More than just a stage: A behind-the-scenes look at the magic of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival
The lights go out, the curtains go up, it’s time for the show. “Macbeth” is underway at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The play, performed in February, is popular on the 250-acre Montgomery campus. But another spectacle is also underway: the quest to bring “Macbeth” to the stage, or, as Shakespeare puts it, “to be or not to be.”
Actually “to be or not to be” comes from “Hamlet”, not “Macbeth”, but you get the idea. What you can’t get is the work needed before the event. Most people outside of the theater industry rarely see the preparation required for a Broadway-like experience.
ASF’s trained professionals allowed backstage to gaze upon the magic of the $21.6 million theater complex.
“The facility opened in 1985 specifically for theatre,” explains Layne Holley, director of marketing and communications, as we navigate the hallways leading to workshops, costume departments and prop rooms. “Our workers come from all over the country and are very skilled at what they do.” The sounds of power tools underscore his comments.
As we pace the interlocking rooms, electric saws howl. Wooden structures are hammered into place. Assembly, drilling and painting are ongoing at every turn. A construction site is born out of organized chaos.
Throughout the building, artisans ply their trade, making costumes, props and sets. Paul Haesemeyer is one such person, assembling the cabinets for Lady Macbeth and the company.
Haesemeyer and others dress everyone in the show, from royalty to witches. “An audience’s first impression of a character is the costume worn,” notes Haesemeyer. “As soon as these clothes go on the actors, they become the characters.”
While inspecting Lady Macbeth’s banquet dress, Haesemeyer adds, “The designer tells us what the character is doing while wearing a certain costume. Does the character cartwheel? Working? Standing? Kill someone? We make the costume accordingly.
Showing Lady Macbeth’s dress, he adds: “She will only wear this for a short banquet scene. But it is a glorious scene!
Haesemeyer and company consider both the clothing designers and the actors wearing the garment. “This dress is gorgeous,” actress Meghan Andrews says, referring to the banquet dress. “It just lights up the scene.”
Andrews, who plays Lady Macbeth, gives credit to customers and other ASF workers. “They are at the top of their game.”
Building sets from scratch
Taylor Broyles is the technical director. “I oversee everything in the scene and everything that’s staged to make sure it works and does what the designers want,” he explains. “Our crews build everything for the scene – houses, cars, boats, trees, everything.”
They are experts in carpentry, boilermaking and construction. “You name it; we build it,” Broyles says.
When asked for an example of a tough set his teams put together, without hesitation, Broyles replies, “’Sherlock Holmes.’ There was a turntable with five fully massive sets to hang and spin towards the audience. It was a nightmare to build, but a hit show, so worth it.
As the building pieces are put together, the experts add color. “We paint and sculpt,” explains Julie Barnhardt, stage manager. “We mix and formulate paint to get the right color on stage.” His crew gives the set detail, texture and realism.
She is a master of method and color, blending to make surfaces look aged, worn, pretty or quite sinister. Barnhardt begins by interpreting the set designer’s technical drawings, then paints and/or sculpts accordingly. “I pitch ideas to designers and hope they love it,” she laughs. “And we go from there.”
Some artisans entrust their product to the next department, but most work simultaneously with other teams. One of these teams is supervised by Philip Hahn, master electrician.
“I work with lighting designers and make sure it ‘goes into the air’,” he says, from a man soaring above the stage, adjusting “instruments” (each light is an instrument). “A show can have 350 instruments; everyone has to be coordinated,” he says.
It is also responsible for “practices” (any light source on stage) and “atmospheres” – such as fog and haze.
“People don’t realize that when an actor turns on a light or rings a doorbell, the actor isn’t really doing it,” Holley notes. “Someone else is. Philip wires the lamp to turn on or off from an offstage switch.”
Which brings us to another really cool part of the theater – the prop shop. “We’re the stuff people,” says prop master Shanley Aumiller, with a smile. “If it’s not a wall or a floor or a costume, it’s our thing.” Their cases require a lot of research.
If your game setting is 1947, everything on stage should be 1947 – including phones, toasters, vehicles, weapons and everything. Props are obtained or constructed.
During this visit, prop guy Tim Snider polishes Macbeth’s axes and swords. Surprisingly, the ancient weapons – although fictional – are metal and quite heavy, presumably for the rattling effect in sword fights.
“Of course, the axes are made of metal! Plastic is no fun!” laughs “Macbeth” actor Cordell Cole, who plays the character Banquo. He explained the fight scenes as “a brutal dance. Every move is choreographed and practiced.
Typically, ASF role auditions take place in New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta. Actor contracts run for six to seven weeks and include lodging in Montgomery.
“When they (the actors) first see this magnificent installation, they are left speechless,” says the actress, Birmingham native and former New Yorker Greta Lambert. She plays a witch in “Macbeth”. The actress notes, “New actors often tell me, ‘I didn’t expect that in Alabama.'”
Most of the actors, including Lambert, who now lives in the Montgomery area, have worked across the country in film and theater. They speak favorably of ASF. “The craftsmen’s shop, the sound and lighting, and all the crews are just great here,” says Lambert. “We are so lucky to have such professional craftsmen.”
On this day, the sets, rehearsals, cabling, costumes and stage of “Macbeth” receive the final touches. “Technical rehearsal” — when the cast, orchestra, props, costumes, electrical and other departments get together — is days away. Costumed actors rehearse lines and mark positions, while lighting, sound, and other effects are timed, marked, and practiced.
ASF teams are always looking to the future; this year’s offerings include “Little Shop of Horrors”, “Freedom Rider”, “Until the Flood”, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and “American Mariachi”. The actors are auditioned, the drawings put on paper and the plans ready to be executed. The show must go on – some assembly required.
To learn more about ASF, visit asf.net.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.