The morning of May 12, 2013 — Mother’s Day — my new play, Alabama Story, was seen in a staged reading at the Octagon Stage, a 200-seat thrust space at Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s amazing complex in Montgomery, AL. The presentation was the fourth of four new works read there between May 10-12 in ASF’s Southern Writers’ Project Festival of New Plays, devoted to works by Southern dramatists or works touching on stories and themes relevant to the South.
I was born in Philadelphia, raised in suburban Detroit and I now live in New York City, so I’m no Southerner, but I fell in love with the characters, tensions and world of a true story set in 1959 Montgomery, so here I was, a few miles from the very locations where the play is set, at the invitation of SWP director/ASF associate director Nancy Rominger and ASF producing artistic director Geoffrey Sherman.
Karen Azenberg, my gifted friend and colleague who directed developmental presentations of my musical Voice of the City in New York and Ohio, was my director of choice, and she was invited down to direct the reading; it helped that she had a prior relationship with ASF, where she has directed and choreographed. (Karen is artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, UT.) Nancy thoughtfully and sensitively cast the piece drawing ASF’s spring repertory company, including Seth Andrew Bridges, Michelle Shupe, Anthony Marble and bawn ‘n’ bred Alabamian Rodney Clark, plus guest artists Esau Pritchett and Merideth Kaye Clark, who have both worked at ASF in the past. Whitney Keeter was our stage manager, Robert Neblett the dramaturg, Tom Rodman did lights, Chris Pappas was our reader.
The short report is: I was so lucky to have such gifted people in support of my work. Southern Writers’ Project is a great place to grow dramatists. I return home with a better play than I came in with. Wasn’t that the point? Over the five-day rehearsal process, there was a lot of late-night writing, inserted new pages, cut lines (about 25 minutes was trimmed) and new approaches to characters (one very generic character became very specific). I knew from my work as a journalist that I could write on deadline, but I learned at SWP that I could be a dramatist on deadline.
The most gratifying part of SWP might have been the feedback I received from some of the older native Southern theatergoers who attended. They told me that I had captured the details, colors, contradictions and tensions of the segregated South of their youth; it was also gratifying to see people with tears in their eyes giving the cast a standing ovation. Alabama Story succeeded on the local level. I now need to make sure it will play to a universal audience, keep sharpening the storytelling. I left Montgomery with notes for further rewrites, and a great feeling of encouragement. As they say in Alabama, I was in high cotton.
At left, the final rehearsal on May 10. In foreground at table, L-R, director Karen Azenberg & Kenneth Jones. On stage at music stands, L-R, Esau Pritchett, Merideth Kaye Clark, Rodney Clark, Anthony Marble, Seth Andrew Bridges, Michelle Shupe.
The 2013 SWP Festival of New Plays also included readings of Michael Vigilant & Gerry Castle’s musical The Wedding Ring; James Bowen’s play Deconstruction Part One: No Mercy; and Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s Provenance.