One of the greatest documentary films about Alabama in recent years is called Best Worst Movie. Sure, it’s about things besides Alabama, like fame and cult movies and Hollywood and celebrity, but the main character is a dentist from Alex City named George Hardy. And it’s a great movie. It shows how a charming man can be swept up in a subcultural madness and a celebration of nostalgia that blurs the lines used to make aesthetic judgment. Thus, thanks to horror movie fans and tastemakers, a “bad” movie becomes a treasured one.
In that movie, there’s a scene where the Italian director of “the worst movie of all time” remarks that it doesn’t matter whether your movie is bad or good — it just matters that your movie has an impact. And by shocking millions of people with its low quality, his movie hit the mark in that regard.
That’s the framework with which I was thinking about the performing arts scene in Montgomery. Who is to say what is “good?” A lot of people don’t much care for Shakespeare. They’d rather pay money to go see a play about Bear Bryant or one written by an introverted pervert.
Still, it’s interesting to poke at the idea of aesthetic judgment without going full scale Harold Bloom, bemoaning the death of the Western Canon™. Let’s take then the evolution of our city’s crown jewel of the performing arts, the Alabama Shakespeare festival. In their first season in Montgomery (1985-1986), this was their lineup of plays offered to the public:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Shakespeare
- The Merry Wives of Windsor – Shakespeare
- Richard III – Shakespeare
- Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
- Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw
- A Flea in Her Ear – Georges Feydeau
- School for Scandal – British play from late 1700s, Richard B. Sheridan
- The Octagon: The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams
- The Imaginary Heir
- Betrayal – Harold Pinter
There were 10 plays, three of them by Shakespeare. The other playwrights being offered? All luminaries: Arthur Miller (Pulitzer winner), George Bernard Shaw (Nobel winner), Tennessee Williams (Pulitzer winner), and Harold Pinter (Nobel winner).
Now let’s look at the 2011-2012 lineup:
- Dracula – Oct 7 – 30, 2011 – Adapted by Willian McNulty; Originally dramatized by John L. Balderson and Hamilton Deane from Bram Stoker’s Dracula
- A Christmas Memory – Nov 25 – Dec 24, 2011 – Book by Duane Poole, Music by Larry Grossman, Lyrics by Carol Hall; Based on the short story by Truman Capote.
- In The Book Of ... – Jan 5 – 22, 2012 – “In John Walch’s powerful reimagining of The Book of Ruth, an Army lieutenant, and her Afghani interpreter settle in Mississippi, where they are targeted by a rampaging politician. Family, friendship, and the American Way are tested in this often funny, touching, and unforgettable story.”
- The 39 Steps – Jan 27 – Feb 7; April 22 – May 19, 2012 – Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan, from the 1935 movie by Alfred Hitchcock and an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
- Travels With My Aunt – Feb 3 – 7; April 22 – May 19, 2012 – Adapted by Giles Havergal, based on Graham Greene’s novel.
- Merry Wives of Windsor – April 13 – May 18, 2012
- Henry VII – April 19 – May 20, 2012
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – April 21 & 29; May 4, 12 & 20, 2012
- NANTA Cooking Show – July 11 – 15, 2012 (“The Iron Chef Meets Stomp!”)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Aug 10 – Sept 2, 2012 – Book by Rachel Sheinkin, music and lyrics by William Finn, conceived by Rebecca Feldman.
That’s 10 plays, and three Shakespeare. When making the comparison between this year’s ASF offerings and that initial season (the first after ASF came to Montgomery from Anniston, where it ran from 1972-1984), it’s easy to see that there are the same number of Shakespeare plays. Two of the Shakespeare offings are the same this year as that first year, replacing Richard with Henry.
But the plays are just not the same. The picture of Merry Wives makes this year’s offering look like Merry Housewives of Windsor County. And it’s undeniable that the theater’s offerings in recent years have been more towards more, um, populist fare like Menopause: The Musical and Peter Pan and Bear Bryant and Elvis.
Last year there were only two Shakespeare plays: Much Ado About Nothing and Julius Caesar. And one might guess that this is simply an economic reality of running a theater company in a world of 200-plus cable channels, the Internet, and degraded public tastes. If Beavis and Butthead: The Musical is going to put fannies in seats, who are we to decry the coarsening of taste? Don’t the ASF impresarios know more about what people will pay to see than us?
A few more facts: ASF began in Anniston in 1972 as a professional regional theater company. It has been located in Montgomery since 1985 when it moved from Anniston as a result of Mr. and Mrs. Winton M. Blount’s gift of a performing arts complex. ASF operated through the University of Alabama from 1993-2008 and hosted a highly-regarded MFA program there, starting in 1985.
