Tag Archives: Alabama Shakespeare Festival

Gatherings – Part 2: Montgomery … and some birds

Saturday – Montgomery

Court Square Fountain, Montgomery

My main purpose for going to Montgomery is to see a matinee at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, but I get there in plenty of time to hang out in Blount Cultural Park, the 175-acre sprawling English-style park that is home to Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

I lived in Montgomery for three years when I worked at Alabama Shakespeare Festival and my apartment was on property that adjoined the Park. On days when I didn’t need to use my car, I could walk from my front door to my office in less than five minutes. A jasmine-covered arch marked the entrance to the parkland from my apartment complex and the moment of entering the park never got old. It’s still a special moment when the winding road through the park rounds a curve and you get your first view of the theatre across the lake.

New York Office (1962); Edward Hopper

Man, Woman; Bill Traylor

I have time to head to the museum and its eclectic collection of treasures. When I worked at ASF, the museum was a favorite place to go for a relaxing lunch or a quick break. The museum is larger now, and there is a significant sculpture garden. The collection is a somewhat quirky combination of American art of the 18th-21st centuries with a strong dose of vernacular art. One of my favorite Edward Hopper works, New York Office, is there, along with works by Montgomery artist Bill Traylor. Born into slavery, Traylor started making art works in 1939 when he was in his eighties and completed around 1500 works for ten years until his death in 1949.

Sunset Landscape (1899); Charles Warren Eaton

Sunset Landscape by Charles Warren Eaton reminded me of Hwy. 82 and I am always drawn to Christenberry’s Providence Church sculpture. I also like to pay homage to Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, an artist, Montgomery native, and F. Scott’s wife, whose artwork is usually on view. It was missing on this trip, waiting to be re-hung for an upcoming exhibition. I always asked friends visiting Montgomery, “What other museum can you visit to see paintings by Zelda Fitzgerald?”

Providence Church (1976); William Christenberry


I could have lingered longer at the museum but it was time to take the short drive across the park to the theatre and the real purpose for being back in Montgomery. In the museum parking lot, I heard the cheerful song of a mockingbird. Moving toward the sound, I found the soloist perched in a tree; as I moved closer, the bird paid me no mind, just joyful in the day.

I’ve lost track of how many years it has been since I was last at Alabama Shakespeare Festival to see a show, but it still felt familiar. When I was there, it was still a classically-based, Shakespeare-heavy theatre. There was a true repertory season that extended well into the summer, a brilliant resident company of actors, and a thriving graduate acting program affiliated with the University of Alabama. I had friends from near and far who would travel to Montgomery annually to spend a weekend seeing up to six plays in rep. I’m not sure we truly valued what we had back then. Over the years, Shakespeare titles are less abundant and the season is greatly reduced, but we’re fortunate it’s still there.

Alabama Shakespeare Festival

From the parking lot, I have to duck in to the Shakespeare Garden before going to the box office to pick up the ticket. The Shakespeare Garden is next to the theatre – a bucolic place with an intimate amphitheatre, featuring plants mentioned in the writing of Shakespeare. I would often take a respite in the garden during my time at ASF. A large statue of Puck is tucked away at the top of terraced levels for seating.

Outside the box office, a lone duck has decided to swim around a small fountain. People take out their cameras to photograph him. Occasionally, he steps up to the edge and quacks at bystanders. This is my place! he seems to say.

I stop for a moment to watch the audience assemble – another gathering. When I lived in this neighborhood, I would often come to the park an hour or so before a performance to watch the cars begin to arrive and the people eagerly go through the doors of the theatre. Like the night before in Tuscaloosa, this gathering takes on a new resonance.

Wandering through the lavish lobby, I catch site of the open door of the Patron’s Room at the far end. It is almost time for ASF’s resident dramaturg Susan Willis to give a fifteen-minute talk about the play we are about to see. The room is full. It’s good to see that Dr. Willis is still giving the talks. She was already there when I came to the theatre years ago; I’ve learned a lot from those talks over the years.

Pre-show is over and, ultimately, the play’s the thing … And today’s play is The Tempest, Shakespeare’s final and farewell play (although Dr. Willis would fine tune and clarify that statement a bit).

