would become more important to the community. When they would walk in, they would recognize immediately the characters, the situations, the contexts, the stories.
I started the Southern Writers’ Project as a commissioning project. The Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville was a terrific example of a new-play festival. I knew I didn’t want to repeat that. I wanted a different model. This model would commission playwrights, but we’d also work on existing plays that had not yet been produced. I was looking for a variety of stories, ideas, perspectives. I didn’t want to create one type of play. It was very loosely defined. The plays could be Southern in their context, their story, their theme, the writer could be Southern, could have lived in the South, or could be African-American.
Since the program started, we’ve produced 11 or 12 world premieres, and now they’re beginning to move on to our sister regional theatres, our sister TCG member theatres. They’ve come to New York. Last year we did A Lesson Before Dying by Romulus Linney, based on the novel by Ernest Gaines. We’d done Thunder Knocking on the Door by Keith Glover. I mentioned earlier we’d done A Night in Tunisia by Regina Taylor. We’re starting to do plays that I believe can contribute back to the American canon.
It's very important to me that our audience can come and see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and then the next day, the next week, the next month see King Lear. Somehow, because they immediately have a visceral connection to Big Daddy, they know who that is, they know it from their daily lives, they will have a better connection to King Lear, a similar but different character in a different, very different, circumstance.
On TCG’s Leadership
I vividly remember my first board meeting at TCG in 1995, because I walked into the room and the first item of business was the transition committee’s report on who would replace Peter Zeisler, the longtime executive director of TCG. I remember discussing with other board members over the course of the next two days that his leaving marked the end of an era for TCG.
Over the past seven years I’ve realized how profoundly true that was. What Peter Zeisler did for TCG was extraordinary in many ways. He helped set standards for the professional theatre movement; he helped set the bar. We were trying, as a field in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, to define what being a professional theatre meant, for very pragmatic reasons—often to convince a community of the need for a professional theatre versus a community theatre or a university theatre. We were also trying to do that for the foundation world and for the National Endowment for the Arts.
This whole movement, the resident theatre movement throughout America, had many roots, not the least of which was a rebellion against the commercialization of theatre in New York City. But I think TCG in particular was trying to figure out how to become an organization that served those theatres and created a standard of excellence.
In many ways the language of TCG in its initial mission statement was about artistic excellence, professional standards, how you define professional standards, and it usually included the way to set up a theatre. You have a managing director, an artistic director, a board of directors.
John Sullivan, who was with TCG for two and a half years, tried to include many more people at the table. The flip side of trying to raise professional standards, to set a context for the field, is there are people who have the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and there are people that don’t yet have it, and often that meant the big theatres versus everybody else. John started to open TCG up to other voices, to ensemble theatres, he welcomed the boards of trustees of our theatres, and also tried to seek out a diversity of opinion.
The other thing that marked the end of an era for TCG was that we were coming to the end of an era for the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA was under heavy attack, and one effect was that all the national service organizations, including TCG, but also Opera America—all of them—who had been dependent for several hundred thousand dollars a year from the NEA, suddenly lost those grants. In my experience, where the federal government goes, foundations and corporations often follow. So there was a huge decrease in general operating expenses for a service organization.
So TCG literally had to rethink itself. We had to figure out what we were doing to do, how we were going to do it, how we were going to live in this new climate. We’ve tried to include more people in TCG the membership of and we’ve endeavored to serve the field more. Under Ben Cameron’s remarkable dynamic leadership, we’ve started to grow again as an organization. When I joined, we were just over 300 theatres, and now we’re at 400 theatres. So it really has been a huge shift in the way that TCG acts from within, and I hope also in the way that TCG is perceived from without.
With a member organization that serves institutions the people who always feel on the outside are the individual artists, and we still struggle to serve them. There are several programs that have served them well, like the TCG/Pew Charitable Trust, National Resident Artist Program, but we still struggle to figure out how to support them, and we’ve had task forces and committees.
We've also tried to provide better service to theatres that don’t adhere to the same model as a lot of our larger regional resident theatres. Many people in our field confuse Theatre Communications Group with the League of Resident Theatres, or LORT, as it’s called, which is the 70 or so theatres that have collective bargaining agreements with the various unions. They tend to be the 70 largest theatres in TCG. But TCG is now over 400 theatres, and 60 percent of those theatres have budgets of less than half a million dollars. So the landscape has changed profoundly, or we’re inviting those people to be a part of TCG and they’re responding.
