Backstage at the Playhouse with Morris Dees & Greg Thornton

By on 17 December, 2011 in Art, Greg Thornton with 0 Comments

“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” – Henry James

What was it that got you interested in theatre in the first place?

Morris Dees, President of the Cloverdale Playhouse Board of Directors : A high school girlfriend at Lanier left Montgomery with her military family who were transferred to Washington, D.C. I was sixteen and deeply in love with the first Yankee girl I had known. Loved her accent. Dad agreed that I could take the train to D.C. for a visit, if I was back in time to pick cotton in July. I had planned to stay a week.

It was the first time I had ever been out of Alabama. She introduced me to a world I never knew existed. We went to the Smithsonian, the Capital and all the historic sites. Each night we attended a play in Rock Creek Park. We saw Oklahoma, High Button Shoes, Carousel, Picnic, and so many more. I was hooked on theater, especially musicals. I extended my stay for an extra week.

When I opened my law practice in Montgomery, I immediately got involved in the Montgomery Little Theater. I was on its board, helped build membership, married one of its best actress/directors but never acted.

Greg Thornton, Artistic Director of the Cloverdale Playhouse: I was a captive member of the audience in the kitchen of my family home in New Jersey where my father would rehearse, “You Got Trouble” from The Music Man. I still remember that. He directed and performed in shows in our parish, so that was pretty early on in my life being around theatre. Then, I got involved in the Drama Guild in high school at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. I didn’t make the JV basketball team. Right before tryouts, I had just had a cast removed from my wrist, which kind of hampered my shooting ability. At least, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it. Anyway, the coach sent me to the theatre for auditions for The Taming of the Shrew. I got cast and that was the beginning of the end. This acting thing is a rare disease. It courses through your blood and is very hard to shake. I haven’t found anything that is able to cure it.

Did you ever perform in anything?

Morris: Not sure if preaching youth revivals at small Baptist Churches at sixteen qualifies as acting. My little congregation “ordained” me to preach the gospel after watching several of my young friends come down the isle at the close of my sermon to the strains of Just As I Am. I gave up this promising career at twenty-seven when my little church refused to help the Sixteenth Baptist Church repair it’s bombed out sanctuary.

My first true acting part was as a lawyer in my junior high school play. The play was so bad it has been permanently erased from my mind. While I was at Lanier, I entered the Future Farmers of America public speaking contest. I practiced my “lines” for weeks to compete against a student from Pine Level and one from Ramer to represent our county at the district level. After the first five lines into my memorized speech, I fainted. Hit the floor. I did finish third but with that inauspicious beginning, it is a wonder that I ever stood before an audience again.

I like to say that I do one act plays in courtrooms across the nation, plays that get only one review. I get one review and there are no repeat performances. I enjoy framing the story, choosing the “actors”, shaping the lines, designing the set and appealing to deeply held beliefs in life, justice and fair play. A jury trial, like theater, is about telling the story. The greatest moment a trial lawyer has is when he and the audience become one, moving toward an ending that both uplifts and adds meaning to life. I never memorize lines or use notes. Fainting in front of a jury would be embarrassing. I live the part. The tears I often shed come from being in the moment of my client’s story, tears jurors understand as real and as real as the tears they often shed.

I have given at least 3,000 public speeches over the past twenty years. I am often congratulated afterwards for “my sermon” or told that I am a good storyteller. Maybe one day I will try out for a real theatrical role.

Greg: I have been at this for 35 years professionally and I have to say it all truly started in 6th grade doing the Passion Play, which my classmates and I were presumptuous enough to try to re-write, and of course, giving ourselves the best parts, though the main character was not easy to find. But we put it together from the Gospel texts, though we never changed the ending, never changed any of it, how could we? That wasn’t possible. I just remember how the younger students in the school responded to that production. It made me realize the responsibility and force that theatre, any art, truly can have. That was an important lesson to me.

I have never taken count of how many productions I have been privileged to be cast in but it is close to 200 or so. I have often been asked what my favorite role is that I have played and I can honestly say I do have a short list, but, my favorite?…I hope I haven’t played it yet.

How do you perceive the role of the arts in society, in the community, and in Cloverdale in particular?

Morris: Without the arts, life would have little meaning, much like poor marginal farmland that serves only to hold the world together. Visual arts, photography, music, theater, dance, public speaking, weaving, architecture and so many other artistic pursuits are the glue that hold communities together and adds context to life. The cave paintings in France are ancient examples of humans recording life and telling stories. Montgomery is blessed with many arts venues, with passionate artists and with those who give moral and financial support.

Greg: Any art form that has worth or significance has to be one that is transformative. Whether you are the artist or the audience, the work must somehow change you significantly. To be moved, if only for the time you are there, listening, watching, reading, performing, this is the essence of the experience. If society is to be moved, transformed, one person at a time, than art must reveal our better natures, even if it is through exposing the opposite of what we are. Within the experience, we grow, we change, we enhance our lives and in this “communion” hopefully, those around us are changed, their lives enhanced, enriched in some way. My hope is that the Playhouse will create that kind of experience for our community. If it can become a home, whose doors are always open to those who want to create and, for our audience to experience and enjoy, than we are doing what we are meant to doing.

Where do you see the Playhouse going, now that you have opened?

Morris: With the Playhouse’s staff, volunteers, leadership and supporters, I see it becoming a financially sound community theater with uplifting, memorable plays. I can see its Children’s Theater introducing students to every aspect of theater and generating a whole new thespian group. It is fast becoming a comfortable home with many uses including plays, musical performances, book reviews and lectures.

In the long run, I hope to see the children’s program expanded into a much larger facility that can serve several hundred students with year-round classes. In addition, I can see the Playhouse operating an on-line theater education program much like the new and heralded Stanford University on-line high school. This is, after all, the State that gave us Tallulah Bankhead, Nell Carter, Fannie Flagg, Kate Jackson, Johnny Mack Brown, Jim Nabors, Wayne Rogers, Channing Tatum, Fred Thompson and so many more who have graced the stage and screen worldwide or who have created gifted works of art. On-line students across the world can learn from the best, helping to continue to make Montgomery a respected national arts center.

Greg: We just opened HOLIDAY GIFTS of WORDS & MUSIC, a joint Concert Performance with the wonderful Montgomery Chorale and actors from the Playhouse. It has been a terrific collaboration. The Playhouse will be looking for these kinds of projects with a lot of our community’s performing arts groups. We have had promising discussions with a number of them already. We have begun a fine relationship with the wonderful Capitol Book and News, just down the street from us in Cloverdale to bring authors with national and regional reputations to share their work here. Writers, artists, both visual and performing, singer/songwriters, all are welcome to share their gifts here. We have what I hope is a solid and diverse mix of plays in the 2012 Inaugural Season, starting with The Gin Game in February. There are limitless possibilities ahead. We will not be afraid to take risks and mix it up.

This is great space that has been turned into a fine and intimate theatre and it cries out for innovative and challenging material. I am gratified that a lot of playwrights, both established and aspiring, are sending their plays to be read and workshopped here. This part of the world has such a deep history of storytelling and I am anxious to see what stories the Playhouse will tell.

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