I have seen several productions of this play in various places over the years, and have seen at least three different versions at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I am mainly here today because the actor Greta Lambert has announced her retirement from the theatre and is wrapping it up by playing the role of Prospero in The Tempest. Greta has been with ASF since its premiere production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Montgomery in 1985; she played Titania.

Over the years, Greta has gifted audiences with some of the most memorable performances of my life. She’s played most of the major Shakespeare women, along with Blanche DuBois, Hedda Gabler, Eliza Doolittle, Candida, The Glass Menagerie’s Amanda, and so many others. Coming full circle, she was Miranda to Philip Pleasants’s Prospero in a 1986 production of The Tempest.

Greta Lambert in Fair and Tender Ladies (2000)

But my most cherished role played by Greta Lambert was her performance as Ivy Rowe in Fair and Tender Ladies, a musical adaptation of the Lee Smith novel. In it, Ivy Rowe ages from a young girl to an old woman. The production Greta starred in was directed by Susan Willis. I had the good fortune to manage a tour of the show in the fall of 2000 and it was a thrill to watch audience’s response each performance. I had toured with shows in the past, but Fair and Tender Ladies is the one I never tired of.

Greta Lambert’s interpretation of Prospero was, of course, wonderful. She establishes an immediate connection with the audience and her presence on stage, even in scenes where she is just an observer, is mesmerizing. It always has been.

In Fair and Tender Ladies, after the audience has watched Ivy Rowe’s life unfold on the stage, there is the moment when the elderly Ivy Rowe slowly walks off the stage for the final time. On tour, I tried to never miss that moment and, after dozens of viewings, was always moved by it along with the audience seeing it for the first time. In The Tempest, Prospero’s final speeches took on another level of resonance in Greta’s delivery. Our revels now are ended …We are such stuff as dreams are made on …release me from my bands with the help of your good hands … Greta has announced her retirement from ASF, but not, necessarily, from the stage, so we may have future opportunities to see her act. But these moments seemed to signal the end of an era. I shall always remember them.

It’s hard to leave the theatre and I vow to come back more often. I linger in the park for a bit and finally leave, taking a drive through the grounds before turning toward town.


I was honestly not thrilled to move to Montgomery in 1999. I loved the theatre and mostly enjoyed my job there, but the city itself, despite its historical significance, had never seemed to have much to offer. By the time I moved away, in 2002, I had grown to appreciate the place more. Now, though, after a couple of decades of more progressive leadership, the city is enjoying a revival of sorts and what used to be a dead downtown, where I am going to spend the night, is teeming with activity when I pull in to the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel, my address for the night.

My room is across from the city’s Riverfront Park and historic Union Station along the Alabama River and I am eager to go for a walk and see what the city has to offer these days. I’ve stopped in town a few times for a quick meal or to check out Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, but this will be my first time to explore on foot since I lived here.

Blues music greets me when I start my walk and the statue of Hank Williams has been moved from its previous location to a more prominent site on Commerce Street. Lots of tourists wander the streets, lots of dining spots and bars are open, and I realize what a difference has occurred since the city began to embrace its Civil Rights legacy and has become a prime location for Civil Rights tourism.

The fountain at Court Square, at the bottom of Dexter Avenue, now has “Black Lives Matter” painted on the sidewalk around its base and a quiet statue of Rosa Parks waits patiently across the street. The state capitol building is at the top of Dexter, while Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was the pastor in 1955 during the bus boycott,  is just down to the right of the first capitol of the Confederacy. Montgomery has a complex and colorful history, to say the least, and this current embrace of the past somehow makes the city feel more forward-looking.

I’m liking Montgomery more and more. A memorable and imaginative dinner at Central Restaurant, a locally-owned and locally-sourced restaurant helmed by executive chef Jason McGarry on Coosa Street, is the appropriate topper for a pretty terrific day. A woman I met at the Hall of Fame dinner in Tuscaloosa gave it a glowing recommendation; she didn’t know that I already had a reservation. Her recommendation was spot-on and I’m glad that I sought this gem out.

There are lots of gems to discover in Montgomery these days, it seems. I head home the next morning determined to return for more. And determined to squeeze in more roadtrips.