What we’re trying to do is figure out how to deal with the ecology of the field that we serve rather than simply to focus on a certain section of the field that defines professionalism in a certain way. Because there are ensemble-based theatres. There are community-based theatres that are professional and certainly consider themselves professional. Their state arts agencies consider them professional, and they serve their community in a different way. It’s a different model than the traditional regional theatre such as the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
I hope that we’ve made efforts to reach out to more women, to artists of color. I also think that we've tried to serve the field in different ways to provide human resource training, to provide training for people that are about to become artistic directors or have just become artistic directors. There is no training program for artistic directors other than the training that we’ve provided in the past and hope to provide in the future.
We’ve also tried to—and this was something that John Sullivan began that has really expanded under Ben’s leadership—we’ve tried to change our meeting schedule so that we do regional forums, especially every other year when we don’t have a national conference. We vary these regional forums, whether they go to Denver or Atlanta or New York or around the country. And the member theatres from that region determine the topics and programs.
We want to encourage a conversation that engages the field. One of the things we realized is because of the work of TCG, because of the work of the NEA, because of the work of so many visionary leaders over the past 40 years, we have a well-established field. We have an industry of professionals out there. Many of them are very capable, very insightful. They are the visionaries. And we wanted to figure out a way to bring them into TCG more, to bring them into the American Theatre magazine more, so that we can call upon their expertise. I think it signals a reversal from when we first started, when TCG gave expertise and professional advice to an emerging field.
On the NEA
The change at the National Endowment for the Arts has been complex and it’s been a decade long. It started with the religious right and the right-wing conservative political movement attacking a few grants—many of them are known, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Andrew Serrano, some of the four performance artists. During that first period of time when the NEA came under such terrific attack from the right wing, there were attempts to shut it down, to reduce it. Over the last decade, the NEA has become so heavily politicized and the grants from the NEA have been reduced that so many times that the agency no longer promotes a national agenda. Various developments have reduced the NEA's effectiveness. One was to send more money through the state arts agencies, one was to spread the money around more, and one was to keep the appropriations flat.
The grants have changed from general operating support to specific project support, and that reflects a hesitancy and a nervousness at the NEA about the congressional response, anticipating another controversy. That’s very problematic, because we are in an art form that is regularly going to be controversial. Even a production of Romeo and Juliet can be controversial, depending upon the audience and how the artist looks at that production of Romeo and Juliet. Many people today have the Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet in their heads, and if you really look at that play, it includes a lot about dysfunctional families and violence—people are murdered in that play, they are killed in public brawls, and the play contains both love and lust. If you bring that to a modern audience, sometimes they freak out, because it is not the ballet, it is not the Zeffirelli movie, it does not have the patina of romantic classicism.
I think the deleterious effect of the NEA’s reduction is that it restricts what we can do. It keeps us looking for safer and safer projects that we want to bring to the National Endowment for the Arts. And I would hope that the federal presence will one day turn around and realize that the creation of art is as important in all of its controversy, in all of its diversity, in all of its newness, as the preservation of received forms of arts.
If you read the NEA’s mission statement, it’s highly complex. I think artistic excellence and support of the artist is pretty far down on their list of mandates. Most of the individual artist grants have actually been curtailed by the NEA. They do have some, the literary grants for writers. One of the great losses is that in trying to anticipate if a project might be controversial, they have restricted grants so much that individual artists are no longer supported. That’s been a mandate from Congress, and that’s one of the great tragedies. Only an institution doing a project that they consider to be a worthy and a non-offensive topic will be funded. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but that’s certainly what it feels like.
On TCG’s Programs
TCG is a member of the American Arts Alliance. AAA is a lobbying group in Washington that advocates and lobbies for legislation that affects the arts—not simply the National Endowment for the Arts—but also advocating in Washington for legislation important to the art, such as opposing the repeal of the estate tax to ensure our members' endowments will continue to grow. We also lobby for postal rates for not-for-profits, any kind of legislation that we believe is going to affect our work and hopefully help us do the work better in professional theatre. That’s a very important part of TCG’s mission—to advocate publicly, including in Washington, D.C., for the art form.
The New Generations Program, which is supported by the Doris Duke Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, is a very important new program for Theatre Communications Group and for the entire field. It tries to do two things: to build a new audience for our future and also to build and encourage new artists to enter the field. It particularly looks for those young people who are not currently engaged by the theatre or in our audiences, and it also provides a way for young artists to mentor as they enter the field. So it’s trying to create a whole new generation, as the name implies, for the theatre, both within and without, and I think it’s one of our most important programs.
