The following is the latest installment of the Alabama Power Foundation’s annual report, highlighting the people and groups spreading good across Alabama with the foundation’s support.
Plato said art imitates life. Oscar Wilde said it was the other way around. It’s an argument that continues. However, one art form brings us face to face with the connection between art and life, perhaps better than any other: theater. It’s here people act out stories, hoping their audience forgets for a moment that it’s all make-believe. Were it not for the SchoolFest program of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF), many Alabama children might never be exposed to the magic of theater.
Every year, 40,000 students attend SchoolFest in Montgomery. From the professional actors to the costume and set design, the productions are the same as those presented to other ASF audiences. Thanks to grants from the Alabama Power Foundation and others, ticket prices are discounted and many schools attend for free, exposing students from all walks of life to art.
For some, it’s an experience they’ll never forget. For others, like Emily Prim, it’s life-changing. Prim is assistant wardrobe supervisor at ASF. She remembers distinctly when the “theater bug” bit her. “I was in seventh grade at St. James School in Montgomery. We had a field trip to SchoolFest, where we saw ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ I remember it so well, because there was a Ferris wheel on stage that was the peach, and I thought that was so cool. I was sorta thinking about theater, because of shows we had done in school and stuff, but when I came to see ‘James’ here, it made me start thinking that this is something I could do after I graduate,” Prim said.
Prim’s experience is what ASF is all about. Executive Director Todd Schmidt put it this way: “It’s really a bedrock of our mission at ASF, which is to create communities through transformative theatrical experiences. It’s a lot of kids’ first introduction to theater. It’s important to do that, especially in this time of continued cuts in arts funding.”
Just in the past year, students have seen productions of “The Sound of Music,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Our Town,” “Steel Magnolias” and “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963.” The latter featured 24 students from Montgomery Public Schools in the cast. Schmidt chooses shows that are appropriate for audiences of all ages. SchoolFest builds many of these productions around school curricula.
“We put our programming out to schools, and then they select what they think is relevant to what they’re doing and what they want their kids to be exposed to,” Schmidt said.
What started decades ago as productions appropriate for students has continued to expand. In addition to SchoolFest, ASF offers educational programs. There are theater classes for adults and children, and summer theater camps for students. ASF has hosted a series of conversations that are tied – at least in part – to the shows. U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell spoke alongside a cast member from “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963.”
“These are not about our productions, but they focus on themes of the productions,” Schmidt said. “There’s one coming up that talks about women dealing with glass ceilings, working in fields normally dominated by men, which ties somewhat into the production of ‘Steel Magnolias’ and a new production, ‘Into the Breeches.’”
Lonny Harrison, director of theater at St. James School in Montgomery, has been bringing students to see productions at ASF for 21 years. “We have some students who, up to the point they’ve hit SchoolFest, have never seen a live production outside of a school play. This definitely helps get them more into the arts.
It seems like kids respond differently to every show, but whether it’s something that’s the most amazing thing to them, or something that makes them think more critically, it at least makes them think about it. When we left ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the other day, kids were saying, ‘Let’s do some Shakespeare!’ I had to tell them, ‘Small steps.’”
Harrison has a long history with SchoolFest. He saw stage productions at ASF when he was in school. His experience echoes that of many Alabamians. Were you to poll the state, you’d likely be amazed at the number of people of all ages who’ve shared the marvel of live performance in a theater at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
In Alabama, it’s a generational thing. When it comes to the art imitating life vs. life imitating art question, perhaps Shakespeare got it right when, in the second act of “As You Like It,” the character Jaques said, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”
The parts being played by the men and women of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival are a rich and vital service to the people of our state. These are the people who transform our children, who show them a new and lively way to understand stories, and life – its comedies and tragedies. These are the “players” who expand the minds of our young people, and show them a world that lives within their own ability to imagine.