Rosa Parks; Montgomery

September Song

My mental and emotional soundtracks tend to run toward the very seasonally suggestive. While George Winston’s December album never works for me beyond its titular month, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns lags after Labor Day.

September rolls around and it’s hard to ignore the imminence of Autumn. The last days of August were grey and partly gloomy as the eastern-most remnants of Hurricane Laura passed through northern Alabama; other storms followed in her wake. Fall college football season will be so depleted as to create anxiety and despair rather than jubilation; it’s hard to work up the usual enthusiasm for a Kentucky Derby on Labor Day weekend without crowds. Even so, I want Bob Baffert-trained horses to win.

Back in the early summer, four packets of flower seeds arrived in my mother’s mail with a charitable solicitation. They sat around for a bit and, one day, when I had the luxury of working in my yard, I popped them in four separate pots without great expectations.

Ultimately, most of the seeds have sprouted and grown with varying levels of success, but the only ones to bloom so far are the vivid blue forget-me-nots. The garden table and surrounding yard where they sit is laden now with leaves from the cherry tree in the neighbor’s yard. That tree is always the first to shed its leaves, but also among the first to herald spring a few months later.

Short days and cooler weather often have a negative effect on my mood, but a suggestive impact on my inner soundtrack. I will swear that yesterday, on the first morning of September, I woke up with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” running constantly through my head.

As I got more awake, “Try to Remember,” from the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt chamber musical The Fantasticks, began to dominate with its recurring motif of words that rhyme with September and other infectious internal rhyme and wordplay.

More fully awake, the tune that haunts me is Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” a song that, like all universal literature, morphs depending on the moment. Written in response to a parent’s death from cancer, it has dealt with the tragedy of 9/11 and war and the loss of life and dignity after Katrina.

My most visceral musical response to this particular September of 2020, however, is Rosanne Cash’s haunting duet with her father, Johnny, in her song “September When It Comes,” a plaintive song of memory, pain, and reconciliation. She sings:

Well first there’s summer, then I’ll let you in.
September when it comes.

These past six months have done a number on all of us. The pervasive pandemic and its still-indecisive outcomes and after-effects have worked on all of our nervous systems, regardless of our political affiliations. The fact that it has become political adds to the undeniable and needless tension and stress.

I have chosen to minimize my intake of “news” for a while. I need to step back and more judiciously protect the information I consume. I need to halter the despair.

The writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose contemplative essays often provide balm in times of stress, remarked on the over-saturation of media coverage in the aftermath of 9/11 almost nineteen years ago. He calls 9/11/2001 “that sudden Tuesday.” Could it ever be summarized more perfectly?

Reacting to the saturation of media coverage of that event, and to the fact that we Americans were re-playing the tragedy over and over on our screens, Klinkenborg wrote:

It’s hard to know, just yet, whether for each of us this witnessing has caused an erosion or a sedimentation, a stripping away of the skin or a callusing. But paradoxical as it may sound, to continue to bear witness, in conscience, it may be necessary to stop watching for a while, to turn off the television, to break what for some people has become a self-reinforcing circle of despair.

In those stoic days after 9/11, I was working at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery. Our theatre complex was located in a pastoral park, across the lake from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. A couple of days after “that sudden Tuesday,” I escaped to the Museum for a quiet lunch away from the news reports that permeated every space I encountered.

A group of older ladies was seated at a table near me. As I eavesdropped on their chatter, I discovered that they were from all over the country — stuck for a while at a hotel in Montgomery, waiting for the airports to open and for travel to resume. Periodically, during the conversations, I heard references to the tragedy that had left them all stranded for a moment in time. Mostly, however, I heard the resolute and determined voices of American women who were forced together in the most unlikely of circumstances and were making connections and “making do” until they were able to move on with their lives.  They were awaiting the break in the clouds that engulfed us.

Might that “circle of despair” be somehow broken in this current moment?

