Make a list of American cities noted for the performing arts and your thoughts naturally turn to films made in Hollywood, and Broadway plays staged in the heart of New York City. So you might be surprised to learn that one of the nation's premier theater companies is located in the Deep South.
Performing before more than 700 children, the company of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival delivers early lines from one of the Bard's last plays, the dark comedy, The Tempest. American children are not known for their attention spans, but the youngsters sit spellbound as the Magician Prospero and his daughter Miranda argue the fate of the Prince and his shipmates.
Veteran actor Philip Pleasance leads this production, in the role of "Prospero," a part he has played often throughout the country and on Broadway. "When I used to do that in New York," he said, "people didn't know. 'Alabama?' They'd screw up their faces and say, 'What's that?' Now, however, every time I go back, every actor I know has heard about the Shakespeare Festival, how well it's doing. And believe me, when calls go out for auditions here, the place is jammed. There are hundreds of actors who would love to come down here because of the reputation it's gained."
A reputation so distinct, Managing Director Kevin Maifield is quick to point out that the company has been given a singular honor. "The Royal Shakespeare Company," which is the largest Shakespeare festival in Stratford-on-Avon, has authorized only one other theater in the world to be able to fly its flag and that is here in Alabama. So over the theater you'll see several flags, not only of the country and of the state, but also of the Royal Shakespeare Company and we're very proud to have that designation."
Under that flag is an impressive facility. The $21 million theater rests in a park-like setting of formal gardens, lakes and manicured lawns. Director Maifield says the Festival house was created in the style of the famed Italian architect Palladio. It contains, not one, but two performance halls and is home to a surprisingly large company that presents plays year-round.
Mr. Maifield said "300 people are employed by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and we have an economic impact outside the festival itself of roughly $12 million into the economy per year. That includes 800 jobs outside the festival's aegis entirely. We have two theaters. We have a 744 seat theater called the Festival Stage and we have a 224 seat theater called the Octagon Stage. Obviously we do more intimate work in the Octagon Theater."
In this smaller hall, a Children's Theater performance of Cinderella is underway, one of a number of non-Shakespearean plays the ASF stages each year.
Education is an important component of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's mission. At the end of each children's performance, the actors return to the stage to answer questions from the audience, inquiries that often surprise actor Philip Pleasance. "You'll think, 'Gee! They noticed that element of it' - you know, in a character's speech or something that a character does on stage. So it's quite interesting," he said. "And they are also able to engage at some level on the philosophical aspect of Shakespeare too, the rights and the wrongs and the conundrum that life offers us."
Learning at the ASF takes place on both sides of the footlights. The cast of Cinderella is composed almost entirely of acting apprentices. Each year the festival signs on eight young actors interested in earning a post graduate degree in theater arts.
"It's a two year condensed program, combining performance, rehearsal and classroom work," said Sonia Lonzener, one of the ASF's paid actors, who serves as a mentor and instructor for the troupe's acting apprentices.
"They get physical work, they get movement, period style," she continued. "They get an extensive theater history two-year program. They get vocal training in dialects and I think makes them in so many ways more able to go out into the world as professionals, which is what we're trying to do here, is to turn out actors I'd like to work with."
After the morning performances of Cinderella and The Tempest, the acting apprentices do some classroom work. In the afternoon, they rehearse the works of playwrights studied in class. On this day they perform a short passage from an abstract play by 20th century European writer Samuel Beckett.
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival also looks for works closer to home. Managing Director Kevin Maifield said the company is determined to introduce the rest of the world to playwrights from America's Deep South. "We believe firmly that the work of southern writers is not only unique as a culture, but that no one can tell the stories better than southerners," he said. "And as the leading theater in the south, nobody can tell those stories better than the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. That being said, we created the Southern Writers Project. The project is about creating new works for theatrical canon, to try and find the next Tennessee Williams, or the next Langston Hughes, or the next To Kill A Mockingbird for that matter."
While it waits for that next great southern playwright and play, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival continues to stage world class productions from the works of the company's namesake. Performances of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet are in rehearsal now for play dates in May, June and July.