The Metro Scene

ASF Director Todd Schmidt

Todd Schmidt

Is the newly appointed Executive Director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. “I like a challenge,” was his cryptic response to questions about why he came to Montgomery.

And a challenge is exactly what he’s going to get at the ASF: he will manage an organization with a budget of$8,000,000.00, a payroll for 367 employees, and two theaters seating nearly a thousand people. In addition, he will collaborate with the Artistic Director of ASF, listen to a governing board, and answer to four official entities which supply much of his operating budget.

Schmidt does not seem fazed by the challenge. Cool and confident he chats easily with new friends about the theater world he knows. “It’s satisfying to look back on theaters which were failing and know that they often called me. The last place to nearly close was Pepper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Now they’re operating on a $20,000,000 budget. But here in Montgomery it’s different. We have to develop larger audiences. We need to attract different ethnic populations, Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans. We have to lure them into the theater so they can be touched and changed by what they’re observing onstage. That’s what theater in general does: it breaks down barriers.”

Schmidt has spent his life among the footlights and has developed theories about the role drama should play in society. He believes the function of the theater is much more profound than just entertainment. For example, audiences seeing a play in which actions taken by the main character lead to tragedy can be moved to change their behavior. Since drama sometimes can be so beguiling that we identify with those characters on the stage,we often feel that we have become part of them, and that we mus thelp them reform.

Schmidt has managed to captivate many of the busy bees working on a daily basis in the ASF. Even Laurie Weil, Chair of the ASF Board confesses, “I’m one of Todd’s Groupies. He reminds me of the Happy Warrior, ready to do battle against the old, worn out,useless ideas which are no longer relevant.” When the conversation eventually spun around to the Artistic Director Rick Dildine’s plans to take the actors outside the building and do street theater, Todd was unreservedly enthusiastic. “I’m convinced there’ll be wide-spread support. This will be a neighborhood project when we all come together and everybody contributes. This kind of performance will stimulate self-expression because by its very nature it will break down the barriers which separate us. People will become more open and fearless; they’ll learn to trust each other.” How does one explain the magic of the theater? Since almost every society throughout history has had some form of performances, it must answer a widespread need in human beings. That magic is based primarily on the telling of stories. Throughout the ages we humans have sat around the campfire while someone begins with “Once Upon a Time,” and we are mesmerized. But the theater is much more than that because it shows us as we really are, vicious, hateful, self-destructive or heroic, brilliant, self-sacrificing. And that insight can help us change, and so the theater can break down walls and lead to a better society.

Many in the theatrical profession wonder about the overall effect of increasing technology on the theater world. Are we relying too much on special effects rather than the conflict of character where the real drama lies? “No technology can replace the human touch,” Schmidt says,“because any play is created by labor intensity carried to its final limits, with the touch over nearly every inch. It is that touch which cannot be replaced.”

The ASF is embarking on a great adventure. For the first time there will be two heads of state: Rick Dildine to manage the educational and theatrical division, and Todd Schmidt to take care of the marketing and financial section. Though they have spent less than a month together they seem to have parsed out how to complement each other professionally, for neither has threatened to resign, neither complains about his lines in the dialogue and no challenges to a duel have been issued. So, as the curtain rises we can suspend our sense of disbelief and feel sure the coming production will be a smash hit.



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