Rick Dildine

Rick Dildine by Carlos Arrien

Rick Dildine

Rick Dildine: I think we’re at a place where an artistic director is a community organizer. But you’re listening to the people that you serve where your mission is playing out. I’m here in Alabama. Our mission is to build community with transformative theatrical performances. Well, that’s going to play out very differently here than if I was in New York or LA or Dallas, Texas. So I’m listening here. That’s what I think the artistic director’s job is.

Jo Reed: That’s Rick Dildine, Artistic Director of Alabama Shakespeare Festival. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

2020 has been a horrendous year…and theaters along with all the performing arts are suffering. In the United States, theaters have been closed for live performance since March…and it’s difficult to know when people will be willing to gather indoors to watch a play together? What would that room even look like? How would theaters keep their actors, crew, and audiences safe? How can theaters survive until that moment we can all come together again? And how can theater speak to this moment? These are some of the thoughts keeping artistic directors up at night…and many of them—along with the theatrical community at large—have been answering these questions with wit and imagination…working to keep the power of theater in the spotlight. Take Alabama Shakespeare Festival located in Montgomery Alabama—it features robust on-line offerings including the Play-On Initiative, resources for teachers and students and a newly-adapted one-woman performance of A Christmas Carol. And it also moved theater outdoors and gave its audience to ability to put the words of a diverse set of playwrights in their own mouths—the project is called “Speak the Speech” and Rick Dildine artistic director of Alabama Shakes is here to tell us about it…

Dick Dildine: Speak the Speech comes from Shakespeare’s directive in “Hamlet.” And what we wanted to create for folks was something safe to do, something social, something fun but also to connect people with their voice. The thing I think we have seen time and time again over the past few months is that words matter, that language matters and that people in our country have been finding their voice through a variety of ways. And so we picked 14 famous speeches, 13 are from American play, one is Shakespeare, and we have put them throughout our park and they’re on really beautiful panels and we invite people to come to the park and to they can film themselves or they can be alone, they can bring somebody with them, but it’s a chance to put powerful language in your mouth and Speak the Speech.

Jo Reed: How did you choose the titles, the playwrights, the passages.

Rick Dildine: One of the things that was important to me was to put together a group of artists so I engaged with two other artists, Adrian Kaiser and a young man named Cameron Williams worked with me on curating the pieces. Upfront I said that at least 51 percent of the pieces needed to be by BiPOC playwrights and I also said that 51 percent of the plays needed to be by female playwrights. ASF has a long history of producing a lot of white male originated work, but the South is so much more diverse than that and it is so much more complex. We also said if we can ever find a Southern voice we wanted to include that. And if a piece could speak to nature, because all of the pieces are outside and we’re in this beautiful setting we also wanted to look for things that allowed themselves to be spoken outside amongst the trees and the sky.

Jo Reed: That’s lovely. Give me an example of some of the playwrights you chose?

Rick Dildine: Sure. So, you know, anywhere from the heavy hitters of Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller to some newer playwrights that folks may not be as familiar with like Jireh Breon Holder, Lauren Gunderson, Mary Kathryn Nagle, who is an amazing Native American voice. So it spans some of the giants of American theater to those next generation giants.

Jo Reed: I don’t want you to betray confidences, but I would love to have been a fly on the wall as you and Adrian were going through this and making decisions about not only the playwrights but the plays and then narrowing down even further to the passages. Those discussions must have been so interesting.

Rick Dildine: Yeah. You’re in essence curating an experience for someone. So they start with Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” the opening chorus that asks you to use your imagination for what you are about to experience. And then we take them through different relationships. August Wilson’s “Jitney” is the next stop. Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline” to Lauren Gunderson’s beautiful speech about what jazz is, “What Jazz Means to Me.” So yeah, it asks us what is the emotional journey we’re taking people on? What’s the weight? What would speak to the moment? Mary Kathryn Nagle who wrote a beautiful play called “Manahatta” and is a great voice for Native American people in our country, that she imagined what is the journey and what is home, what is our home. So it was a great experience. I got to read some work that I haven’t read. Adrian got to read some work she hadn’t read. We went back and forth on that. But we got to learn a lot and it was fun putting it together.

