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Theater: See the South in stages

Courtesy Alabama Shakespeare Festival

You don’t have to go to New York or Los Angeles to find world-class theatrical performances. Great talent is all around, and you’ll find it taking the stage in cities and towns throughout the South.

In theaters around the region, actors from local areas and national theater hotspots gather to perform in comedies, musicals, dramas and other types of shows. Their venues range from intimate community spaces to elaborate, historic places that rival the most opulent playhouses in the country.

Some of these institutions have histories that are just as interesting as the shows they produce. In Abingdon, Va., the Barter Theatre began as a place for community members to trade foodstuffs for entertainment. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival began in a high school auditorium, and West Virginia Public Theatre got its start in a tent pitched in a hotel parking lot.

No matter where they came from, the South’s performing arts establishments provide a wealth of cultural and entertainment opportunities for groups. Visit one of these great theaters on your next trip, and you’ll find your travelers cheering for an encore.

Barter Theatre
Abingdon, Va.
Barter Theatre just celebrated its 77th year in Abingdon, making it one of the oldest professional regional theaters in the country. It got its start as an innovative enterprise during difficult economic times.

“Barter started out during the Depression and really set the tone by exchanging goods for services,” said Richard Rose, the theater’s producing artistic director. “Farmers in the region had food they couldn’t sell, so the theater started to exchange ham for ‘Hamlet.’ It was really after World War II that cash became the norm for shows at Barter.”

Today, the institution has grown to become a highly respected professional theater and is one of the nation’s top 10 employers of the Actors’ Equity union. The actors make up a 35-person resident company; additional actors from across the country join the company to put on 18 shows a year, with up to four shows in production at any one time.

The typical season includes classic American musicals such as “Annie” and “Beauty and the Beast,” along with other works that highlight the characters of the regions.

“We do a lot of regional work, and we develop a lot of Southern and Appalachian material,” Rose said. “Our method of theater emphasizes both the theatrical and the emotional, and captures stories. Our goal is really connection between the actor and the audience on the emotional level, as well as the storytelling.”

For 2011, Barter Theatre will feature a “Shaping America” series to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The series will feature a number of historical dramas, including “Civil War Voices,” which is based on diaries of people who witnessed the war.

Alabama Shakespeare Festival
Montgomery, Ala.
After starting in 1972 in a high school theater in the town of Aniston, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival has become much more than its name suggests.

“Our name is deceptive,” said Meg Lewis, the company’s director of marketing and communications. “We’re the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, but we perform a lot more than Shakespeare, and we perform nearly year round.”

The company got quite a boost when it caught the eye of an Alabama philanthropist, who built a $21.5 million theater for the festival in Montgomery 25 years ago. The state-of-the-art facility helps the group to stage fully professional productions with actors auditioned from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“We’re currently running ‘Peter Pan the Musical,’ and the scenery designer for that was the designer for the most recent Broadway production of the show,” Lewis said. “There are only a few theaters across the country that are able to do what we can do. It’s a show that you would pay well over $100 to see in New York, but your top price here is not over $50.”

The typical season for the festival starts in the fall and runs through midsummer. The current lineup includes “Moonlight and Magnolias,” “Julius Caesar” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” which will all run continually in repertory style. The blockbuster “Menopause the Musical” will cap off the summer.

One distinctive aspect of the festival is the continued focus on developing new work by regional playwrights.

“We have a new play program that focuses specifically on producing plays that have never been seen before and that focus on Southern culture, Southern life or the African-American experience,” Lewis said. “This year we’ll have stories of people who lived right here in Montgomery during the Civil War.”

Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts
Franklin, N.C.
Among the newest theatrical venues in the South is the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts, a gift from a private citizen of Franklin, N.C.

“We are financed by one individual,” said manager Scott Bass. “It’s been a dream for about 10 years to build a theater here and make Franklin a theater place. In about 2007, they started the project, hired someone to build the building, and we opened July 3, 2009, with the Oak Ridge Boys.”

The center’s staff has put together an ambitious schedule of more than 100 shows a year that includes touring Broadway productions, nationally known musical performers and a variety of classic and second-run movies. An in-house theater company of locals and volunteers from the area puts on a series of dramatic productions as well.

