Tag Archives: Southeastern Theatre Conference

The Drug Lord of Dauphin Street


Bienville Square; Mobile, AL

Mobile, AL. The annual Southeastern Theatre Conference convention (www.setc.org) is a rigorous event, typically drawing several thousand participants for auditions, meetings, workshops, and panels. Activities are scheduled from early morning to well past midnight and it can be exhausting. I have been regularly attending this event for thirty-five years now and, when I get home, a good bit of recovery is required.

SETC is held in a different city in the region each year; the 2018 version is in Mobile. It’s good to be in Mobile again. I travel to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay every year but don’t cross the bay into the city that often. Since my last visit four years ago, the place seems to have blossomed. There are fewer empty store fronts downtown and there seems to be more to do on a warm March week as the city’s vaunted azaleas are bursting forth wherever one looks. I am staying at the historic Battle House Hotel, part of and close to all of the convention events.

Battle House lobby; Mobile, AL

There are more dining options in downtown than in years past. To get a heightened feel for the geography of the place, I ate my first meal of the trip at Dauphin’s (www.godauphins.com), a fine-dining restaurant on the 34th floor of the RSA Trustmark building. It’s a beautiful dining spot with floor to ceiling windows revealing sweeping views of the riverfront, the city, and the bay.


Church Street Grave Yard; Mobile, AL

On a break between meetings on Friday, I strolled down Government Street to the Church Street Grave Yard to visit the final resting place of two particular Mobile legends – Joe Cain (1832-1904), who re-established Mobile’s Mardi Gras after the Civil War; and Eugene Walter (1921-1998), the author/editor, food expert, actor, and raconteur whose influence spans continents.

Joe Cain and his wife, Elizabeth, lie beneath a stone that declares “Old Joe Cain” as the “heart and soul of Mardi Gras in Mobile.” Eugene Walter’s stone, adorned with his fanciful drawings and one of his many “monkey poems,” declares “Born in the land of lizard fever / in sweet lunacy’s county seat / this untidy pilgrim of the world / lived by the credo: When all else fails / throw a party.”

After paying my respects, I dashed over to Dauphin Street to eat at the original Wintzell’s Oyster House (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com). After a quick lunch, heading along Dauphin Street to the convention, a guy stepped toward me on the sidewalk and informed me that I looked “like a Colombian drug lord.”

I stopped and said “Excuse me?” and realized I had heard right the first time. I was wearing a pair of khakis, a dress shirt (tucked in), and a black blazer at the time. And aviator sunglasses. Hardly a drug lord look, I think. In fact, this is essentially how I dress for work most days. The specificity of the random comment is what startled me.

When the guy saw my startled look, he began to laugh, apologized, and said, “I just had to tell you that!”

Which begs the question Why? Why did you have to tell me that? 

I continued on my way, but detoured to the hotel to change clothes before making my way back to the convention’s keynote speaker.

Later, after a long editorial board meeting for Southern Theatre magazine, I remembered that I had been seeing signs for the LoDa Art Walk, a monthly event on the second Friday of the month on and around Dauphin Street. In lieu of scoping out a place for dinner, I decided I’d walk Dauphin and take in some art galleries. Eight galleries were participating and a dozen other venues were offering live music, art on display, and other walk-related offerings.

Part of the street was closed to motor vehicles and a sizable crowd made the rounds of the event on a pleasant pre-Spring evening. Celtic musicians played in Cathedral Square in front of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Jigs and reels were danced at the pre-St. Patrick’s Day event as giant puppets glided soundlessly past and down the street.

Inside the cathedral, baritone Xavier Johnson, accompanied by pianist Clinton Doolittle, performed a short program that ranged from the spirituals “Fix me, Jesus” and “By an’ by,” through Bellini’s “Vanne, o rosa fortunata,” ending with Cole Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster” with its memorable final lyric, “For I’ve had a taste of society / And society’s had a taste of me.”

Across the square, Alabama Contemporary Art Center (www.alabamacontemporary.org) presented a beautifully curated exhibition, “Back to Havana,” featuring fifteen contemporary Cuban artists. The Alabama Contemporary space is deceptively spacious and the various galleries surprised with visual stimulation at each turn. Baseball is an almost predictable recurring motif through the exhibit and it was intriguing to see the evocative ways Cuban artists were incorporating the symbolism and iconography of “America’s pastime.”

