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Highfalutin theater hits the sticks

Festivals in rural America are leading a rebirth in interest in Shakespeare

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In 1850, an anonymous correspondent for the magazine Literary World wrote an essay on "Shakspeare [sic] in America" that reminds us how culturally vibrant the American interior was in those days. It's easy but wrong to imagine that the hinterlands were populated entirely by grizzly bears, river pirates, and a few hardy pioneers, for, as the writer notes, "we have the plays of Shakspeare every night in scores of theatres in city and country, packet ships, halls, hotels, steamboats...."

Technology has put the packet ship out of business, since it's easier to send a message by e-mail than by boat. Progress hasn't always been a friend to culture.

After the Civil War, as historian David S. Reynolds observes in "Walt Whitman's America," consumers moved away from communal celebrations and began to enjoy culture in small groups or alone, a development heralding the eventual triumph in our day of the home entertainment center.

Yet 150 years later, Shakespeare is undergoing a rebirth in this country, thanks to dozens of well-entrenched festivals devoted to his work, as well as a new initiative by the National Endowment of the Arts. Paradoxically, the biggest name in literature once again finds himself most at home in smaller cities and towns.

The first of the modern Shakespeare festivals in the US was founded in Ashland, Ore., in 1935. Today there are dozens of permanent Shakespeare festivals in Arizona, Utah, Illinois, and elsewhere similar to the one I visited recently in Montgomery, Ala.

Founded in 1972, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival moved from Anniston to Montgomery in 1977 and is now located on a 266-acre cultural park that features a museum with paintings by Sargent, Hopper, and Rothko as well as the sculpture of local outsider artist Charlie "Tin Man" Lucas, who builds otherworldly creatures out of car shock absorbers.

The centerpiece of the park, though, is the theater where 12 to 14 plays are produced annually in the 750-seat auditorium or its more intimate 225-seat cousin. Here, on a given weekend, it's customary for three plays to be offered in repertory, typically a tragedy and a comedy by Shakespeare as well as a more modern work.


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