The show goes on(line) at Alabama Shakespeare Festival with ’22 Homes’ project

The show goes on(line) at Alabama Shakespeare Festival with ’22 Homes’ project
Quinton Cockrell is a playwright from Birmingham teaching at Troy University. (courtesy Alabama Shakespeare Festival)

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Alabama Shakespeare Festival on March 15, Artistic Director Rick Dildine knew ASF needed to do something to keep connecting with audiences.

“The core of what we do is about the human connection, about people coming together,” he said. “I wanted to figure out a way to continue harnessing that energy.”

If people couldn’t come to ASF in Montgomery, he decided, ASF would come to them.

So at the end of March, Dildine commissioned 22 Southern playwrights to take part in the “22 Homes” project – 22 short monologues revolving around the theme of “home,” with 22 actors from around the country performing them. The playwrights had a week to write their scripts, and the actors had a week to rehearse and film their performances.

The first seven are up on ASF’s website today, with others premiering April 23, 28 and 30.

“Every one of our first choices said yes,” Dildine said. “People were eager to be involved with it. It’s diverse in terms of gender, age, race and length of career. It’s a really special group of people.”

The 22 playwrights include some well-known theater names, such as Pearl Cleage, Lauren Gunderson, Topher Payne and Will Arbery. Three of them — Audrey Cefaly, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder and Quinton Cockrell – are from Alabama.

Cockrell’s play, “The Way He Should Go,” stars actor Christopher Gerson (“The Good Fight,” “Mr. Robot,” “Younger”) as a man talking to his pastor about the death of his son.

“It was a topic that was on my mind,” said Cockrell, who is from Birmingham and teaches at Troy University. “I tend to return to the same topics over and over again, and one of them for me is religion in Southern life.”

Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s “22 Homes” project will roll out through April 30. (courtesy Alabama Shakespeare Festival)

Cockrell and Gerson, who didn’t know each other but were paired by Dildine, corresponded, and once Cockrell finished his script, he sent it to the actor. “The rest was up to him,” the playwright said.

“His performance raised the level of my writing,” Cockrell said. “Today was the first time I saw it. I was writing Chris a thank you note, and my hands were trembling because I was so moved by it.”

That’s the kind of thing Dildine wants to hear.

“The thing that’s been most exciting has been to hear playwrights say that this is a character that’s been in their head and they’re so glad to get it down on paper, and to have artists say this is just the thing they need right now,” he said. “And they’re making new connections. A playwright and an actor need each other.”

ASF has had to cancel its acclaimed Southern Writers Festival, which was scheduled for May, and “22 Homes” (22 because Alabama was the 22nd state) allows the theater to explore new Southern work in a different way.

“I firmly believe that there are going to be new plays that come out of this,” Dildine said.

Cockrell was thrilled to be a part of it.

“I think it’s really innovative to try to figure out how theatrical artists can still contribute during this lockdown,” he said. “ASF didn’t just lie down and take it. They came up with innovations to still get some theater out there.”

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