Marci Turner is new on the theater scene in Birmingham. As the wig mistress and costume assistant at Red Mountain Theatre for the past year, Turner said she’s incredibly fortunate to have a full-time job in the business.
After a 17-year career in office management, Turner, a fourth generation seamstress, returned to school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and began costume designing. Taking part in theatrical collaboration, she said, was “the kind of experience that let you know that this was what you were meant to do.”
Turner is lucky, though.
For most of the city’s artists who aspire to work in theater, gainful employment is a pipe dream. According to locals in the business, the lack of financially viable opportunities is often the reason talented actors, directors, writers, choreographers and designers leave Birmingham for so-called greener pastures – or, in the case of theater, the brighter lights of cities like New York or Chicago.
“If everybody leaves,” said Cathy Gilmore, president of Virginia Samford Theatre, “then you’ll never make any progress. To the people who are screaming about not being able to make a living at it: Why don’t you stay here and help?”
Gilmore, who spearheaded the movement to save Virginia Samford in 2000 when it was nearly purchased and converted to condominiums, said the “brain drain” that Alabama battles in a number of other fields is ever prevalent in theater; yet those who have remained, or returned, are producing high-quality work.
The work, said retired Theatre UAB professor and Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities Ward Haarbauer, is “better than Birmingham deserves, given the money that’s put into it, the attendance, the intense problem of getting the word out.”
The landscape of local theater is diverse, comprised of a mix of universities, semi-professional or community theaters, plus a number of troupes that operate without a home venue. Only one company, City Equity Theatre, operates under an Actors’ Equity Association (union) agreement.
And so the work exists because of the diligence of these groups, operated largely by a volunteer base. Like the theater companies themselves, the merit, the support, the successes and the hurdles are unique (and debatable) among the organizations; yet there are systemic challenges — some obvious, like competing for the attention of an audience which has access to entertainment literally in the palms of their hands, and others less obvious, like balancing artistic integrity with commercial appeal.
In the wake of a wave of positive progress in Birmingham, and at a time when the theater community is as vibrant and active as ever, members of that community are wondering if the city will champion theater.
“Communities that do well,” said Kelly Allison, chair of Theatre UAB, “recognize the potential return for investing in the arts. Birmingham and the surrounding area aren’t there yet, but we seem to be moving in the right direction. There are a lot of positive things happening in Birmingham now, but we need to maintain the momentum.”
In the pros
How do we maintain the momentum? For some, the answer is to open a professional theater house.
“Birmingham lacks a heavy hitter,” said Allison, citing theaters like the Alliance in Atlanta and the Guthrie in Minneapolis as models.
It’s the lack of a professional theater that also concerns Jonathan Fuller, co-artistic director at City Equity Theatre (CET) and instructor at Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA). Fuller believes Birmingham needs “a nationally recognized theater…an NFL/MLB franchise, so to speak, comparable to our Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Alabama Ballet and Birmingham Museum of Art.”
The difference between a full Equity, professional house and the semi-professional theater that are currently in operation in Birmingham, Fuller said, is that “Everybody that’s union gets paid, gets benefits. It’s about the amount of hours you can work, the breaks, the overtime — of which non-union theaters have no regulations.”
Fuller explained that “of the major movers in CET, many teach or work full time in theater departments at local high schools and universities in the area, which, at this point, is about the only way to make a full living in the theater in Birmingham.”
In its six years of operation, 10 CET members have earned Equity membership. “Most of them have taken that as their ticket to go to a bigger market, which is a huge deal for them. … With that Equity card, they can get into auditions and make a living in the theater,” said Fuller. The dream, he said, would be for people to flip the coin on the current employment situation and work a part-time job to supplement full-time theater work with CET, a company that prefers “to do very well-written plays, with challenging subject matter.”
“Theater in the modern history of Birmingham has never had the active support of community leaders and social leaders that the symphony has had, that the art museum has had,” said Haarbauer, explaining that an Equity house would be an expensive venture.
“I think we’ve missed that window,” said Gilmore. “I don’t see having a full Equity house, a large company like the Guthrie or the Alliance. I don’t see that coming down the pike right now, because I think people in Birmingham don’t know the difference. Look at someone like Kristi Tingle Higginbotham. She could be on Broadway. The audience doesn’t know if they’re Equity. All they know is if it’s good or bad. You’ve got darn good actors who aren’t Equity.”
