Audience members sitting on risers in a bucolic park in Montgomery fan away the September humidity as they balance shoe boxes full of fried chicken, biscuits, and other picnic fixings on their laps. From behind them, 1950s rhythm and blues emanates from speakers hidden in the trees.
Unconventional front-row seating (a line of blankets on the lawn) invites visitors further into the tableau of mid-century Black life on the outdoor stage. A sea-blue Chevy Bel Air appears on the horizon. Somewhere on the sidelines, the theater’s artistic director, Rick Dildine, tears up a little.
The vintage vehicle signals not only the start of Shoebox Picnic Road Side: Route One—a world debut—but also the return of live performances to one of the Deep South’s largest professional theaters and the kickoff of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s (ASF) 50th season.
There’s an air of anticipation, excitement, and maybe a bit of uncertainty. Nobody is quite sure what to expect. But that’s by design.
“I am a firm believer that when the audience thinks they know the rules, that’s when you change them,” Dildine confides later by phone. “We want to keep our audience engaged and intrigued.”
Dildine’s arrival to ASF in 2017, followed soon after by Executive Director Todd Schmidt, ushered in a new era of shows staged in surprising places, stories from underrepresented communities, and immersive experiences such as Shoebox.
It’s all part of a plan to make ASF’s place atop a hill—the outdoor theater sits on a rise overlooking a 175-acre cultural park—a top destination theater for its next 50 seasons.
Handled with care
Two days before Shoebox opens, busy-but-calm propmaster Shanley Aumiller, in a scrubs top and twin braids, effortlessly navigates the performing arts complex’s industrial tangle of back passages. She pauses, throws open a nondescript door, and reveals a treasure trove.
In Aumiller’s hand-props room, a convincing feast of sliced ham, movie popcorn, crudités, croquembouche, a lobster tower, and more—all conjured from foam and tissue paper over many decades—waits on a tall bookcase. Behind that are filing cabinets of flatware, a box of defunct cellphones bought by the pound, a canopy of chandeliers, and a leering pile of severed heads. (“You hate to say goodbye once you get to know them,” Aumiller says wryly.) And that’s just what’s visible from the entrance.
If the works on stage loudly proclaim where ASF is going, the hushed and hidden places, like her storeroom warrens, show—in archaeological detail—where it’s been. The theater is a professional producing house, meaning every faux turkey leg and decorative candelabra, every corset and bouffant, every archway and backdrop that takes a turn in the limelight, is made by master craftspeople in on-site workshops. And at 50 seasons, and nearly 500 shows, that’s a lot of master crafting.
Back in her workshop, she points out a stack of what seems to be everyday brown paper bags.
“They’re no big deal, the type of thing you’d take for granted,” Aumiller says. “But every single item out there has been touched, thought about, or manipulated with care.”
Each bag has been meticulously lined with plastic so, when the Shoebox actors clear the remnants of real chicken and potato salad over the next two weeks, the bags don’t leak into the trunks of the vintage cars. Later, Aumiller will mix water and food coloring until she re-creates the perfect shade of Cheerwine soda—not too red, not too brown.
New spaces, new faces
“Guys! What is happening?!” Shoebox Director Tiffany Nichole Greene cries out in bemusement, extending an umbrella against the on-again, off-again drizzle that’s already delayed tech rehearsal once.
It’s the afternoon before the production opens, and they’ve yet to do a run-through in its actual performance space. No pressure. Greene, who—wait for it—also happens to be the resident director of Hamilton on Broadway, takes a seat next to playwright Deneen Reynolds-Knott, an up-and-comer who mined her mother’s favorite childhood memories for Shoebox.
The rain just stopped and the pair watch closely as the actors climb out of the vintage cars’ cavernous back seats again and again, trying to nail their cues and admirably ignore the water seeping up through their picnic blankets.
That a theater of this size and caliber exists outside a large urban area is already a bit unexpected. The curtain rose on ASF in 1972, when the summertime Shakespeare festival operated out of a non-air-conditioned high school auditorium in Anniston.
In 1985, a Montgomery donor financed the palatial, $21.5 million Carolyn Blount Theatre complex, with a trio of state-of-the-art performance spaces, a cadre of rehearsal halls and workshops, and the capacity to produce work at a level unseen elsewhere in the South. Today, it’s one of the largest Shakespeare festivals in the world.
Works by the Bard make perennial appearances. But ASF lineups have grown to offer Tony Award–winning musicals, acclaimed dramas, comedies by theatrical superstars, and contemporary works, including a new focus on the Black experience, especially in the American South.
The Shoebox characters wearing crisp 1950s fashions, for example, playfully tease each other, feast, and even burst into song during a roadside picnic along a highway somewhere between New York and North Carolina. The dangers posed to Black travelers at the time and the segregationist rules that barred them from many restaurants along the way offer an all-but-silent backdrop to their joy. It’s subtle and enlightening, says Greene.
“Nobody wants to be told how to think,” she says later by phone. “To just be given that window into someone else’s experience is enough to teach someone something. Stories like that are really important.”
A half hour before Shoebox opens, an ebullient Greta Lambert greets arriving guests. In more typical years, the company’s leading actress—a fan favorite since 1985—would be dazzling audiences on stage. In the 2021-22 season, she’ll do that, too. But at the moment, she’s handing out the meals that the audience tucks into during the play.
“These aren’t things that would normally happen, but they’re certainly happening now,” Schmidt says with a laugh. “It has really required an all-hands-on-deck attitude and a sense of community.”
Like theaters across the country, the pandemic hit ASF hard, forcing them to turn out the lights on 2020 performances. The number of full-time employees dropped from more than 100 to 10, but now there are more than 50. Staging a comeback will mean slowly flexing its production muscles again. Instead of 14 shows in its golden season—and up to 6 running simultaneously as has been the case—ASF is offering 9.
New pricing, better budget seats, and additional payment options are aimed at welcoming new fans into the fold. And Schmidt and Dildine are already dreaming up ways to persuade longtime patrons to let theater back into their lives. For some, it’s an easy sell.
After the show ends, the leftovers are cleared and the blankets folded. The final monologues have been delivered beneath an overcast sky. And the rocking strains of “Rocket 88,” which blared from inside the last car of the caravan, have faded into the horizon.
Die-hard ASF fans Susan Rinehardt and Marlene Word remain seated, glowing as they discuss the play. The pair have watched the theater’s website all pandemic long for signs of life.
“We’ve waited and waited,” Rinehardt enthuses. “We are so excited.”
While travel writer and guide author Jessica Fender doesn’t know her wings from her proscenium, she makes a great audience member. Follow her adventures online at travelerbroads.com or on Instagram @travelerbroads.
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The Alabama Shakespeare Festival 2022 schedule
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s 50th season runs through August 1.
- Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella: through January 2
- Macbeth: February 3–24
- Little Shop of Horrors: March 3–April 3
- Freedom Rider (world premiere): April 8–24
- Until the Flood: April 14–May 1
- The Marvelous Wonderettes: May 24–June 26
- American Mariachi: July 27–August 1
AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.