This season marks 12 years since Clay Boyce dreamed of starting an outdoor theater company in Birmingham — 12 years since Boyce’s aunt wrote him a check and said, “Put your money where your mouth is.” So he did.
Boyce had been directing and performing in shows for a previous outdoor theater company in Birmingham, and when that company closed, he didn’t want outdoor theater to stop. Modeled after other outdoor theater companies like Shakespeare in the Park, Boyce’s Birmingham Park Players (BPP) is committed to producing quality Shakespeare and family-friendly performances.
“Our goal is family entertainment, because kids should be exposed to live theater. I tell them, ‘We’re just like a 3D movie, but we’re different every night,’” Boyce said.
The BPP is the city’s only theater company that performs outdoors. While outdoor theater presents its own set of challenges, Boyce said it provides a valuable learning experience for actors and a fun, new experience for the audience.
“When you do a show outdoors, you have to use your voice to reach the back of the house. It’s a great way to learn breath control and volume control,” Boyce explained. “I’ve heard audience members say our shows are like magic. Some of our audience gets there in time to see a blank stage, then watch us put up the entire set, put up the lights, set up our sound for music and get into costume. In less than two hours, we transform the empty stage into a set for our show.”
But, of course, the best part is what happens during the show: “The sun sets, and the lights brighten the night, and great theater takes place while the audience is able to have a picnic under the stars. On a cool night in May, there is magic to watching Shakespeare outdoors,” Boyce said.
Such theatrical magic doesn’t come easily, particularly with outdoor theater, where the cast and crew must contend with nature and its potential difficulties.
“The big challenge is the weather. If it rains, we have no show. Plus, you have to be careful about the wind. The set has to be very secure or things could get blown over,” said Boyce. “And bugs. … Roaches tend to like to share the stage with us late at night. The actors don’t mind the roaches as long as they don’t forget their lines or blocking.”
Additionally, there is the challenge of creating a set that’s not only portable, but can be easily and efficiently maneuvered. “We have to set up and strike every night. When you produce a show indoors, you set up once and strike once. We do that eight or nine times for one production in the park,” Boyce explained.
Just over two years ago, the BPP was approached with an offer for an indoor theater space so the group could transition to an indoor/outdoor theater company and produce more shows. With the recent acquisition of that theater space in Community Education South, a venue in Crestwood that houses the Waldorf School and has space for community classes (like gardening), the BPP are able to put on four performances per year — three indoor and one outdoor.
Like other area theater groups — and as a nonprofit, all-volunteer theater in a city where earning a living wage in the industry is difficult at best — the BPP has its challenges.
“Theater is an expensive art form — costumes, lights, sets, rent. It has been cited as a contributing factor to the toppling of kings for that very reason. Its challenge as a people’s art — no people, no art — means that we must find that appeal factor to get folks in the door,” explained Jesse Bates, BPP member and Boyce’s theater teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
Financial woes in the arts is an ongoing battle, particularly in an economic recession. When the cost of production takes the lion’s share of financial resources, publicizing shows often poses a problem.
“Publicity is a big challenge,” said Boyce. “BPP can’t afford newspaper ads. The theater community knows where to go, but the average person needs to be reached. Once we did a show where only 12 people came to the first show, but after a local newspaper ran an article on the show, the next two were sold out. A little publicity goes a long way.”
“My cousin, who has lived in Birmingham all her life, came to see me in a show about eight years ago at the Birmingham Festival Theatre and said, ‘I didn’t know this was here,’ to which I responded, ‘That’s okay, it’s only been here since 1972,’” said BPP actor Steven Ross. “It’s the same challenge as all the rest.”
Publicizing a show is made more difficult when all the city’s theater companies are competing for audiences.
“I’d like to see a calendar where all the theaters can look around each other’s schedules so there aren’t four shows on the same night,” explained Boyce. “All the theater companies are good about working together because we’re all trying to do the same thing. I’m on my way to Montgomery now to pick up some things the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is letting us borrow.”
Although seemingly counterintuitive, the cohesion in the city’s theater community makes it welcoming to newcomers.
“We always need actors. With all the theaters in town, actors can be hard to come by, so I’ll approach high school students. We need volunteers, and we can offer them a resume builder. They get a taste of what it’s like to work on a full show,” Boyce said. “We have a core crew of volunteers, and I couldn’t think of doing this without them, but we’re welcome to new people, too.”
Many theater participants agree that theater serves an integral purpose in society, and although there have been positive changes in Birmingham’s theater culture, there’s still a long way to go.
“Theater is one of those art forms that show we are human, not mindless robots living to work, but working to live. It educates and entertains,” said Ross. “It allows me to explore all that I am, not just what I do for living.”
“I’d like to see more partnerships among the theaters,” said Boyce. “BPP has partnered with Bards of Birmingham for our Shakespeare shows. Kids can get involved in producing classical theater. It’s a great way to grow and strengthen the community.”
Or, as Ross succinctly put it, “I’d like to see more butts in the seats.”
The Birmingham Park Players will be performing It’s a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 7 at 11:30 a.m. and Dec. 8 at 2:30 p.m. at Fultondale City Hall, located at 1210 Old Walker Chapel Road in Fultondale. The show will continue Dec. 12-14 and 19-21 at 7:30 p.m. and on Dec. 15 at 2:30 p.m. at Community Education South, located at 1220 50th Street South in Birmingham. Adult tickets are $15, children and seniors are $10.
Tickets may be purchased by cash or check at the door to each show. Reservations can be made by calling (205) 590-0155. For more on the Birmingham Park Players, visit bhamparkplayers.com.