Jo Reed: How long did it take you to put it together?

Rick Dildine: We spent about a month really going back and forth to narrow down who and what pieces. And with each panel a participant will not only see the speech but they’re also going see a little bio on the playwright and a summary of the scene so that they can kind of if they wanted to perform it right there they can get kind of an emotional connection to what’s going on in the play in that moment.


Jo Reed: Give me some background, a little history of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

Rick Dildine: Sure. Alabama Shakes was founded in 1972 as a summer stock theater performing classic work. In 1977 it was named the State Theater of Alabama and then in 1985, with the generosity or Red and Caroline Blunt, a world class facility was built in Montgomery, Alabama to house the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and we’re currently in a 100,000 square foot facility with two performance spaces in the midst of a 200 acre park with a Shakespeare Garden and ponds and too many geese to count. We’re also on the campus with the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. And annually we product anywhere from 10 to 14 shows a year that span a wide spectrum of productions form Shakespeare to new works. We have about a 20-plus year commitment to developing new works by Southern writers. There’s our Southern Writers’ Festival. And each year we perform for about 40,000 young people from across the State of Alabama.

Jo Reed: When did you have to shut down for the pandemic?

Rick Dildine: March 15th, the Ides of March, and the irony of that is not lost on me. We had two shows performing at that time and another two within 48 hours of going into rehearsal but the pandemic has, it affected 9 shows total that we had, 9 projects total that we had announced and were going to be doing within the next 6 months.

Jo Reed: I’m curious about who you see coming to Speak the Speech.

Rick Dildine: You know, we’re in the middle of a city park so there are constantly people walking through our park and within minutes of them going up, people started walking out to them. And you know, it’s all different types of folks. I mean, Montgomery is an incredibly diverse community, but it’s all different types of people. It’s single folks. It’s families. It’s couples. You know, theater and the arts are a social activity. They’re fun to do together and that’s what we’re seeing people do.

Jo Reed: And you have an online component for people who can’t come to Alabama Shakes for whatever reasons and it is very robust. Tell us about it.

Rick Dildine: Sure. You know, one of the things that we have I think that’s come out of this pandemic is how do we continue to make our work accessible and the internet has become an incredible tool for that and we wanted students to have access to this as well. So we put the project online so that people can have access to those resources. Again, they get to see the speech. They get to see a little breakdown of what’s going on in the scene. And they get a background on the playwright. These may be new voices to people so we wanted them to have some background on them.

Jo Reed: And you also have a component called the Play On initiative. And even though it might not be directly connected to Speak the Speech, boy does it mesh beautifully.

Rick Dildine: Yeah. You know, I think the South is, it is a complex place and it takes a lot of different voices to make it up. It’s like a quilt. And Play On, we commission 22 Southern playwrights to write original monologues about home. And of course we’ve continued our education components online as well.

Jo Reed: Well, you have a deep and long commitment to education and I spent a happy couple of hours just going through with the education resources you have on your website.

Rick Dildine: Yeah. And they’re even going to get more robust very soon. You know, we have great relationships with the teachers in the state and we’re about to launch a DIY video series. It’s really like HGTV meets theater, so DIY for theater teachers and high school theater students who are making theater in their schools but may need some help. Okay, how do I troubleshoot sound? How do I build this type of set piece? So we’re about to launch another set of videos that are going to go online in January.

Jo Reed: How did you first come into theater, Rick?

Rick Dildine: You know, believe it– oddly enough, “A Christmas Carol,” I was maybe 8 or 9-years-old and my aunt took me to my first professional play which was a production of “A Christmas Carol” and I was absolutely completely mesmerized.

Jo Reed: Did your parents encourage your love of theater?

