Hefty grant is helping Alabama Shakespeare Festival think big

It's a boost for both the Bard and the heart of Dixie. After 14 years as summer repertory company in a high school auditorium, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) is aiming for new national prominence. As the recipient of one of the biggest single philanthropic contributions to any theater -- $21.5 million donated by Montgomery construction magnate Winton M. Blount -- the festival is emerging as one of the largest regional theaters in the country.

One of five major American Shakespeare companies and the only professional classical-repertory theater in the Southeast, the festival is attempting to carve a wider artistic swath as the result of its lavish new theater complex and hefty $4 million budget.

``We want to be the best place in North America to see the classics,'' says Martin Platt, ASF founder and artistic director. ``Our models are Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.''

While such aims are clearly ambitious for a nonprofit, regional theater, the company is currently making rapid strides. This season the festival opened its spanking-new state-of-the-art theater complex, replaced its $150,000 deficit with a multimillion-dollar budget, boosted its season from five weeks to 10 months, and is doubling its audience.

``The opening night series sold out in three days,'' says Jim Volz, ASF managing director. ``People actually drove their subscriptions in from Birmingham.''

While the catalyst for such growth is clearly the Blount donation, the festival's long-term success hinges more on a unique consortium of public and private funding. Federal and state agencies, local corporate leaders, and university administrators have collectively pledged the nearly $2 million of unearned income the theater will require annually. It is a novel arrangement that some observers speculate may eventually unravel. However, hopes currently run high that the impact from the joint venture will reverberate within the regional artistic community as well as the state's coffers. Projections indicate an annual $11.2 million in additional tax revenues to be generated by the theater.

``The sheer number of dollars returned to the city always will be more than the funding we are receiving,'' says Mr. Platt.

Indeed, what began in 1971 with a $500 loan from Platt's mother has blossomed into a theater nationally recognized for its consistent and conservative productions of classical drama. Now situated on the eastern side of Montgomery (Blount's contribution stipulated that the theater relocate from its original home in Anniston), the festival is housed in an imposing neo-palladian structure at the edge of Blount's 250-acre estate. Two theaters -- a 750-seat semi-thrust main stage and a 250-seat octagon -- share the 100,000 square feet with administrative offices, two rehearsal halls, production shops, and box office. Outside, the red brick faade has been especially blended to match Blount's own home, while inside the soaring two-story lobby is appointed with native slate, marble, and custom-designed carpets. It is the flagship structure for what eventually will be a 40-acre Elizabethan village, including formal gardens and reproductions of Shakespeare's birthplace and Anne Hathaway's cottage.

Apart from these no-holds-barred physical accouterments, Platt prefers to concentrate on the season at hand. ``The biggest difference is that we'll be able to do full-scale productions for every show,'' he says. ``But you have to fight the impulse to let the scale of the production overwhelm the work.''

Indeed, the lavish costuming and elaborate sets of the festival's opening production of Shakespeare's ``Midsummer Night's Dream'' presages a classical, well-heeled ASF season. Of the 10-play series, eight will be performed in repertory. However, three of the shows will be staged in the more intimate Octagon theater. ``Pygmalion'' opened last week on the main stage, while Harold Pinter's ``Betrayal,'' the first contemporary play in an ASF season, will play all summer in the Octagon. Casting his company largely out of New York, Platt has assembled an even if unremarkable ensemble. His intent is to tread that fine line between pleasing a regional audience and fostering a national reputation. While the director admits to a professional antipathy toward ``bizarrely plotted'' plays and raw contemporary dramas, he also insists that ``if people expect to see pretty and undemanding productions, they will be disappointed.''

In addition to the regular season, the festival will sponsor a regional touring company, a matinee series for local schoolchildren, and a master's degree program in collaboration with the state's universities.

Some observers, however, suggest that festival backers are more interested in spit-polishing the state's image than charting new artistic waters and some question whether Alabama, which has little tradition of funding the arts, can support such a major undertaking. Yet, others remain enthusiastic.

``A lot of companies say they're repertory companies when they really aren't,'' adds ASF newcomer Joan Ulmer. ``I think a lot of people in New York wish they were here.''

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