“We do about nine in-house plays and musicals,” Bass said. “This year, we’re doing ‘De-Lovely,’ which is a dinner show on the stage. We serve dinner on the stage, and the cast actually sings and performs the show around the people on the stage.”

The 2011 season will also feature “Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss,” “The Sound of Music,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Narnia,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Aladdin.”

Another favorite show is a stage version of “America’s Got Talent,” with a variety of performers and guest judges. The audience picks a winner at the end of each show.

West Virginia
Public Theatre

Morgantown, W.Va.
West Virginia Public Theatre came from humble beginnings before evolving into a full-scale Broadway musical company.

“We got started in a tent in 1985 in a parking lot at a resort,” said executive producer Ron Iannone. “The idea at the time was that I wanted to start a small cabaret musical theater, bringing in some headliners and writing some musical revues for them. We were in a tent that held about 300 people and was not air conditioned. We put up a couple of fans and sweated through a lot of shows.”

After four years in the tent, the company grew from musical revues to Broadway musicals and was invited to take up summer residence in the creative arts center at West Virginia University. Since then, some 900,000 visitors, among them 700 bus groups, have attended shows at West Virginia Public Theatre.

Today, the company puts on six to eight shows each summer at the Morgantown Events Center, with each show running for one week. The professional Equity actors join a group of local musicians to rehearse and perform the shows in quick sequence.

“We’re a traditional summer stock theater,” Iannone said. “We rehearse one week and then perform the following week. You’re seeing professional Broadway shows in the hills of West Virginia. We’re the only fully professional musical theater here.”

For next year, Iannone hopes to bring “Cats,” “Honky Tonk Angels,” “Chicago,” “Nunsense,” “Oliver” and “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” to the stage. These shows will be joined by an annual Christmas production that takes place each December.

Trustus Theatre
Columbia, S.C.
A summer scholarship in New York inspired Kay Thigpen and her husband to found the Trustus Theatre in Columbia in 1985. Although the shows have always been important, the company also emphasized the guest experience.

“One of the things that was important to us was the fact that theater could be an uncomfortable situation,” Thigpen said. “We wanted it to be as comfortable as possible, so we used easy chairs, like you would in your own home. Today that has changed a bit, but I think Trustus is the most comfortable theater you’ll ever visit in your life.”

The theater provides a year-round offering of musical comedies, focusing on offbeat productions such as “The Last Five Years” or “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.” Many of the cast members are students at or graduates of the nearby University of South Carolina, and the staff takes advantage of Columbia’s college-town talent to fill out the crew of musicians and technicians.

One of Thigpen’s proudest accomplishments is the establishment of the theater’s annual playwrights festival.

“It’s a brand new play every year that has never had a professional production,” she said. “We take a year for the playwright to work on it, and then the next summer, we give it its first professional production. The show runs at our theater for two weeks.”

Among notable alumni of the festival is playwright David Lindsay Abaire, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and several Tony nominations for his play “Rabbit Hole.”

Kentucky Repertory Theatre

Horse Cave, Ky.
Just outside of the Mammoth Cave area in south-central Kentucky, Horse Cave’s Kentucky Repertory Theatre was created in 1976 to meet the requests of the local community.

“From the beginning, a lot of the board members and staff went door to door before the theater opened and asked what people wanted to see,” said artistic director Robert Brock. “To their surprise, the answers they got were American classics, Shakespeare and Shaw. People wanted the good stuff, not fluff and musicals.”

So organizers created a theater company with Equity actors that would begin a tradition of performing challenging plays with high standards of quality. Throughout the years, organizers have brought in hundreds of actors, directors and technicians from across the country.

In 2010, the theater featured such ambitious works as “Crime and Punishment,” “Moonlight and Magnolias” and “An Evening With Mark Twain.”

Groups that visit the theater get not only high drama but also up-close experiences.

“Our theater is a converted warehouse building with a thrust stage that comes out into the audience,” Brock said. “The stage isn’t raised, so the audience is right there with the actors. It’s the greatest stage I’ve ever performed on. At times, you’re a foot away from the audience members, so it feels really intimate and close.”

The theater’s season runs from summer through the end of the year and typically features six or seven shows. The final show of the year is always a lighthearted Christmas production such as “A Christmas Story,” meant to help guests get in the holiday spirit.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.