ITI, or International Theatre Institute, began after World War II. It was founded out of UNESCO to encourage and protect theatres around the world. Currently there are about 90 ITI centers around the world, including in the United States. Martha Coigney has been the executive director of ITI for many years. ITI merged into TCG and they’ve become part of our programs. So we are the U.S. center for ITI.
ITI tries to encourage any kind of collaboration across international borders, professional and otherwise. We provide resources for people who visit the United States and want to see theatre or to be connected with theatres. There’s a monthly newsletter. But we also try to provide avenues by which our artists can have international observerships in other countries. There are currently artists who are visiting Eastern Europe to look at theatres, and this will hopefully lead to exchanges between companies and artists and managers in the future.
ITI is a very important part of TCG’s future, because, as we all know, the world is getting smaller and smaller. I don’t think this country has been particularly inclusive of the rest of the world in terms of its cultural offerings and theatres. In many countries theatre is considered a politically dangerous act, and it’s very important that we lend our support to those locations where freedom of expression is currently under siege. ITI is one way we do that, and it’s going to become a very important benefit to the membership of TCG. It’s very important for the field as we head into the future, that we keep a kind of cultural cross-pollination internationally.
Political plays in the United States have had a tough time, as indeed have companies that are artistically based in politics. I would hope that we could begin to see what theatre means in other countries and this in turn will affect what it means in this country. That includes a political viewpoint, the fact that the theatre is a place where political discourse can happen, where ideas politically as well as socially or psychologically can come to the forefront. In this country we have a tendency more toward plays that are psychological, family-based, or naturalistic. In the international circuit, theatre has a very different feel.
I participated in a TCG international observership to Brazil in about ’94 or ’95. It was a fascinating experience, because theatre meant something completely different in that culture. It was a means of social expression, resembling theatre in the U.S. from the ’60s and ’70s when there was a stronger political bias to the theatre, because we were trying to change the world. It was part of the times in which we lived.
On Commercial/Not-for-Profit Interaction
I believe there are great benefits from the commercial theatre producers and the not-for-profit institutions coming together and working on projects and learning how to talk to each other. Last May, the ACT II Conference, which TCG and the League of American Theaters and Producers was held at Harvard. One of the benefits of that particular conference was that it brought together people that worked together but peripatetically.
The two sides of the field have very different aims, obviously, because one is for-profit and one is not-for-profit. Increasingly what we’re finding, though, is that the regional theatres, like the Alabama Shakespeare Festival through the Southern Writers’ Project, are creating material that is making its way into the commercial theatre. When the regional theatre movement began, many new plays began in New York. They were done commercially and then spread out into the regions. Now many of the productions come into New York from the regions and there’s a lot of contractual work between commercial producers and the not-for-profit member theatres. So it’s very important that we start to try to talk to each other.
One of the results of the ACT II Conference was that we realized that both sides talk in different languages. We have different intentions and we talk in different ways. We probably operate in profoundly different ways. As these productions increase, as a New York producer decides that he wants to provide money to enhance a first production of a new musical or a play at one of our member theatres, hoping that it may have commercial possibilities later, I think it’s very important that we find a way for the two sides to collaborate, so that we can begin the conversations more easily, and so that we will have ways to communicate our standards and belief systems.
There was a conference 25 years ago that was intended to bring commercial and regional theatres together. The joke, which probably has some truth in it, is that it ended up with a lot of shouting and chair throwing. The ACT II Conference did not. We had very beneficial conversations, but clearly we have two completely different viewpoints about the world of theatre, what theatre means, where it can go. So it’s very valuable that TCG and the League come together to try to figure out a way to keep that conversation going, because in the future, all of us are going to have to find ways to support new material with some commercial investment.
We have a variety of programs for grants. At Theatre Communications Group we have several grants in artistic programs and we have several in our management programs. Many of them are given through member institutions. We have two forms of membership. You can be an associate member or you can be a constituent member. The constituent member is the majority of our membership. Any constituent member can apply for those programs. We have a few programs that are for individual artists. Those programs often require recommendations or referrals from a member theatre.
The way that we determine how a grant is given depends on many factors. For many of our programs we are the subgrantor, so that, for instance, with the New Generations Program, the Mellon Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation are giving the money and we meet with them to determine how they wish that money to be distributed. We allow people to apply to it if they meet the guidelines of the program. Then we bring together a panel of peer artists or managers from institutions from across the country. We try to have diversity in every way on our panels. And these panels determine how the grants are given. But it really depends upon each program and each granting organization.
