The Bard's Still on the Boards

Montgomery’s Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) is a world-class theatre in a small market. No matter how much of a recession the economy may be experiencing, the organization refuses to lower its standards in any way.

According to Chief Operating Officer Michael Vigilant, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival has to adapt when the economy changes. ASF serves as a unique ambassador for the state of Alabama, and maintaining high standards for the actors who come from different parts of the country is of utmost importance.

“We’re good news for what Montgomery is about, ” Vigilant says. “The actors who come here turn into ambassadors for Alabama.”

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival was originally located in an Anniston high school auditorium. Wynton Blount, husband of early board member Carolyn Blount, agreed to fund a new building for the theatre. His one condition, however, was that the theater had to be in Montgomery. The Carolyn Blount Theatre opened in 1985 and cost more $21 million.

Vigilant has been with ASF for about seven years. He produced his first professional play in Detroit in 1990 and has written 14 additional plays since. He loves to write and produce.

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“You learn something new every day, ” he says.

As a nonprofit, ASF operates with three bottom lines in mind—business, community and art. About 55 percent of the operating budget of the organization comes from contributions and 45 percent is earned. Donations come from the Alabama Council on the Arts, the City of Montgomery and Montgomery County.

Changes in the economy first became evident in 2008 when gas prices began to rise, Vigilant says. ASF had to cut one third of the staff to adapt to the loss of funds.

“We have to be very responsible for the money we get, ” Vigilant says.

Artistic Director Geoffrey Sherman refuses to let the cuts in the budget affect the high standards of the shows. He puts a lot of thought into what shows will attract people. Holiday shows typically draw a larger audience, and additional money is acquired to do new shows and world premieres.

ASF typically does 10 plays per year and has about 225 event days and nights, including rentals, classes, camps and smaller events.

Right before the recession hit, about 135, 000 people visited ASF in one year. This year, the goal is 100, 000 visitors.

“Geoffrey thinks like a producer, ” Vigilant says. “We would rather do fewer shows and maintain our high standards.”

Alfa Schoolfest brings a large percentage of visitors to ASF. Students and teachers are able to purchase half-price tickets to matinees during Schoolfest. The tickets are already cheaper than what they would cost in a larger city, so ASF is able to give even more kids the opportunity to experience the theatre. A few years ago, 50, 000 kids per year would attend Schoolfest. Now, only about 35, 000 take advantage of the opportunity.

“We want to stay at the top of the list of ways to spend money. We think of ourselves as a mini vacation for our loyal supporters. To continue, we need support.”  -Michael Vigilant

While projecting for the year ahead, the board of directors watches the unemployment rate, Dow average and anything else that affects the ability of a consumer to purchase what some consider to be a luxury item. Studies show that ASF contributes around $20 million to the economy of Montgomery, in addition to the important contribution the organization makes to the reputation of the city and state. Last year, during the launch of Vigilant’s original work “Bear Country, ” ASF was featured in 500 publications around the world.

“We want to stay at the top of the list of ways to spend money, ” Vigilant says. “We think of ourselves as a mini vacation for our loyal supporters. To continue, we need support.”

In addition to the 750-seat festival theatre, the 263-seat octagon theatre and 10, 000-square-foot complex, ASF maintains the Shakespeare Gardens and 25 leased apartments to house actors.

ASF’s creativity has to reach beyond its on-stage productions. Fund-raising requires just as creative a touch. A costume sale raised $22, 000 for new sewing machines, for example, and a special performance of Macbeth raised $8, 000 for repairs to the 18 benches in the Shakespeare Garden.

“We want to be cost effective and we want everyone to have a good experience when they come here, ” Vigilant says. “They don't teach you things like that in class.”

By using smart business principles, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is able to offer life-altering experiences for kids by exposing them to top-quality art, he says.

“With a nonprofit our rewards are different. We're only here if you want us here, ” Vigilant says. “At the end of the year, when you balance the budget and maintain a high level of arts, it’s a victory.”

Laura Stakelum is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She lives in Dothan.

By Laura Stakelum

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