“Back to Havana”; Alabama Contemporary Art Center

A meandering line was filling the narrow hallway at a Mobile Arts Council (www.mobilearts.org) gallery space, viewing a group of sometimes dazzling miniatures in a national exhibit from the Spanish Moss Miniature Society. Works by Melissa and Richard Diegan, paintings of precious stones by Kristen Dunreath Harris, and the slightly disturbing “humanimals” of Joseph Smith completed the Arts Council exhibits.

Farther down Dauphin, at Cathedral Square Gallery (www.cathedralsquaregallery.org), a substantial stable of artists’ works was on display. Live music was presented by Bayou Rhythm, a quirky band playing classic and unexpected ditties, keeping the crowd moving and tapping its feet with brass and percussion, raucous vocals, and a washboard in tow.

Bayou Rhythm; Mobile, AL

Finally, I headed over to St. Louis Street to The Cheese Cottage (www.thecheesecottagellc.com), a really special newly opened cheese and wine shop with café. Located in an old gas station, the tiny shop has an old Pure oil sign in the front and a cozy dining pavilion adjoining the structure. I ordered a pimento goat cheese sandwich that was truly spectacular. The Cheese Cottage is clearly a project of entrepreneurial passion and heart. It was a perfect way to end a Friday night exploration of Dauphin Street.

The Cheese Cottage; Mobile, AL

Saturday is the final full day of the convention and I managed to take in workshops on vocal technique to share with my students.

Tonight, I will be joining my friends Janet, Kitty, Patty, and Russell for what has become our own SETC tradition – a relaxing dinner away from the hubbub of the convention’s closing night banquet and dance party. We all agree that the Saturday night dinner has become the part of the convention we most look forward to. It is a good way to relax, catch up, and prepare for the drives home tomorrow and the work week ahead.

Since we’re in Mobile, we’ll travel across the bay to Fairhope and Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), one of several of my Baldwin County favorites.

Another successful (and grueling) SETC convention is soon to be history.



Discovering Lexington and The Village Idiot

  LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY. I am an erstwhile horse racing fan, meaning that I follow the Triple Crown and check in on news about Bob Baffert, my favorite trainer, a few times a year. So I was intrigued to pass Man o’ War Boulevard and Keeneland Race Track as I drove into Lexington, Kentucky, for the first time.

Since 1983 I have regularly attended the annual Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) convention in early March. Several thousand students, academics, professionals, amateurs, beleaguered supportive parents, and a little bit of everything else one can find in the theatre and media converge on a conference center and spend five days jamming elevators, food courts, and hotel bars and restaurants as they audition, exhibit, network, perform, and choose from hundreds of panels and workshops.

SETC is the largest theatre conference in the United States. I was pretty fresh and young when I started attending, first as a stage manager for a community theatre production in competition, then as a job hunter, and later as a director and casting associate at the three days of actor “cattle call” auditions. Now, I go as an educator and a member of the Southern Theatre magazine editorial board.

It’s inspiring and invigorating in the first hours but by the time I attended a Friday afternoon editorial meeting there was a delayed response in the room and the sense of overload was palpable on most of the participants. SETC sessions start early in the morning and go until after midnight so it is perhaps a younger person’s game more that it’s mine. Still, I press on, up and down the escalators, past the horse-inspired fountain.

Most of my Kentucky sojourns focus on Louisville so it’s good to check out a new part of the state. The conference begins to wind down by Saturday afternoon so I usually set aside some Saturday time for unwinding and exploration of my own. I arrived in Lexington after a cold front passed through on Wednesday and my Saturday morning post-breakfast walk was a chilly and brisk one. By Saturday afternoon things had warmed up nicely, though.

Among the Victorian buildings comprising an area called “The Square” across from the conference center is the visitors center proclaiming Lexington the “Horse Capital of the World.” And, of course, University of Kentucky blue is everywhere. I can see two houses with connections to Mary Todd Lincoln and her family from my hotel room – one of them is next door to Rupp Arena. And I have caught myself humming “My Old Kentucky Home” more than once.

From my hotel window, I spotted a pedestal with a statue atop it. I ventured down Main Street to find that the mystery man on the 120-foot pedestal is “The Great Compromiser” and 19th Century statesman Henry Clay. He and his wife, Lucretia Hart, lie beneath the imposing monument in the dignified old Lexington Cemetery.