Gilmore believes that “having an abundance of smaller theaters with a place like Virginia Samford or Red Mountain doing musicals, that fits the demographics of Birmingham in this point and time. … Since we’re a freestanding proscenium theater, it allows us to do the bigger musicals. That is what, generally, people in Birmingham like to see. They love the musicals. Straight plays are more difficult to sell.”
Twenty-year theater veteran and UAB professor Cheryl Hall serves on the board for both CET and Aldridge Repertory Theatre, and believes professional actors should be paid professional wages.
Red Mountain and Virginia Samford, companies that both produce predominately musical theater, are paying theaters. “We’re not an Equity house, but we do pay according to the size of their role. We do try to pay everybody something,” said Gilmore.
“Most people will, without question, pay a professional for their work or service,” Hall said. “They have no problem writing a check to the plumber, the auto technician or their dentist. It’s difficult for the same person to appreciate the value of paying a professional fill-in-the-blank performing artist when they had a perfectly satisfying experience with the friend or relative who does it for free.”
In the community
“Birmingham theater is thriving in your own backyard,” said Mel Christian, who is a program manager at Theatre UAB and volunteers at BFT, which, now in its 42nd season, is the city’s longest-running volunteer theater. “The actors and crew are experienced and committed to doing quality work,” said Christian. “The only difference in Birmingham community theater is it is affordable to everyone, and that actor you just saw nailing a monologue might be delivering your mail or writing prescriptions the next day. That’s a connection.”
“BFT started in 1972 as an alternative to the environment of almost exclusively feel-good musicals and light comedies being presented at Town and Gown [godfather of both Virginia Samford and Red Mountain] and the Jewish Community Center,” said Edward Miller, president of BFT.
The lobby walls of BFT, said Christian, are “lined with posters of shows from the last 40 years. That’s when I realized they, along with the great Carl Stewart, one of the founders of BFT and now artistic director of TNT, did those classics first, when they were new and groundbreaking.”
“We have fine performers,” said Carl Stewart, “actors that are also fine schoolteachers, that are also fine pharmacists. There are a lot of easel painters that are bankers, but that doesn’t make them a bad painter just because their 9-to-5 is down at the bank, because they want to feed their children.”
Carl Sosnin, who has been an active board member with BFT since its beginnings in the early 1970s, explained that commitment goes beyond production into the infrastructure of running the theater. “Volunteers make it happen. Our board in some ways is unique in that it’s not a fundraising vehicle or a resume-boosting vehicle. Our board members vacuum the floors and wash the toilets.”
That commitment, said Sosnin, comes from a passion for the art form, a need to be on the stage, to be part of the production. Daniel Martin, creative director at Theatre Downtown, said, “Most of our board is made up of people who just love doing theater and so use this as an outlet to do what they love as a hobby.”
“Community theater definitely serves a purpose for that amateur artist to be able to do what he has this desire to do once, twice a year,” said Stewart. “If you want to make a living at theater, well sure, you should go somewhere that can afford you a living. This is what I’ve discovered: in order to pay an actor a living wage in this community, my ticket price would have to be $75 or $80 a ticket and still maintain the number of audience members. Birmingham is not going to support that. One, because they get good theater at $25 dollars a ticket. If they want to spend more, they’ll come to the traveling shows at the civic center and see a not-so-good show.”
“We’re all looking for our share of that entertainment dollar,” said Stewart. “And we’re all trying to pay our bills. And of course there’s competition. Of course there’s ego. We wouldn’t be in the business if it weren’t for ego. I don’t think any of it is done with ill will. I don’t think anybody has ever asked to borrow something and it’s been: ‘Oh no! If we lend it to ‘em, they’ll be a success, and we’ll go out of business.’ We’re talking about artists here.”
Theatre Downtown’s Martin pointed out that producing shows on the same nights as other theater means the companies are vying for bodies in the seats. And, of course, there’s football.
“It’s hard to compete this time of year with high school and college football in Alabama,” said BFT’s Miller. “That said, our season ticket sales for this season hit an all time high.”
