New Leadership at the Playhouse

By on 28 January, 2016 in Art with 0 Comments
Sarah Thornton

Sarah Walker Thornton

The Cloverdale Playhouse has only been in the neighborhood for four years, but already it feels like a local staple. When we discovered that the founding artistic director (and long-time MML contributor) Greg Thornton had stepped down, we were eager to meet the new director and get a sense of where she’s looking to take the theater. We sat down with Sarah Walker Thornton at Cafe Louisa last week to chat about her vision and hopes for the Playhouse.

First things first – yes, she’s related to the previous director (she says she calls him “Dad”). And yes, she’s got a fantastic career of her own in theater, including a MFA from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (from back when they partnered with the University of Alabama) and a diverse set of experiences during her time in New York City.

But Sarah’s from here, loves Montgomery, and sees the possibilities of the Playhouse. In fact, she positively lights up talking about the virtues and values of community theater. After an hour with her, we found ourselves feeling lucky that she decided to come home and bring her considerable skills to bear for the Playhouse’s fifth season and beyond.

While in New York, Sarah and other ASF alumni started the BAMA Theatre Company, receiving considerable acclaim for performing Shakespeare plays with sets pulled out of a trunk to maximize portability. “We were targeted at young people, trying to take Shakespeare off the pedestal a little bit and make it accessible.”

Sarah’s been on the job for just over a month now, and she says it’s “wonderful” to be home. It’s been a fast start for her, with the season already chosen and the need to hit the ground running. “I got very busy very quickly, which I love,” she says. “Everyone’s so welcoming here. I’m very excited about this season. Audiences can look forward to interesting characters with quirks, which I love. I’m drawn to unusual characters that you might not expect on stage.”

As the Artistic Director of the Playhouse, Sarah will do a little bit of everything. “I’m still kind of figuring it out myself,” she admits. “It’s new territory, and it’s not your usual theater. A big part of the job is that you advise the artistic direction of the Playhouse overall, help to uphold the vision and mission of the theater, and get out into the community and build support for the theater. At the same time, I will direct shows and help other directors with anything their production might need.” She expressed considerable gratitude for Emily Flowers, who Sarah describes as “the real magic in the building.”

One of Sarah’s biggest responsibilities will be working with the Playhouse’s selection committee to choose productions for the theater. She’s got no end of ideas on this matter – and it turns out that even though she’s only been back for a few months, she’s already been inundated with suggestions. Part of her job is to consider the specific space of the Playhouse and the needs of its audience.

“I’ve already got a list running of shows that people want to see, and that I’d love to put on. There’s a lot to consider because the space is very unique. It’s a beautiful building with great acoustics, but it’s a little smaller than other spaces. We have to consider having a small space, a limited amount of equipment, and not much backstage space. You have to take those technical considerations into account.”

Sarah’s artistic vision isn’t limited to technical considerations by any means. Reflecting on what makes a good fit, she says she would ask herself: “What is the play saying? Is it something you want people to hear? Does it tell you a story that you want people to know or hear?” This is critical to understanding her vision of the purpose of theater. “I want plays to be challenging,” she said. “They should not just be spoonfeeding people a happy experience. The whole point of theater – to me at least – is to look at your life differently, it’s a way of connecting with your fellow human being and experience the world through someone else’s eyes for a little bit of time. Hopefully you leave feeling changed.”

As Artistic Director, it’s clear that Sarah doesn’t expect to hold anything back when it comes to connecting with the audience. “I believe in our audience,” she says. “They deserve the credit some might not give to our Southern town. Our audience can handle difficult subjects and complex plays – like the popular production of Cabaret, certainly an edgy show.”

One of Sarah’s major priorities will be to expand the reach of the Playhouse, so that there are more education programs and more awareness about the opportunities that community theater allows. She hopes to diversify the audition pool and audience for Playhouse productions. “It’s a big priority to me to help give back to the community and effect positive changes as I can.”

We’re also pleased to announce that Sarah will be writing for MML every month! Look for her column to begin next week.





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