Because of the demands of the conference, many meals are grabbed on the run. A few years ago, however, my friends Janet and Russell and I started meeting for a relaxing dinner on Saturday night of the conference. I have known them since I lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and we always have a lot of catching up to do. More recently, my friends Kitty and Patty – both of whom go back to my graduate school years in Tuscaloosa – joined the crew.

Since I don’t know Lexington I decided to do a web search of dining near the hotels. I kept coming back to a place called The Village Idiot, which sounded ideal, with a varied and interesting menu to please a variety of tastes. I made a reservation and was a little nervous since it was my first time to book a restaurant for this group before checking it out in advance.

Not to worry. The Village Idiot is a new-ish gastropub in a circa 1825 former post office building. It is a three and a half story structure divided into several cozy bars and dining rooms. The menu is locally sourced and adventuresome and our party was pleased with every bite – starting with a shared artisan cheese plate.

I launched my main meal with a most generous dried fig and country ham “side salad.” Most of us had the New York strip but there was a very tempting pulled pork mac and cheese entrée. I thought seriously about ordering duck and waffles, The Village Idiot’s response to the chicken and waffle entrée that is ubiquitous on Lexington menus.  We finished feasting with a huge bourbon-sauced bread pudding with five spoons so we could share.

“The Purge,” a house drink combining Buffalo Trace, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, ginger, and lemon was another popular hit at our table.

Head Chef Jason Richey and Chef de Cuisine Eric Angelo have their fingers on a fine balance of taste, variety, freshness, and style. Jeff, our waiter, was knowledgeable, charming, attentive, and eager to share with us “theatre folk” his theatre experiences back in high school.

I was relieved by the end of the dinner when our group declared The Village Idiot a great choice. After an exhausting conference, The Village Idiot was both invigorating and relaxing. We made it an early night since we all had long drives the next morning.

SETC is in Mobile next year. Before the group went our separate ways, we agreed that next year’s Saturday evening dining will be at one of my favorites – The Wash House, across Mobile Bay in Point Clear.

I guess I have a few more conferences left in me before I’m put out to pasture..

Eating around Chattanooga

IMG_1202    Chattanooga, TN. My parents honeymooned in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the early 1950s. Knowing that from an early age has given me a sense of familiarity with Chattanooga that probably exceeds my actual knowledge and experience of the place.

When I was a very young elementary school student, I traveled with my parents from Birmingham to Chattanooga for a weekend getaway in the early ‘60s. We hit the highlights of the time which included Rock City, Ruby Falls, the Incline railway, and the Confederama.

The Confederama, unfortunately, fell victim to political correctness and now exists farther up Lookout Mountain, I hear, in an altered and watered-down form as “The Battles for Chattanooga Museum” in Point Park somewhere near Rock City. As I recall the Confederama from 50+ years ago, it was a relief diorama of the area around Chattanooga with lights and teeny soldier replicas illustrating the Civil War battles; as I recall, there was a distinct Confederate bias. I remember thrilling to the tiny red flashes of guns being fired as a somber recording gave the history lesson.

We are entering the last month of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, an anniversary that began in 2011. When I was an elementary school student in the early 1960s, the Civil War Centennial was ubiquitous. I have been saddened – but not surprised – that the nation has seemed hesitant to discuss that defining moment of our national history for the sesquicentennial. Perhaps right now it’s just too complicated to evaluate.

The annual Spring convention of Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) is the largest theatre convention in the United States. I have been attending it most years since 1983 with a few gaps here and there. Because of the logistical demands of the event, a few southeastern cities seem to be on the convention’s regular rotation and Chattanooga has been the most frequent host city of the event over the past decade.

I spent hours each day at the convention; this year my main obligations were presenting a paper and attending editorial board meetings for Southern Theatre magazine. I decided that in my rare off-time I wanted to check out the current new culinary offerings of Chattanooga, a town in perpetual transition.

Even though it was my plan to adventure into some new eateries, as it turned out I only dined at Chattanooga restaurants I had enjoyed on previous visits. My desire to return speaks well for the restaurants and the fact that each managed to surprise and delight me anew speaks volumes.