Raiding Big Orange Country

Knoxville. Tennessee. The Tennessee River officially begins at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers in Knoxville, Tennessee. It meanders past Knoxville down to Chattanooga, crosses into northeast Alabama, and makes a big curve through north Alabama’s “Tennessee Valley” – passing a couple of miles south of my house in Huntsville – before sweeping northwest through the Shoals, crossing the Natchez Trace, slipping out of Alabama, and passing back into Tennessee and then Kentucky, where it empties into the Mississippi at Paducah.

The Tennessee River is visible from my hotel room in downtown Knoxville on this, my first extended stay in the town.

In the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate and Alabama was still playing half of its home football games in Birmingham’s hallowed Legion Field, the Alabama–Tennessee game was still considered an important game. However, these were the days of Coach Bear Bryant at his peak and Alabama won each Tennessee game from 1971 through 1981.

I didn’t hold any particular animosity against the Tennessee Volunteers back then; they were just an annual rival that we always beat. However, at one of those Birmingham games, while leaving the stadium after another dominating Alabama victory, a rowdy gang of Tennessee fans began to curse and hurl oranges at anyone wearing crimson. These were the days when stadium security was less restrictive about what patrons might bring through the gates.

After being hit hard by a couple of oranges and narrowly dodging a couple more aimed at my head, I decided to never attend another Tennessee game and was confirmed in my opinion that the Tennessee shade of orange is the ugliest shade of orange. And I lost what little respect I might have had for the fans of University of Tennessee football. To quote the great scribe, Rick Bragg: “‘Rocky Top’, mah ass.”

That may be the reason that I have “swung by” Knoxville on occasion on the way to other places but have never entertained a desire to stop. When Knoxville was the site of the 1982 World’s Fair, I found the idea depressing, even when I heard that, by late-20th century World’s Fair standards, Knoxville’s did okay (I read somewhere that it made a $57 profit).

I don’t hold a grudge against the University of Tennessee; the bruises are long-gone. But I do have a very good memory …

So here I am in Knoxville, attending the 70th Anniversary edition of Southeastern Theatre Conference (www.setc.org). I have attended most SETC conventions since 1983, but this is my first time in Knoxville and I’m trying to reconcile myself to giving the place a fair shake. From my hotel window, I see the Tennessee River and the hazy visage of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance to the east.

The Sunsphere, a relic of that long-ago World’s Fair, is just a block down the way, hovering over the Knoxville Convention Center where I am spending a good part of each day. Over there a ways is Neyland Stadium and the Tennessee campus.

The rain that has plagued us for weeks now is back on my second full day in Knoxville, but there’s a promise of better weather ahead before a cold front and more rains move in on Sunday – just in time for my drive home.

Downtown Knoxville is below me and there is some good architecture I want to check out and maybe photograph if it ever stops raining. Biblical rains have plagued most of the South for a couple of weeks now and some Knox County schools have been closed most of this week due to flooding.

Most of my convention activities are related to my position on the editorial board of Southern Theatre, the organization’s quarterly magazine. However, I managed to see the exhibits and vendors in the exhibition hall and to catch some career-related workshops on acting and directing. A keynote speaker was Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, playwright, whom I met while she was a young playwright and I was on staff at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Wilder’s very personal and evocative presentation should be inspiration for anyone pursuing a career in the arts.

I was already familiar with Wilder’s impressive story-telling abilities and it was delightful to hear her account of her very theatrical and tongue-in-cheek debutante presentation in Mobile when she was presented to “society’ by the inimitable renaissance man Eugene Walter – one of my favorite characters. Wilder noted that most in the audience would have no idea who Eugene Walter was, but for those of us familiar with the man and his legend, she handed out another gem to add to the treasure trove.

My favorite takeaway from Wilder’s presentation was the advice to a young writer from her friend, playwright Larry Kramer, who said, “Writing is like throwing up; you’ve got to get it out now and clean it up later.”

After hours of editorial board meetings, keynote speakers, and workshops, the rain subsided by Friday evening and I had time to dash to the downtown Market Square for Knoxville’s monthly “First Friday” event. There was lots of bustle and live music along Market Square and Gay Street but I didn’t find many galleries, even after I asked for directions.