This program was considered one of the most desirable offerings in the nation for aspiring actors. Elite level talent sought to perform at ASF as a result of the prestige and the ability to use the degree as a springboard to bigger opportunities. Getting a serious run of Othello on your resume was a major credential for actors looking to jump to the most exclusive acting circles.
Unfortunately, while ASF touts 2007-08 as “a landmark season at ASF,” the reality was a bit more mixed. While the holiday production of Peter Pan became the best-selling production in ASF history, the ASF ended its relationship with the University of Alabama in 2008 amid a series of clashing egos and priorities. But the marketing wins for Montgomery’s jewel of a theater is undeniable: Peter Pan is closely followed by Menopause the Musical and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as the top three most successful shows – all having been produced within recent years at ASF.
We’ve heard that ASF is contractually required to produce at least two or three Shakespeare plays every season, allowing them to keep the Bard’s name on their masthead. But it’s clear that the public wants Disney-themed fare, quality productions for families with short attention spans and pre-approved, market-tested, focus grouped winners. Who around here has ever heard of George Bernard Shaw or Harold Pinter anyway?
To be fair, this year’s offerings do include the names of Bram Stoker, Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock, and Graham Greene. All of those artists are favorites of ours, and well-skilled. But they also didn’t really write plays, meaning that the performances are adaptations of their works, leaving a lot of wiggle room for either genius or mediocrity. A musical comedy based on Thelma and Louise might advertise by including a name we like (“based on the movie by Ridley Scott!”), but it’s not the same thing as actually producing and staging a play by Eugene O’Neill.
Again, there’s no denying that audiences are into the new direction. By definition, more popular, less challenging fare is, well, more popular. ASF audiences have increased from 117,965 in 2004-05 to 164,335 in 2006-07. Unclear about the current stats.
And we’ll certainly go see some of the new stuff in 2012. We certainly will see the Shakespeare and may give some of the other stuff a try (probably not the Afghan war one based on a book of the Bible). But the idea that we missed the chance to live in a town that was regularly producing plays by edgy, legendary playwrights is a bit of a bummer.
This isn’t about nostalgia. We aren’t interested in seeing the plays of a Harold Pinter or a Vaclav Havel simply because they are decades old. It simply cannot be argued that Tennessee Williams is yesterday’s version of Twilight: The Musical. The latter may well sell more tickets than the former, but that’s simply a sad fact leading inexorably to Cam Newton: The Musical. A gem like the ASF should not be debased by the ever-descending tastes of popular whimsy.
We realize that the battle between art and commerce is nothing new. With the economy collapsing, people aren’t going to pay $30 a pop to go see academic fare about people Coming to Terms With Things. They want to see musicals, vampires, and Captain Hook swordfights with Spider-Man hung from a harness while riding the Lion King. And tickets must be sold to keep the lights on. We get it.
Over the holidays, we’ve been reading Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. He conjures a world where the self-medicating seek frivolity and distraction. It’s a place where love of servitude is made possible when confrontation and non-conformity are obliterated by consumption of art that is touching and heart-warming and musical. When confronted for the first time with that dystopia, Huxley’s character John (the Savage) speaks rapturously of “the Brave New World.”
The origin of that phrase being quoted by John? “The Tempest” by some guy named William Shakespeare.
This is intellectually slippery territory. It’s hard to find your footing when every move in this high/low culture fight has been mined with various politically charged explosives. To be clear: we’re not saying Julius Ceasar has to be staged in togas every time. We haven’t even seen many of the plays we’re talking about. And we’re not trying to pick a fight with ASF, which we love and revere.
But we do want to start a conversation about art in our city, and we don’t have a lot of places to do that – Grandma Advertiser certainly isn’t keeping a theater critic on staff, not that the newspaper’s comment pages are the best forum for talking art (or anything, for that matter).
As Michael Chabon rightly says, there’s nothing wrong with entertainment as the purpose of art. Homer tried to entertain his audiences, and it’s been the same even through dreadful Victorian novels and empty experimental French cinema. But artists also push at the bounds of what’s comprehensible, thereby expanding the bounds of what’s possible. We don’t need Shakespeare to help us see more, differently and better, but it’s irresponsible and dangerous to think that Disney and musical tributes to Buddy Holly serve the same purposes.
A great city can’t exist without great art, and even a pretty good city’s residents deserve art that encourages them to dream in something other than Technicolor.