IMG_1217When I arrived in Chattanooga on Wednesday evening, I realized that I hadn’t eaten all day and wandered down Broad Street toward the aquarium and the river to check out the options. Among all of the options I remembered a good SETC meal several years back at Easy Bistro and Bar (www.easybistro.com) in a space that used to house “the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling plant.” It’s a lovely space and a good respite from the abundant tourists on the street in that tourist-driven part of town. The chef is New Orleans native Erik Niel and the menu is adventurous and ever-changing and reflects the influences of New Orleans adapted for the hills, rivers, lakes, and tastes of eastern Tennessee. I decided to try a couple of small plates and had Crispy Chicken Skins 3-Ways and a lovely and filling beet salad with feta and onions. Both dishes were creative, beautifully plated, and delicious.

Thursday was a busy day full of meetings – bitterly cold and windy with sleet and rain all day – and my dining plans were limited to grabbing quick snacks at the convention and hotel.

I presented my convention paper on Friday morning and had already planned to treat myself to lunch at Public House (www.publichousechattanooga.com), a Chattanooga eatery I discovered and loved in 2012. I ordered a couple of small plates at Public House three years ago and have such fond memories of a plate of fried chicken livers with grits and a plate of pimento cheese with fried pickles that I debated eating the same things all over again. But in the interest of expanding my knowledge of the Public House menu I opted for a vegetable plate so I could sample an assortment of dishes. I ordered perfectly prepared collard greens, cheesy mashed potatoes, and a rich mac and cheese combo.

IMG_1209Public House is located in a downtown development called Warehouse Row and is one of those places that emphasizes environmental consciousness and lists many of its local and specialty purveyors on the menu. The space is full of windows and the design is simple, warm, and inviting. Many items on the menu are traditional Southern favorites as mentioned earlier but the preparation and presentation is skilled and a meal there feels uptown and special. The pimento cheese is exceptional – a member of the wait staff told me they use the same recipe that I use (Miss Verba’s from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table cookbook) – and even though I didn’t order it this visit, I found it delightfully stuffed in an olive.

My server at Easy had strongly recommended the restaurant’s weekend brunch so I made a second trip to Easy and managed to get there in time for Saturday’s brunch after my last session at the convention. For brunch I had Easy’s version of Eggs Jonathan which was Eggs Benedict with fried oysters added. Once again, it was delicious.

Before heading back to the hotel, I wandered down to the riverfront close to the aquarium and up a hill past the Hunter Museum to the Bluff View Art District (www.bluffviewartdistrict.com) with its River Gallery Sculpture Garden overlooking the Tennessee River. IMG_1206  After a rigorous convention and the ice and snow of this past February, it seemed like a good portent of Spring approaching and was a relaxing brief escape. Chattanooga’s City Center is compact and very walkable but there is also a good free shuttle that travels between the aquarium and the Choo-Choo, the town’s old train station that is now a hotel.

Over the years, it has become traditional for me to meet with a group of friends for a stress-free meal on Saturday night of the SETC convention. This is after the papers have been presented, the workshops presented and attended, the auditions are ended, and the booths are struck. Six of us decided to congregate at Porter’s Steakhouse (www.porterssteakhouse.com) on the street level of The Read House, the historic downtown hotel where I was staying. Sometimes a traditional steakhouse with good company is the perfect way to relax and this Porter’s fit the bill entirely. We enjoyed an exuberant meal, excellent and very patient service, and an evening full of anecdotes and laughter. I go back three decades with some of the people in my dining party and there is always plenty to talk about and to catch up and reminisce about. And there are always plenty of things to laugh about. IMG_1214

A perusal of websites shows a wide range of opinions about Porter’s at The Read House but this is my second time to end a Chattanooga SETC there and I was totally pleased. My steak was cooked perfectly and everybody in my group had good comments about their meals. When we were all full, a dessert cart was rolled up and we decided to order one of everything and share. The perfect way to cap the evening was when Russell, a member of our group, revealed that he had ordered a Brandy Alexander for everybody at the table. This is the sort of classic establishment where you know that a Brandy Alexander will be done correctly and ours were.

Whenever I leave an SETC convention, I am utterly exhausted and feel a need to sleep for a few days. It’s a nice thought but work always starts again bright and early on Monday morning. IMG_1199

Note on artworks pictured: The sculpture overlooking the river is “Icarus” by Russell Whiting in the River Gallery Sculpture Garden. The end photo is “Roll Wave” by Christopher Fennell, on the riverfront near the aquarium. The lead photograph is the Hunter Museum of American Art.