Rick Dildine: Oh, absolutely. Yes. I was really fortunate that my mother early on saw that I was interested in theater. And, you know, we grew up in rural Arkansas where there wasn’t any touring shows coming through. There was very little performing arts. And my mother saved up money and took us to see touring shows about two hours away in a larger city. So I was really fortunate to have a mother who encouraged adventure and curiosity and my own creativity.

Jo Reed: What was your first experience with Shakespeare?

Rick Dildine: Ooh. First, well, first experience with Shakespeare was actually my eighth grade English teacher because I had, she said, you know, you could get bonus points if you read some, read literature over Christmas break and I went off and read eight Danielle Steele novels and came back and reported on that. And she said, “Not quite the literature I was hoping you would read.”

Rick Dildine: And so she gave me “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and said, “Why don’t we start here?” And that’s where I fell in love with not only the poetry but also the grandness of his writing, his characters and a place where I felt that everyone had a voice in a story. You had wealthy people. You had poor people. You had the noble class, the working class, men, women, mortals, faeries. That’s what I loved about it. And from then, you know, trained as an actor. Got my MFA in Acting and started getting pulled into doing large scale outdoor work which a lot of times is Shakespeare. I ran Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and now running Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

Jo Reed: How did you go from onstage to behind the scenes?

Rick Dildine: You know, I was always an organized actor. I was the actor who everyone said, “You organize the parties. And you keep us– keep us in line.” And I had an affinity whenever I was acting on stage that I could always see the big picture. I could see how things were moving. Not just myself, but all the different pieces. One of my mentors was running a theater, a summer stock theater in Kentucky. He said, “Would you come by my production manager for the summer?” That led to becoming an assistant director and then I was hired to be artistic director of that summer theater when I was 25-years-old and started really learning what it meant to lead an institution, to lead an artistic company. I was really fortunate to have mentors like Oskar Eustis and Edgar Dobie who, you know, changed my graduate training to help me continue to be a great actor but also helped me to learn how to be a producer.

Jo Reed: Help us out here because artistic director I think is a term so many of us hear but I think few of us really get what it is that an artistic director does.

Rick Dildine: It certainly evolved over the past 50 years over the regional theater movement of America from the sixties to now where we– How would I like to say is that my number one job and I learned this from Martha Lavey who was late artistic director of Steppenwolf. She told me, “Your number one job as artistic director is to listen to the community, to know where it is, to know what it’s thinking and then to put together a group of artists and stories that respond to that.” I find myself a lot of times being the keeper of the mission. I am the keeper of the vision, the values. I am that thread that runs through the organization. So, you know, what we saw a lot of times we’ve seen at the regional theaters in America these all-knowing auteurs. I don’t think we’re in that anymore. I think we’re at a place where an artistic director is a community organizer. But you’re listening to the people that you serve where your mission is playing out. I’m here in Alabama. Our mission is to build community with transformative theatrical performances. Well, that’s going to play out very differently here than if I was in New York or LA or Dallas, Texas. So I’m listening here. That’s what I think the artistic director’s job is.

Jo Reed: Well, you’ve talked about how the job changed in the past 50 years. I would also imagine it’s really changed in the past 9 months.

Rick Dildine: Oh, my gosh, yeah. Absolutely. I think you’re going to see theaters get much more local in their theater making. I think that’s something that’s on the horizon. You know, I would not be surprised if we see more resident companies pop up in regional theaters around the country. I wouldn’t be surprised at all. For me, you know, artistic directors, we don’t just think about art but these are jobs. We work for a board of directors who give us specific tasks and objectives. But I’m also half of a leadership team that’s financially responsible for the organization. So we’ve had to make tough decisions. Every theater in America has basically gone to surviving on donations right now. So that’s a whole different dynamic versus when you have shows that are bringing in tickets and subscribers and people are regularly in your building, how we are only able to engage with them digitally for the most part.

Jo Reed: And how do you work to keep Alabama Shakes in front of mind for members of your community? I mean, obviously through shows like Speak the Speech, but how else are you looking to do that?

