Festival Season is Here! Storytelling for the Community
Amanda Shaw Gaby
Alabama Shakespeare Festival has given us more reason than ever to seek the theatre. “Romeo & Juliet” recently returned to the stage and is the first Shakespearean play directed by Rick Dildine since joining ASF. Named Artistic Director in August 2017, he’s being ‘shaking’ things up for all the right reasons. This year he courageously programmed a Festival Format with more shows than any season in ASF’s history, with variety and affordability to create a theatre experience for everyone.
RSVP Montgomery wanted to learn more about Festival Season, as well as the man brave enough to take risk with Montgomery’s cultural institution. We asked Rick about his journey to Alabama Shakespeare Festival and how he is shaping the future of our theatre experience. In speaking with him, it is obvious the heart of what he does is the heart of who he is.
Rick grew up the son of a farmer in a tiny little town in Arkansas. His mother noticed his desire to be part of the arts and found a way to take him to bigger cities to see shows. That exposure led him to pursue theatre training, where he eventually learned about theatre jobs. Rick shared, “I think like a lot of small towns, we had drop-in arts, a theatre company or art exhibition would come through. There was not a regular, everyday presence of the arts.”
As a young teenager he smartly took interest in multiple areas of performance including backstage, onstage, actor, director, writer, and marketing, which prepared him to be where he is today, running theatre companies.
“Theatre was always where I loved telling stories as a kid. And telling stories is such a communal experience and I think there is something very special about getting people in a room together and to share a story, whether it’s a story that we all know and love to hear over and over again and want to revisit, or maybe something new. That act of community is so important to me and I connected to that and finding there is a way to be artistic about it is even more exciting for me.”
Rick was heavily influenced by musicals and says that Shakespeare found him, without seeking Shakespeare, and the opportunities kept coming his way. The common link he finds is that Shakespeare and musicals are both very heightened. “It takes a lot to break out in song as a human being, but it also takes a lot to speak the way Shakespeare has written for actors to speak, so I was attracted to heightened stories.”
At the young age of 25, Rick was given the opportunity to serve as Theatre Director one summer in Kentucky. From there he’s worked in similar roles in Chicago, St. Louis, and Massachusetts, and joined ASF in August 2017. “I see myself as the caretaker of an institution where that community has said we want to have and we think it’s important to have it [theatre], so my job is about listening to a community. What are its hopes? What are its dreams? Once I’ve heard that, I begin bringing in the artists and shows that can speak to where that community is.”
Rick was especially interested to come to Alabama, not only for the well-respected theatre company operating at a high professional level, but he is personally passionate about this region. On being southern, he recalled a time of training where he was told he would never have a career with ‘that’ accent. Rick believes it is important to foster theatre in the south and proclaims his role “a perfect fit.”
He is equally passionate about Southerners creating work for other Southerners. “The ASF had unfortunately stepped away from its national profile and I saw it as an opportunity to bring it back to its national prominence. We are the largest theatre in the Deep South and it is a huge resource for this community. I saw it as an opportunity to get kids in here. To make it a community center. That attracted me. The quality is exceptional.”
He sees his role of programming in the same way a southern host plans a dinner party. He explains the importance of variety. “It’s like putting together a dinner party. You don’t just invite everybody over and put out a big table full of steak. You’ve got to take them on a journey that gives the salty and sweet, vegetables and fruit; a balanced meal which is a great experience. Your guests walk away enriched, inspired, and engaged.”
Rick easily transitioned to his role with ASF where the team was welcoming and eager to go in a new direction. Since programming begins about 18 months in advance, we are finally in his season. This allowed him to challenge the theatre to adopt a Festival Format where there is more than one thing going on in the building and people can experience all of it. Rick explained, “This decision was an exercise of leaning in; leaning in to be a festival, leaning artists toward more than one thing. For example, actors in Romeo and Juliet are also cast in Our Town.”
The Festival Format is the solution to Rick’s greatest challenge. “How do we fill 1000 seats a night in a city with 200,000 people? We are a very large theatre in a community that is not that big. A theatre of this size would be in a city of two million people.” His goal is to create a big enough buzz to attract crowds from a distance and build on being a destination theatre.
To determine which shows to include in the season, Rick created reading groups that included people from all parts of the organization. The readers were not all artists, represented every department, gender race, background, and age. This focus group allowed him to remain true to what is relevant to people in this community. Notably, half of the shows in this current repertory were chosen from the reading group.
This thoughtful listening and goal for inclusion is already proving successful. Ticket subscriptions have increased for new subscribers and shows are making their ticket goals. With shows like “Our Town,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Steel Magnolias” and “Into the Breeches,” - a story taking place in 1942 Montgomery - tickets are in demand.
Rick shared, “Spring is a big experiment to return to and it’s important that it succeeds, so whether you are an avid theatre goer or never come, just seeing one show makes a difference. It says this institution is important to the community and it’s important for folks to support. Us doing the repertory is us leaning back into telling the world that Montgomery is a place you want to come visit.”
Of his legacy to ASF, Rick replied, “Theatres are remembered for the stories they give the world. One of the things I am passionate about is that the south can rewrite assumptions. Through the power of telling stories, we can rewrite assumptions about the south, its people, culture, and the land here.” He is interested in fostering a new southern cannon of stories for another generation.
He concluded, “The south is layers that make up this region. I’m excited to explore those. Right now, people are interested in Alabama. The country is interested in what is going on here. Montgomery ASF has to lead.” To subscribe to the Festival or check listings, visit www.asf.net