The Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) is among the 10 largest Shakespeare festivals in the world and one of the most ambitious theatre institutions in the United States. ASF's year-round operating schedule offers the public more than a dozen professional theatre productions annually. The organization also offers a number of educational outreach programs, hosts an adult lecture series, and sponsors the Southern Writer's Project. Located in the state capital, Montgomery, Montgomery County, ASF generally attracts more than 300,000 annual visitors from across the United States and some 60 foreign countries.
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival began as a summer program in 1972 in the northeast Alabama town of Anniston, in Calhoun County, in an old high school auditorium with no air conditioning. ("Shakespeare Festival" is the common term used to describe a theater organization that has a primarily focus on producing the plays of William Shakespeare.) Theater and Shakespeare enthusiast Martin L. Platt saw a vacuum in the Southeast in terms of regional theater and believed that such an enterprise was badly needed and had the potential to be very successful. The first season, produced in part with funds from the Alabama State Council on the Arts (ASCA) included Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, Hamlet, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Platt recruited unpaid actors from Pittsburgh and New York and a volunteer stage crew.
With the help of the ASF Guild, which formed in 1973 to provide volunteer staff and services for the festival, and a dedicated board of directors, who oversaw marketing and business affairs, Platt was able to produce high-quality professional theatre with minimal funds. Between 1972 and 1975, ASF was staffed with volunteer actors and produced plays by such famous playwrights as Shakespeare, Ibsen, Moliere (pen-name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), and Niccolò Machiavelli. The theater gained a reputation quickly and drew audiences from as far away as Europe.
In 1973, the company moved into an Anniston high school theatre, recruited a new set of actors, designers, and company members, and attracted considerable national attention. At the start of the 1976 season, the New York Times labeled Platt "a brash, brilliant director." The following year, on June 17, Gov. George C. Wallace proclaimed ASF "the State Theatre of Alabama." Longtime supporter Josephine E. Ayers, wife of Anniston Star owner and publisher H. Brandt Ayers, signed on as executive producer, serving from 1978 to 1982. In addition to its Anniston repertoire, ASF was one of the few American theatre companies at the time to take on the difficult task of touring large-scale and regional productions of Romeo and Juliet, George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, and other classics throughout Alabama and the Southeast.
In the early 1980s, the company faced financial woes primarily stemming from its rapid growth and short season. Businessman and philanthropist Winton M. Blount, at the urging of his wife, Carolyn (an avid ASF supporter), offered to finance a new home for ASF if the organization would relocate to Montgomery. The board of directors agreed, and in 1985, ASF moved into a 100,000-square-foot, $21.5 million complex christened the Carolyn Blount Theatre at 1 Festival Drive, Montgomery, Alabama 36117. Designed by Thomas Blount and Perry Pittman, the architecture of the complex reflects the style of one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Italian architect Andrea Palladio, and houses two theatres—the 750-seat Festival Stage and the 225-seat Octagon—as well as production shops, a costume shop, dressing rooms, rehearsal halls, and administrative work spaces. The buildings contain more than one million bricks, and famed landscape architect Russell Page planned the English-style estate-like grounds and lake that make up the 250-acre park, which is also home to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.
The opening of the new theatre sparked national interest, and actors Olivia de Havilland and Tony Randall served as the masters of ceremonies for the star-studded December 7, 1985, gala. The Festival Stage opened with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Octagon opened with Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie.
Together with the Blounts, the ASF board, headed by Montgomery businessman Philip A. Sellers, helped ignite a remarkable rally of statewide support that thrust Montgomery and Alabama into the national spotlight. The unique partnership among private citizens, city officials, the state legislature, the governor, university leaders, corporate sponsors, and ASCA proved effective, and in 1985 ASF saw a one-year leap in its budget from $800,000 to $4 million. The audience surged from 25,000 patrons in 1984 to 130,000 patrons in 1985–86, representing one of the largest single expansions in the history of American regional theatre. The Montgomery Chamber of Commerce estimated ASF's indirect economic impact at more than $90 million for the opening season in Montgomery. In 1989, Platt moved on to other artistic adventures, and veteran artistic director Kent Thompson came on board after a national search.
In 1991, ASF reached out to the community with the creation of the Southern Writers' Project (SWP). The brainchild of Thompson, SWP serves as an incubator for works by southern playwrights focusing on themes that explore the South's rich cultural heritage. The program is dedicated to creating a theatrical voice for southern writers and topics. ASF commissions, produces, and stages a selection of plays each year through SWP. Under Thompson, ASF also became a leader and major force in the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) and the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), for which Thompson served as president.
In 2004, ASF was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to develop a production of Macbeth that would tour military bases in a groundbreaking partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense. Part of the NEA's Shakespeare in American Communities project, ASF's critically acclaimed Macbeth production, directed by Thompson, visited 13 military bases throughout the country.
In 2005, Geoffrey Sherman became ASF's third artistic director, and under him ASF typically produces more than 300 annual performances. Most of the actors in ASF productions are members of the Actors' Equity Association, with the next-largest group of actors coming from the Master of Fine Arts program run jointly by the University of Alabama and ASF. Behind-the-scenes staff include seamstresses, cobblers, metalworkers, scene painters, and many others, including guest directors, designers, and production personnel from throughout the world.
In addition to SWP, ASF offers a number of educational programs and events for the public. Students at the University of Alabama can participate in the unique Professional Actor Training Program and complete graduate work in areas that include costume design and production, set design, and theatre management and arts administration. Programs for children and schools include SchoolFest, a student matinee program that provides discounted tickets to an average of 35,000 schoolchildren from the Southeast each season, and Camp Shakespeare, in which children learn the varied behind-the-scenes activities that go into producing a theatrical work for the stage. Theatre in the Mind is an award-winning, free adult program (co-sponsored with the Alabama Humanities Foundation) that features lectures as well as discussions with authors, directors, designers, and actors that aims to teach audiences more about Shakespeare and the plays produced at ASF. The Bard Talks program offers informal educational talks in the Octagon lobby prior to Shakespeare productions, and Stage Side Chats offers audiences a question-and-answer session with ASF production staff members after each matinee performance. Pre-show lobby music, backstage tours, picnics in the park, and guest artist series are all part of the experience inside and outside at the Winton M. Blount Cultural Park.
McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents.Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Volz, Jim. Shakespeare Never Slept Here: The Making of a Regional Theatre, A History of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Company, 1986.