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Southern cultural crescendo: muted by fiscal cuts?

By Robert M. PressStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 1981



Atlanta

When Shakespeare comes to Anniston, Ala., next week, so will a lot of Georgians and Alabamians. The 10th anniversary season of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is an example of growing interest in the professional performing arts in the South.

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But starting such professional groups and keeping them solvent is a struggle, not only in the South, but nationally, according to those involved in the effort. Pending cuts in federal aid to the arts will make the battle even tougher.

"When I started this thing, people were saying: 'Nobody [in this region] wants a Shakespeare Company,'" recalls Martin L. Platt, the Festival's artistic director. "The response is really amazing." Attendance at the festival has grown from 2,000 the first year to 35,000 expected this season.

In Atlanta, at the Alliance Theater, a professional theater, attendance has jumped from 3,000 for the 1976-77 season to more than 15,000 for the season just completed.

But in the past few years there have been a number of failures among theater and dance groups and other kinds of performing arts in the South. And with federal aid to the arts being cut, other performing arts groups may be in trouble, says Bernard Havard, managing director of the Alliance Theater- Atlanta Children's Theater.

During times of declining finances, one of the first things cut by groups like the Alliance Theater are such things as the performances for children -- the very projects that help build support for the arts, he says.

Aggressive management -- such techniques as phone sales campaigns and bringing in stars to join the regular company for a play -- are the key to keeping a professional effort above water, says Mr. Havard.

Nationally, he says, only 40 percent of the nonprofit theaters, such as the Alliance, showed growth last year. Attendance by Southerners is growing, but much of the increasing interest in the performing arts in the South is coming from non-Southerners.

Slightly more than half of those attending Alliance productions, says Havard, are non- Southerners. The popular Asolo Theater in Sarasota. Fla., relies heavily on tourists from the Midwest and Northeast, says Asolo's managing director, David Levenson.The Asolo attendance has increased "dramatically" in the past five years, he says.

Beyond the major Southern theater companies, says Mr. Levenson, smaller companies are "burgeoning" all over Florida.

The number of professional performing arts groups being booked by citizen groups in the South is increasing significantly, says Lou Hockett, director of performing arts programs for the Southern Arts Federation.

The federation is sponsoring management workshops to help performing arts groups do better publicity work and present productions more attractive to the public. He describes problems faced by Southern performing arts groups as "universal."

A myth still persists among some Americans that Southerners are not sophisticated and arts-oriented, says Alabama Shakespeare Festival artistic director Platt. But once funding and management problems are tackled successfully, the increasing flow of people to see Shakespeare in Anniston, Ala. , does not support such images.