“I think the Birmingham theater scene is one of the only few where you’ll see men and women discussing Tennessee Williams and college football while sipping wine at intermission,” said Martin.
Boom or bust?
“There are a lot of theater in Birmingham, a lot more per capita than there used to be. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. My belief is Birmingham theater is outgrowing itself,” said Haarbauer, who retired in 2007 after 40 years at Theatre UAB.
Outgrowing itself, explained Haarbauer, in terms of talent and community support, the former having a direct effect on the latter. “Anybody can’t be an actor. … It may be theater is simply a niche discipline, and maybe that’s okay. I don’t think that theater ought to be seen by everybody in America. … The problem is niches are only so big. … I’m not sure the niche can be filled well by endless theater groups. I think people sometimes don’t return to the theater, because they weren’t impressed with what they saw on the first visit,” he said.
Each trip to the theater, said Sosnin, is like rolling dice. “If you want to see some really great theater, you have to see some bad theater. If you go to a bad play, you’re in hell for couple of hours. The only way to get out is to walk across the stage. If you’re in a great play, you are there. You’re part of it.”
Haarbauer defines good theater as work that tries to “achieve a level of quality that provides insights, is moving and, for a lack of a better word, is beautiful.”
Most of the folks interviewed for this article agreed that theater serves a community best when it is relevant. “Theater is a community experience, and we seem to have fewer of those than we once did. While it is a form of entertainment, it’s also a public forum for the exploration of important issues — issues that affect individuals and the community. Theater is a mirror image of the society that produces it,” said Allison, who believes universities, free of marketability concerns, produce provocative work.
For many local companies, a successful season exists in balance. Creative Director of Red Mountain Theatre Keith Cromwell explained it this way: “I believe in the core in my being that theater is critical and of great import. In order to support the belief that it is of such great import, I’ve got to do the other [marketable works], because I don’t feel like going out in the middle of the forest and doing Brecht because it’s socially relevant — if nobody is hearing it, seeing it or discussing it.”
Musical theater, according Cromwell, is an entrée to the classics.
“If we’re going to be good stewards of the art form,” Cromwell said, “we have to have the business bandwidth to support an audience that’s going to come see it or the process of getting an audience to come see it. … We can’t do eight Color Purples, so we have to do the Legally Blonde and have the creativity to say: These are two stories about two women who are mistreated and misjudged…who have the backbone and perseverance to succeed.”
Is Birmingham the place?
So how does Birmingham foster a community that supports theater?
“Birmingham has a pretty philanthropic community, and they like to support the arts — what they deem the supportable arts,” said BFT’s Sosnin.
“Stronger financial support from the public and private sector is a place to start,” said Allison. “If not subsidized, theater is only available to those who can afford to pay exorbitant ticket prices. It becomes elitist. Theater should be available to the masses. If you want to know something about a community, look at the theater the community supports. Does the community support only frivolous fluff that serves as an escape, or does the community also support thought provoking explorations of the human condition that lend perspective and clarify issues? I prefer to live in a community that supports both.”
Cromwell said Birmingham needs theater as much as the theater needs Birmingham. “It’s one of the rare things that when the lights go down, everybody in the audience becomes neutralized. We’re all the same. We don’t know if they’re male, female, what their sexual proclivity is, religious backgrounds, whatever it is. We are all now the eyes of humanity consuming a piece of art. From the consumption of that art, we come to a conversation about something that was placed in front of us. In this audience, when I am sitting with you, I am over the mountain, and I am Woodlawn. Where else do these people meet?”
As for Fuller and the folks at CET, they’ll keep striving to build a professional theater to bring people into Birmingham and keep hometown talent within the city limits.
“The funny thing about that,” said wig mistress Turner, “is that it was my return to Birmingham from a large city that allowed my career change.”
CORRECTION (11:43 a.m., 10/31/13): In the print version of this story, two sets of photos were misattributed: the photos from Grey Gardens and the photos from The Glass Menagerie, both of which were attributed to Terrific New Theatre. In fact, Grey Gardens was produced by Dane Peterson’s Theatre Series, and The Glass Menagerie was a joint production by Actors Theatre of Alabama and Birmingham Festival Theatre. We regret the errors.