The play's the thing

Phil Pleasants and Judith Marx portray Laertes and Ophelia in a 1977 production of Hamlet at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Anniston. (Anniston Star file photo) 

The bard’s coming back.

The Alabama Humanities Foundation announced last week that the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce has received a $5,000 grant for a project to perform a play by William Shakespeare for school children and others in Anniston.  

The Shakespeare Project, as it’s called, is to include five days of free, professional performances of an abridged 90-minute version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” The performances are set to run from Aug. 15 to Aug. 19 at the Anniston Performing Arts Center, which can accommodate up to 900 people. The performances Aug. 15-17 are only for students from local schools, while the performances Aug. 18-19 are open to the community.

This effort isn’t the first Shakespeare-centered theatre project to spring up in the city.

In 1972, members of the Anniston community established the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which staged performances at the Anniston High School auditorium (later renamed the Anniston Performing Arts Center). In 1985, the festival moved to Montgomery, where it remains today.

Thomas Bryant, grant director for the Alabama Humanities Foundation, said that festival was not necessarily a factor in the decision to award the grant to the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, but many are familiar with its history. He said the grant review committee particularly liked the Shakespeare Project’s proposal.

Bryant said the project will allow for people in the community who can’t necessarily make it to Montgomery to experience Shakespeare’s plays once again.

“It’s nice the community is coming together,” he said. “I would like to support that area a lot more.”

Bryant said Emily Duncan, the tourism and marketing director for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, deserves a lot of credit for the grant.

“She worked hard,” he said. “We communicated a lot.” Bryant works with potential applicants, helping them determine if their proposal is a match for the foundation’s grant. He also helps them strengthen their applications, giving them a better chance of receiving the grant.

Bryant said many people and communities are intimidated by the process, but if the applicants work hard and work with him, they increase their chances of being eligible for the grant.

Duncan said the Alabama Humanities Foundation grant is only a small portion of the funding for the Shakespeare Project.

She said the project is funded by a combination of grants, including Harland Jones Charitable Fund from the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama and the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, and community contributions. She wouldn’t cite a total amount, as it changes every day.

Duncan said education is the purpose of the project, but she said the project is also focused specifically on Shakespeare literacy comprehension and education.

“We realized there is a language barrier between the student’s English and Shakespeare’s old English,” Duncan said. She said this language barrier applies to other written texts, too, such as the Constitution and the King James Version of the Bible.

Duncan said she hopes the project will help with students’ comprehension of Shakespeare’s plays given that multiple plays are required reading in the state.

“Shakespeare and other plays are meant to be seen, not read,” Duncan said.

When deciding what play to perform this year, Duncan said teachers voted between “Romeo and Juliet,” the play Alabama’s state course of study requires ninth-graders to read, and “Julius Caesar,” the play Alabama’s state course of study requires tenth-graders to read.

“We asked teachers which one they had the most trouble with,” Duncan said. More teachers struggled with “Julius Caesar,” so that play was chosen, she said.

Duncan said the play is only one of the steps the county is taking to further students’ comprehension of Shakespeare. She said two teachers from each Calhoun County school will participate in a workshop taught by the American Shakespeare Center, a theater company located in Virginia, on Aug. 1-2.

“We want to give them the resources and tools to present Shakespeare where students understand it,” she said.

Duncan hopes to make the plays and the workshop annual occurrences, something she said is only possible with the community’s support.

“It’s a team and community effort,” she said.


Staff Writer Allison Preslar: 256-600-8688. On Twitter: @APreslar_Star