I think the way for people to find out about programs is to call TCG or to visit our website. They can find out about any of the programs. A staff member in artistic programs or management programs will be happy to explain whether or not they can benefit from the program and whether or not they are eligible to apply.
On the Future of Theatre
Theatres must survive in a landscape that seems to be ever more ruled by a Darwinian kind of business ethic. Theatre is fascinating to me, because it’s so ephemeral. If you missed it, you missed it. If you weren’t there for the live performance, you can’t go back and see the videotape. That’s its joy and its heartbreak. But theatres are also particularly local. I mean, my theatre may draw from seven states, but it’s particularly local in the sense that it has a certain cultural meaning within Montgomery, Ala. I think that we will continue to be strong as an institution if we continue to be strong within our local communities. That may mean a regional community in my case.
For a long time we believed that because we worked so hard in the theatre and we were so dedicated to the theatre, we deserved special treatment. A natural reaction, I suppose—"Well, we’re good and, therefore, people should want to come and see us." I think that reality has proved that attitude to be a myth. We have to figure out ways to assert our meaning to our local communities. That probably means that we must work to establish deeper engagement with our communities in ways that we’ve never done before. It means that we need to find a way for our communities to participate more in the theatre that we do.
I’m not sure what that means about the art form. Is it a more participatory theatre? Do we need to provide more opportunities for school children and adults to learn about acting? Do we need to create a different kind of theatre? I think our theatres must become community centers, in a certain sense, and valued in the community, and we’ve got to articulate our value to the community. And that’s a huge change, because for a long time we’ve been trying to assert our art, versus making people feel like theatre belongs to this community and has value to this community.
We must to be very savvy business people whether we like it or not. We’ve got to know how to talk the language of corporation, and we’ve got to figure out how to partner in new ways, be it with commercial theatre, with other arts organizations, or with educational institutions. Again, it’s about how we’re trying to assert our value in our community and how we’re trying to become a central part of their daily, weekly, monthly lives, so that if we went away, there would be an outcry.
Professional theatre in this country has to figure out how to work under new models, whether it’s resizing or downsizing or touring or figuring out how to escape our large institutions so that we can reconnect with the community; whether it’s performing in schools or on the street, whether it’s trying to invent a new form of theatre for this new audience, be it a live form that uses the Internet in different communities around the country or different communities within your own city. We’re going to have to do that to make sure that our connection is vital.
The impulse of the movement was to create art—to create something different and new, provide a view of the world that was invigorating and gave perspective and was not simply the commercial viewpoint. To protect that we have to figure out how to make our institutions more nimble and responsive. It’s scary to me because I’ve spent much of my life, for instance, in Alabama trying to build that institution up into something that produces a certain kind of quality and a certain kind of theatre. I’ve got to bring some new thinking into it and much more broad-based thinking about, well, what is theatre really and what is the most important part of that experience.
I’m not exactly sure what the future holds, but I suspect it demands that we get outside these large institutional buildings. The overhead of keeping the building going and the structure going could kill us. In the future, as the pressures continue, we’ve got to figure out how to be nimble in the marketplace—agile and changeable. It shouldn’t be that hard, because every time we start on a play we undertake the process of creation again. So if we can make that process really inform the way we work—the way we plan a season, the way we budget—maybe we can achieve the kind of reorientation of our thinking that we need. It’s vital for the future. I don’t think that the current models will continue to work forever. We’ve got to shake up what we do ourselves.
On His Heroes
I have many heroes in the theatre. Tony Kushner. Michael Langham. Mark Lamos. John Hirsch. Alan Howard, the English actor. Trevor Nunn. There are so many people that are real heroes for me. A young actor named Norbert Butz who came out of our M.F.A. program. A nine-year-old audience member who came up to me after a performance of a play called Lizard—one of our Southern Writers’ Project plays—about a deformed boy who goes to a theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, and does a terrible production of The Tempest. This girl came up to me and she thanked me for hiring a disabled actor. Of course, the actor (the same Norbert Butz), wasn’t disabled, his physicalization was brilliant. That kind of ability to be touched and to be changed and to see a different perspective, that’s my dream for the theatre.
Red Blount is a hero of mine for building this theatre in Alabama, of all places. Ben Cameron is a hero of mine for what he does for American theatre now. There are so many. That’s the terrific thing about the American theatre. There are so many people that make it work. There are so many people that make it such a joy to work in, and I think that’s our strength—our diversity and all those people.