Literally “Behind the Scenes” — Buzz at ASF

By on 2 September, 2019 in Art, Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Carrie Preston and Susan Ferrara with some scene shop machinery

Something amazing is about to happen at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. More precisely, it is going to happen in the scene shop. Maybe you, like us, have never really given the scene shop much thought. We’ve only been to the “front of the house” at ASF. The “front of the house” is where you traditionally get your ticket and find your seat for a show, an especially gracious space, meant to welcome theatergoers and usher them into the many worlds that directors can conjure with assets like actors, lighting, costumes, and custom-built scenery.

But the scene shop is the world behind the world. It makes sense that ASF has a huge space for building and storing all of the equipment necessary to put on the kinds of elaborate shows they’re known for. But although we’ve been to many productions there, it never occurred to us to ask about it – backstage is a part you’re not supposed to think about, if they’re doing the job right.

But ASF is about to ask us all to think about what goes on backstage. In the first place, the new play Buzz, which will have its world premiere on Wednesday, September 4, is going to be staged in ASF’s cavernous scene shop. They’ve built a platform and set up risers for seating, but the setting is still clearly a workshop. And it’s a working workshop – at the same time Buzz is staged, ASF will be finishing work on a coming production of Hamlet.

Which is kind of a strange coincidence, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Buzz tells the story of Mary Ann “Buzz” Goodbody, the first woman to direct at the Royal Shakespeare Company. She directed Ben Kingsley in Hamlet there, a production that opened just a few days before she took her own life.

Writer Susan Ferrara and director Carrie Preston spent many years between them studying theater, including in the United Kingdom, but never learned about Goodbody until a chance reference sent Ferrara into a trail of libraries to learn more. She was inspired — and while Buzz became her first play, it has only now found its first home in the cozy confines of the ASF scene shop.

Which, we must emphasize, is an intentional artistic decision. Preston explained that Buzz herself often had to work in found spaces, creatively repurposing materials to tell old stories in new ways. Telling Buzz’s story in the scene shop is a way of situating the audience and the production in a kind of homage.

But it’s also about portraying a person whose life was actually behind the scenes – in ways both intentional (Buzz was a director, after all) and not (her omission from the received history of directorial greatness seems more like an erasure than an oversight) – and putting her at the center of the story.

In this way, explained Ferrara, the play is also about memory: “I’m most interested in thinking about who is remembered and why they are remembered. There are many histories – the stories of major figures like Ronald Reagan or General MacArthur, for example, are well known. But what about the stories of the many people behind a Reagan or a MacArthur? These stories made these people the figures that we’ve come to know.”

The play draws from history, but Preston said it’s not a “history play” per se: “Buzz borrows from history, but the play is about many things: the creative process, Hamlet, what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world. Today, especially, this last question is screaming with relevance to many people.”

It’s clear that Preston and Ferrara hope the play activates some big ideas in the audience, as well as connections to the present. But they’re still just trying to tell a story. As Preston said: “The scene shop as setting isn’t that different from sitting on your front porch hearing a story, and Buzz isn’t that different from your auntie.”

The scene shop probably has more saws and electrical equipment than your front porch. It also has a gigantic picture of Elvis and a plastic Santa holding a beer can. More details will spoil it – go see for yourself, and feel what it’s like when the back of the house becomes the front, at least for a little while.

The lofty, airy space has given tremendous inspiration to the team, who have stocked the production with the many pieces of ASF history collected backstage. “We’re taking advantage of what’s there,” said Preston., “Happy accidents are happening every day. We often feel that we have Buzz’s presence around us as we create a new way of working in this space, and of telling a story.”

You take the elevator to get to the scene shop. By the time you reach the space, a few winding hallways have you a little disoriented. The once-familiar Shakespeare Festival theater feels strange and new. A little disequilibrium can be just the thing to help a story get written into memory – sometimes familiar things (and places, and people) can glide by without note or notice.

Buzz will be unfamiliar to most people making the journey to the scene shop. But all of us can find ourselves and the people we love in her story. As Ferrara said: “We all create, we all tell stories, and each of those stories are important. Each of us will be remembered by the people whose lives we touch with those stories.”

Buzz is a quick run, September 4-15, at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Tickets are $50. Purchase tickets online or by calling the box office at 334-271-5353. More on Buzz can be read here .

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, fifteen fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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