One gallery that I found, however, had a washboard band singing Leonard Cohen’s greatest earworm, “Hallelujah,” as I walked in and tried to gracefully get past the band for the art. At another gallery, reached by a very narrow stairway, I found an interesting art exhibit with a “Human Trafficking” theme. The art itself was intriguing and evocative, but I’m afraid I would not have picked up on a human trafficking theme without the artist statements and explanations which accompanied the art.

My greatest discovery of the night came in the form of a tip about the Oliver Hotel on Market Square (www.theoliverhotel.com). The Oliver is a central city boutique hotel in a 19th Century building that once served as a bakery. The hotel opened in 2011 but is a throwback to the days of traveling salesmen, train travel, and downtown hotels with all of the amenities. It exudes authentic character with two anchor restaurants. The upscale Oliver Royale is a cozy fine dining restaurant with an ambitious and local trending menu. My confit leg of rabbit was stunningly tender and juicy in a brothy mix of endive, bacon, Yukon gold mousseline, asparagus, cauliflower, and kale. The more casual Tupelo Honey Café anchors the other end of the Oliver.

If you walk past the hotel, there is a dark alley, worthy of fiction, with a red light next to an unmarked door with no exterior knob. If you are lucky enough to get the door opened, you are escorted to the line at the entrance to the Peter Kern Library, a cozy speakeasy that seats forty at a time. Once in the Library, with a fireplace and well-stocked bookshelves, you are handed a vintage hardcover book that contains a carefully curated menu of evocatively titled cocktails such as the Holly Golightly, Aeschylus, Brown Derby, Rosaline, and Vieux Carre. The Peter Kern Library is a convivial adventure that is well worth the wait required.

I would almost come back to Knoxville just to more fully experience the Oliver Hotel.

Since this is the weekend before Mardi Gras, Market Square is host to an event called “Mardi Growl,” a Mardi Gras-inspired parade and pet party to benefit the local Young Williams Animal Center. As I headed to Market Square for lunch, the pet party was still going strong with revelry-minded dogs dominating the area and tables outside the various eateries.

Just down and across the Square from the Oliver is The Tomato Head (www.thetomatohead.com), a casual and trendy dining spot that operates from early morning to late at night. “Food Gotta Cook / Don’t Come Out of a Can!” is the restaurant’s mantra displayed on the walls. The menu is full of vegetarian and vegan friendly options with a generous offering of meat dishes or add-ons. Pizzas, salads, sandwiches, and sides are served to a clientele which leans local and young. A pastry shelf is full of enticing cookies, cupcakes, and other sweet treats. My first meal at The Tomato Head was a business dinner but the menu was intriguing enough that I ate there twice.

A long-standing tradition of SETC is a closing night dinner with friends – the “Gang of Four,” I call them – Patty and Kitty, friends from graduate school, and Janet and Russell, whom I met at New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Mississippi. Patty and Kitty are now in Florida and Janet and Russell are in South Carolina. Close colleagues in the past, we only see each other once a year at SETC these days.

As the designated “foodie” of the group, it usually falls to me to choose the restaurant for these annual events. Since none of us had any experience with Knoxville, I was intimidated by this year’s challenge. After much research and menu-hopping, I settled on Café 4 in Market Square (www.4marketsquare.com/cafe4). Historically, Café 4 made its mark in Market Square before the area had developed its current cachet; it’s the OG, it seems, of Market Square eateries. Its dedication to a locally sourced menu is another appeal, as is its location in a landmark structure.

By the time we walked to Café 4, Tennessee had just defeated Kentucky handily in basketball and happy orange-wearing fans were abundant everywhere.

Although we had a reservation, there was a somewhat long wait to be seated. Café 4’s charm is immediately evident in ambience and character. Everybody at our table ordered Old Fashioneds and all but one ordered a steak. Everybody was pleased with the entrée and Russell followed his long-standing tradition of ordering a Brandy Alexander for everyone for dessert. Russell is a true gentleman and a Brandy Alexander is such a dignified ending to a lovely annual tradition among friends.

As I pack to leave on Sunday morning, the much anticipated rain is falling and temperatures will be dropping throughout the day. Knoxville has been a pleasant surprise, with friendly, helpful people and some interesting things to do. On my way out of town, I may swing by the University of Tennessee campus just to say I’ve seen it and to put old gripes to rest.