This weekend, the class of 2009 will become the final group to complete the University of Alabama-ASF Professional Actor Training/ Master of Fine Arts program.
Students will put on their final performance tonight as a run of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance comes to an end. They will graduate Sunday in the Octagon theater, ending the long-running partnership.
The university will continue to offer a master of fine arts in theater, but it will no longer be connected to the Anniston-founded festival.
“ The scope and remarkable quality of the program and the people it has turned out is amazing,” said Ray Chambers, the program’s director. “ The alumni are doing some great things. There are so many names that come up on the national theater radar.”
Most recently that includes Carrie Preston, who portrays Arlene on the HBO series True Blood.
But the theater and university announced in April 2008 that the partnership would end because of funding cuts in higher education.
The Alabama Shakespeare Festival was founded in Anniston in 1972. It was July of that year that the first performances were staged in the old Anniston High School auditorium at 17th Street and Leighton Avenue.
The festival’s 1984 season was its last in the Model City; Montgomery has been its home ever since.
In the UA partnership, the student actors worked alongside professional actors in many of the theater’s productions throughout each season.
Chambers, who is not only the program’s director but one of the theater’s longtime stars, will be leaving the Shakespeare Festival for a similar position with the University of San Diego and the Old Globe Theatre.
The success of the students who have graduated from the program has helped put the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in the national spotlight — although it’s not the first time that’s happened. The New York Times recognized the festival’s success in Anniston as far back as 1976.
Nonetheless, the latest accolades are one reason the chief operating officer of the theater, Michael Vigilant, will be sad to see the partnership program end.
“We have this marvelous cast of young actors and young management students — the cream of the crop — and they will go out and represent the University of Alabama and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with their wonderful careers,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a person here who didn’t think this was a rewarding experience.”
Patrick Vest, a member of the graduate acting company, will miss the faculty and his fellow students.
“Being the last class of the program, we sort of felt an obligation to step up, to go out with dignity. I think we’ve done that. And I will always be grateful to the university and to this theater,” said Vest.