More than just a stage

Alabama Living Magazine

A behind the scenes look at the magic as ASF brings plays to life

By Emmett Burnett

Lights dim, curtains rise, on with the show. “Macbeth” is underway at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The play, performed in February, is popular at Montgomery’s 250-acre campus. But another show is also in progress: the quest to bring “Macbeth” to stage, or as Shakespeare ponders, “to be or not to be.”

Actually, “to be or not to be” is from “Hamlet,” not “Macbeth”, but you get the idea. What you may not get is the work involved before the event. Most outside the theater industry rarely see the preparation required for a Broadway-like experience, until now.

ASF’s skilled professionals granted backstage permission to behold the magic in a $21.6 million theater complex referred to as “The Crown Jewel of Alabama.”

“The facility opened in 1985 specifically for the theater,” says Layne Holley, director of marketing and communications, as we navigate corridors leading through workshops, costume departments, and prop rooms. “Our workers are from all over the country and very skilled in what they do.” The sounds of power tools underscore her comments.

As we pace through interwoven rooms, electric saws scream. Wooden structures are hammered in place. Assembling, drilling, painting, and more punctuate every corner. A construction site rises from organized chaos.

Throughout the building, artisans practice their crafts, producing costumes, props, and scenery. Paul Haesemeyer is one such person, assembling Lady Macbeth and company’s wardrobes.

Haesemeyer and others dress everyone in the show from royalty to witches. “An audience’s first impression of a character is the costume being worn,” Haesemeyer notes. “As soon as these garments go on the actors, they become the characters.”

While inspecting Lady Macbeth’s banquet gown, Haesemeyer adds, “The designer tells us what the character is doing while wearing a certain costume. Is the character turning cartwheels? Running? Standing? Killing somebody? We make the costume accordingly.”

Working in the costume department, Paul Haesemeyer inspects Lady Macbeth’s banquet dress. Photo by Emmett Burnett

Displaying Lady Macbeth’s gown, he adds, “She’s only going to wear this for a short banquet scene. But it’s a glorious scene!”

Haesemeyer and company take input from both the clothing designers and actors wearing the garment. “That gown is stunning,” says actress Meghan Andrews, referring to the banquet dress. “It just lights up the stage.”

Andrews, who portrays Lady Macbeth, credits the costumers and other ASF workers. “They are at the top of their game.”

Building sets from the ground up

Taylor Broyles is the technical director. “I oversee everything in the scene and everything put on stage to make sure it works and does what the designers want,” he explains. “Our crews build everything for the stage – houses, cars, boats, trees, everything.”

They are experts in carpentry, metal fabrication, construction, and more. “You name it; we build it,” Broyles says.

When asked for an example of a difficult set his crews assembled, without hesitation, Broyles replies, “‘Sherlock Holmes.’ It had a turntable with five fully massive sets to hook on and spin to the audience. It was a nightmare to build, but a hit show, so worth it.”

As construction pieces are assembled, experts add color. “We do the painting and sculpting,” says scenic charge Julie Barnhardt. “We mix and formulate paint for just the right color on stage.” Her crew gives the set detail, texture, and realism.

She is a master of method and colors, blended to make surfaces appear aged, worn, pretty, or pretty sinister. Barnhardt starts by interpreting the scenic designer’s technical drawings and paints, and/or sculpts, accordingly. “I present ideas back to the designers and hope they love it,” she laughs. “And we go from there.”

Some crafts hand their product off to the next department but most work simultaneously with other teams. One such team is overseen by Philip Hahn, master electrician.

“I work with lighting designers and make sure it ‘gets in the air,’ ” he says, from a manlift high above the stage, adjusting “instruments” (each light is an instrument). “A show can have 350 instruments, each has to be coordinated,” he says.

He also is responsible for “practicals” (any on-stage light source) and “atmospherics” – such as fog and haze.

“People don’t realize when an actor turns on a lamp or rings a doorbell, the actor is not really doing it,” notes Holley. “Someone else is. Philip wires the lamp to turn on or off from a switch off stage.”

Which brings us to another really cool part of Alabama’s theater – the prop shop. “We are the stuff people,” says prop master Shanley Aumiller, with a smile. “If it’s not a wall, floor, or costume, it is our stuff.” Their stuff requires much research.

If your play setting is 1947, everything on stage must be 1947 – including telephones, toasters, vehicles, weapons, and all. Props are obtained or built.

Tim Snider polishes axes and swords. Photo by Emmett Burnett

On this visit, prop assistant Tim Snider is polishing Macbeth’s axes and swords. Surprisingly the ancient weaponry – though make-believe – is metal and quite heavy, probably for the clanging effect in clashing sword fights.

“Sure the axes are metal! Plastic’s no fun!” laughs “Macbeth” actor Cordell Cole, who plays the character, Banquo. He explained fight scenes as “a brutal dance. Each move is choreographed and practiced.”

Actors impressed

Typically, ASF role auditions are held in New York City, Los Angeles, or Atlanta. Actors’ contracts span 6 to 7 weeks and include lodging in Montgomery.

“When they (actors) first see this beautiful facility, their jaws drop,” says actress, Birmingham native, and former New Yorker Greta Lambert. She plays a witch in “Macbeth.” The actress notes, “new actors often tell me, ‘I did not expect this in Alabama.’” 

Most of the actors, including Lambert, who now lives in the Montgomery area, have worked all over the country in film and theater. They speak favorably about ASF. “The artisans’ shop, sound, and lighting, and all the crews are just top notch here,” Lambert says. “We are so lucky to have such professional artisans.”

Megan Cudd applies “blood” to a shirt worn by a character in “Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of ASF

On this January day, “Macbeth’s” sets, rehearsals, wiring, costuming, stage and more receive finishing touches. “Tech rehearsal” – when actors, orchestra, props, costumes, electrical, and other departments come together – is days away. Costumed actors rehearse lines and mark positions, as lighting, sound, and other effects are timed, marked, and practiced.

ASF’s crews are always looking ahead; this year’s offerings includeLittle Shop of Horrors,” “Freedom Rider,” “Until the Flood,” “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” and “American Mariachi.” Actors are auditioned, designs set to paper, and plans ready to proceed as the show must go on – some assembly required. 

To learn more about ASF, visit asf.net.

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