On December 7, 1985, the Carolyn Blount Theatre opened its doors
Published: December 23, 2020
This month marks Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s 35th anniversary in Montgomery. From its founding as a summer theatre festival in Anniston in 1972 to its designation as the State Theater of Alabama in 1977 to the stunning performing arts complex in Montgomery (built-in 1985), ASF has been a leader in the performing arts throughout the state, region, and country.
After several successful seasons in Anniston, ASF found itself facing ever-rising expenses — a circumstance directly tied to the performance season, which was limited to only four to six weeks. Philanthropist and businessman Wynton ‘Red’ Blount offered to financially support the company and build a $21.5 million state-of-the-art theater complex for year-round use — if ASF would relocate from Anniston to Montgomery. On December 7, 1985, Alabama Shakespeare Festival opened its doors in Montgomery with its luscious production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In attendance among Blount’s invited guests were theatre legend Olivia de Havilland, actor, and devoted theatre archivist Tony Randall, and statesman Casper Weinberger.
Blount’s establishment of ASF’s Montgomery home in the Carolyn Blount Theatre, located in Blount Cultural Park, was the largest single gift ever made to American theatre. “This incredible private investment, now the cultural crown jewel of the state, has transformed the cultural image of Alabama,” says ASF board chair Gordon G. Martin.
Last month, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival was awarded $5 million in grants for renovations and repairs. The money is a portion of the over $298 million Governor Kay Ivey awarded to 20 different Public School and College Authority (PSCA) projects across the state and is the largest gift to ASF since Blount’s initial investment in ASF, the community, and the state. “This money is for capital improvements, and since this building was built in 1985, as you can imagine, there are lots of things that need to be updated,” says ASF Executive Director Todd Schmidt. “We’re very grateful for this support. We look at ourselves as a great teaching institution as well as a great performing arts institution.”
“Alabama Shakespeare Festival is a foundational asset to Montgomery’s cultural and tourism industries,” says Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed. “However — and most importantly, ASF works to portray the diversity of lived experiences, not only those in Montgomery or Alabama but throughout the world. In doing so, this institution and its story will be a relevant and essential component in Montgomery’s narrative for decades to come.”
On its founding, Blount notes that “This theater has been a work of love for Carolyn and me. It is a privilege for both of us to give this theater to the people of the United States and to the generations of the future.” Dramaturg Dr. Susan Willis recalls her memory of “seeing Red and Carolyn Blount standing quietly in the main lobby watching busloads of school children fill the theatre for SchoolFest student-matinee performances.”
Because of their long partnership with education in the state, ASF has offered A Christmas Carol free to students in classrooms all over the state.
“Since our founding in Anniston in 1972, Alabama Shakespeare Festival has produced 491 plays and musicals, developed over 100 new scripts through the Southern Writers Festival, and completed the entire Shakespearean canon. The relocation to Montgomery in 1985 propelled the theater to national status and gave it the capacity to produce at a level unseen in the South,” says ASF Artistic Director Rick Dildine. “Today, the company is recognized as one of the jewels in American theatre, and our vision continues to be ambitious as we seek to build community with transformative theatrical performances and capture the human experience of Alabama, the South, and the nation.”
Since opening in Montgomery, ASF has shared the wonders of theatre with students and audience members from all over the world. While this year has been like no other, ASF remains dedicated to its mission of building community. Although the pandemic forced the closure of ASF’s physical spaces, it has inspired the development of creative programs and events that continue to deliver the arts to audiences in this age of social distancing, like the current streaming one-woman production of A Christmas Carol, starring Greta Lambert. Because of their long partnership with education in the state, ASF has offered A Christmas Carol free to students in classrooms all over the state.
Throughout its history, ASF has created a community among the many artists who’ve worked at the company, and it has garnered support and championship from leaders and influencers in the region and the state. Many of them have shared their reflections about their time with ASF and what it’s meant to them and their communities, which ASF is sharing at ASF.net/35. Here are just a few of those favorite
“In these 35 years, what ASF has done for me and thousands of others make us think, delight us with pageantry and humor, anger us as some of the realities of our world portrayed brilliantly on our stages, make us bellow with laughter, and reach for our Kleenex and hankies,” says ASF board member Father Manuel Williams.