More than a stage: A behind-the-scenes look at the magic of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival

The lights are dim, the curtains are rising, on the show. “Macbeth” is performed at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The play, held in February, is popular on Montgomery’s 250-acre campus. But another show is also underway: the effort to bring “Macbeth” to the stage, or, as Shakespeare thinks, “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 may not get is the work involved before the event. Most outside the theater industry rarely see the preparation necessary for a Broadway-like experience.

ASF’s expert professionals gave permission backstage to see the magic at the $ 21.6 million theater complex.

“The facility opened in 1985 specifically for the theater,” said Layne Holley, director of marketing and communications, as we navigated the corridors leading to the workshops, costume department and prop room. “Our workers are from all over the country and are very good at what they do.” The sounds of power tools emphasize his comments.

As we walked through the patchwork rooms, electric saws screamed. Wooden structures were hammered into place. Assembly, drilling and painting take place at every turn. A construction site arose from organized chaos.

Working in the costume department, Paul Haesemeyer inspects Lady Macbeth’s banquet dress. (Emmett Burnett / Alabama Living)

Throughout the building, artisans practice their crafts, making costumes, props and scenes. Paul Haesemeyer was one such man, assembling Lady Macbeth and the company’s wardrobes.

Haesemeyer and others dress up everyone in the show, from royalty to witches. “An audience’s first impression of a character is the attire being worn,” Haesemeyer said. “Once these costumes land on the actors, they will be the characters.”

While reviewing Lady Macbeth’s banquet gown, Haesemeyer added, “The designer told us what the character does while wearing a particular costume. Does the character turn into cartwheels? Running? Standing? Killing people? We make the costume accordingly. “

Showing Lady Macbeth’s gown, she added, “This is the only thing she will wear for a short banquet scene. But this is a glorious scene! ”

Haesemeyer and company draw input from costume designers and actors wearing costumes. “That gown was so beautiful,” said actress Meghan Andrews, referring to the banquet dress. “It just lights up the stage.”

Andrews, describing Lady Macbeth, thanked the customers and other ASF workers. “They’re at the top of their game.”

Building sets from scratch

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

They specialize in carpentry, metal making and construction. “Name it; we built it, ”Broyles said.

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

As the construction pieces are developed, experts add color. “We do painting and sculpting,” said scenic charge Julie Barnhardt. “We’re mixing and forming paint for the right color on stage.” His staff provides fixed detail, texture and realism.

Tim Snider polished axes and swords. (Emmett Burnett / Alabama Living)

She is an expert in technique and colors, mixing so that surfaces appear old, tired, beautiful – or a bit bad. Barnhardt begins by interpreting the beautiful designer’s technical drawings, and paints, and/or sculptures, accordingly. “I show ideas back to designers and hope they like it,” he laughs. “And let’s get out of there.”

Some crafts give their product to the next department, but most work simultaneously with other teams. One such team was supervised by Philip Hahn, master electrician.

“I work with lighting designers and I make sure it‘ goes in the air, ’” he says, from a man rising above the stage, arranging “instruments” (each light is an instrument) . “A show can have 350 instruments; everyone needs to be coordinated, ”he says.

He is also responsible for “practicalities” (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 isn’t really doing it,” Holley said. “There are others. Philip wires the lamp to turn on or off the switch outside the stage. “

Which brings us to another really cool part of the theater – the prop shop. “We’re the human stuff,” prop master Shanley Aumiller said, with a smile. “If it’s not a wall, floor or costume, it’s what we use.” Their objects require a lot of research.

If your playing setting is 1947, everything on stage should be 1947 – including phones, toasters, cars, weapons and all. Props are acquired or assembled.

During this visit, prop assistant Tim Snider sharpens Macbeth’s axes and swords. Surprisingly, the ancient weapon – even believed – was metal and relatively heavy, perhaps for the clanging effect in conflicting sword battles.

Megan Cudd applied “blood” to a shirt worn by a character in “Macbeth.” (Alabama Shakespeare Festival)

“Of course, the axes are metal! Plastic is not fun!” laughs “Macbeth” actor Cordell Cole, who plays the character Banquo.He describes the battle scenes as “a brutal dance. Every move is choreographed and rehearsed. ”

The artists were impressed

Typically, ASF role auditions are held in New York City, Los Angeles or Atlanta. The actors ’contracts last six to seven weeks and include lodging in Montgomery.

“When they (actors) first saw this beautiful facility, their jaws were dropping,” said actress, Birmingham native and former New Yorker Greta Lambert. She plays a witch in “Macbeth.” The actress said, “New actors often tell me, ‘I didn’t expect this in Alabama.'”

Most of the actors, including Lambert, who now lives in the Montgomery area, have worked nationwide in film and theater. They favor talking about ASF. “The artisan store, sound and lighting, and all the crew are just ahead of it,” Lambert said. “We are very fortunate to have such professional artisans.”

On this day, “Macbeth’s” set, rehearsals, wiring, costumes and stage will receive finishing touches. “Tech rehearsals” – when actors, orchestras, props, costumes, electrical and other departments come together – are just a few days away. Costumed actors rehearse lines and mark positions, while lighting, sound and other effects are timed, marked and produced.

ASF personnel are always looking ahead; Included in this year’s offeringsLittle Shop of Horrors, ”“ Freedom Rider, ”“ Until the Flood, ”“ The Marvelous Wonderettes ”and“ American Mariachi. ”The actors auditioned, the designs were set on paper and the plans were ready The show should go on – some meetings are needed.

To learn more about ASF, visit

This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.

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