Operation 'Macbeth': How the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Took the Front Line in a New Cultural Campaign

By Thompson, Kent | American Theatre, February 2005 | Go to article overview
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Operation 'Macbeth': How the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Took the Front Line in a New Cultural Campaign


Thompson, Kent, American Theatre


THE CALL CAME WHILE I WAS REHEARSING Noises Off in March of 2003. Gigi Bolt, director of the theatre program at the National Endowment for the Arts, told me that she was calling at the request of the chairman, Dana Gioia, to propose an unusual project: If the NEA could work out the necessary funding, would the Alabama Shakespeare Festival be interested in touring its future production of Macbeth to U.S. military bases? I was taken aback, but after a moment replied, "Well, sure.... but why?"

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Gigi said the chairman wanted to create national initiatives that would reinvent the image of the NEA--and the "Shakespeare in American Communities" program was the first and boldest of these. The chairman was working hard on Capitol Hill to create new partnerships within the federal government that would support the work of the NEA in a new way. He believed that he could persuade Congress to support such a tour through the Department of Defense.

"Why ASF?" She said the chairman knew about our recent successes with touring, our reputation for high artistic quality and, of course, our Southern roots. (I quickly figured out that Chairman Gioia must have other reasons in mind: Featuring the State Theatre of Alabama might well turn Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a longtime member of the National Council on the Arts, the presidentially appointed advisory body of the NEA, from a tireless critic into a vocal supporter of the Endowment and its funding. It also didn't hurt that Alabama's other senator was Richard Shelby, who had chaired and served on several defense, intelligence and appropriations committees.)

Chairman Gioia wanted the touring version of Macbeth to be of the same caliber as ASF's work in Montgomery--a fully mounted production. This would mean taking our own lighting and sound equipment in addition to full scenic and costume packages. That would mean a semi-trailer truck and two buses (one for crew, one for cast). No admission would be charged, so the budget should include all direct expenses.

We were asked to submit a rough budget for an eight-base tour over four to five weeks. It would be costly, given the scale of production requested and our LORT status--somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000-450,000. A few weeks later, we were asked to double the scale of the tour and the budget. We did. The chairman was now requesting $1 million in funding from Congress through the Department of Defense.

Thus began a dance with the NEA that was by turns agonizingly slow and alarmingly frantic. I was asked to fly to Washington, D.C., three days later to meet with the first round of companies participating in Shakespeare in American Communities. We were assigned to Ken Carlson at Arts Midwest, the regional agency managing the program.

By fall of 2003, we were beginning serious preparations for our season, including Macbeth, which was to be directed by associate artistic director Bruce K. Sevy. We knew that we needed to approach this initial production with the idea of touring it--we couldn't afford to redesign and rebuild the set or mount a full rehearsal period. Hearing nothing through the established channels of communication, I finally called the chairman directly: Was this tour really going to happen? He reassured me that it was all proceeding according to plan. "You have my word--if the congressional funding doesn't come through, I will personally guarantee the funding. This tour will happen."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

After a lot of discussion with Bruce, I decided two days before the scheduled design conference on Oct. 4 that we should switch directing assignments--I would direct Macbeth and he would direct Titus Andronicus. I was disappointed (never having directed Titus and doubting I'd have a second chance), but thought it the wiser decision, given the high-profile nature of this tour. A few days later Congress voted to fund a tour to military bases by the Shakespeare in American Communities program through the Department of Defense at a cost of $1 million, as part of a larger defense bill of $368 million.

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