Rick Dildine: Well, I have been hosting what I call Kitchen Table Chats and I bring together what I call unexpected storytellers, so groups of people. And I’ve interviewed chefs, DJs, historians, poets, teachers, all different types– other not-for-profit leaders. People who are storytellers in themselves. And I bring them together over Zoom. And we talk about what is going on in our community, how are they telling stories. I think for our arts organizations’ survival, we have to start thinking of ourselves not as arts institutions first but as civic institutions. So continuing to connect beyond our artistic walls to our civic brothers and sisters, that’s been key to us over the past nine months.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you bluntly, given how difficult the situation is for performing arts, is it difficult to see past getting through this moment to look at the long-term, which I know is one of the functions of the artistic director?

Rick Dildine: Yeah, it’s so fascinating you asked that because just this past week my partner, the Executive Director Todd Schmidt and I were talking about, back in like the eighties, nineties, we were all about ten-year strategic plans. And then we were like five-year strategic plans. And then we got to, okay, let’s do a three-year strategic plan. And right now, we’re like 90 days is what we can think about. So I have been going back and forth, how do I plan artistically and then make sure that the capacity is there, the resources are there for shows, you know, quarterly, over a year. How do you plan for or plan a season when a pandemic could pop up mid-run of your show? You know, all of us, we’ve put in tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars in these productions and we have to protect our donors, resources, our artists’ lives and livelihood and safety and their time and their creative energy. It’s a lot to take on and think about. I have found resilience in thinking short-term and really focusing on, okay, how can I take the moment I’m in right now, respond to it and create something? And then I build on that. And then I build on the next one.

Jo Reed: And I also wonder, Rick, if in the midst of this crisis do you also see a space opening up for adaptability, for flexibility, for imaginative thinking going forward?

Rick Dildine: Oh, absolutely. Yes. It’s been exciting to see how the digital world has evolved. I think we’re going to also as theaters have to– You know, recording our work has been really about archival purposes and I think some of the theaters, a handful of the theaters that had prepared with multi-camera recordings were ready to go. But I think going forward, the videographer is going to become part of our creative process because we’re going to need to be able to pivot mid-run to recording. But another big thing is that recording our work has opened us up from an accessibility standpoint. More people that couldn’t get to us can now see the work. So I think that’s going to be part of our world, which is going to lead to creativity. How do we tell the story through three cameras and live at the same time? It’s a thrilling proposition. I’m excited about it and I’m excited about what it’s asking designers to do.

Jo Reed: You know, I’m very conscious that while Shakespeare was writing, in fact, theaters were closed because of plague.

Rick Dildine: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: And I’m sure you are as well.

Rick Dildine: Yeah. The irony is not lost on me. That’s right.

Jo Reed: Yeah. But I also take a great deal of hope from that. I’m such a lover and believer in theater and that experience that happens during a live performance that I just believe in its resilience so deeply.

Rick Dildine: Yeah. Yeah. I do, too. I do, too. I am, it’s been a tough time to watch so many artists out of work and trying to figure out how to continue to create. You know, Paula Vogel is a prolific tweeter and she said the other day on Twitter, “A great harvest is coming.” That just brought tears to my eyes because that is true. There will be a great harvest of work coming. There are ideas that are bubbling right now. There are relationships being made that that is going to create a great harvest.

Jo Reed: You’ve said you believe theater should be a home for artists, not a hotel.

Which I think is marvelous. How do you hope to do that?

Rick Dildine: Well, one of the things that is key to that is investing in artists consistently and regularly. So we are seriously looking at rebooting our resident acting company. So asking artists not to come in and do one project but say, “We’re going to start a relationship now for multiple projects. This is going to be a place where you’re not going to be here for six weeks and go, ‘Ah, I got to reset.’ No. You’ve got the confidence and the belief in you that we’re asking you to be with us to build the house.” Because we are. We’re rebuilding a house now. That’s why when my first season I programmed 14 shows, 6 of them running in rep, and asking artists to do more than one project in that first season. Because I wanted them to be involved not in a moment but in a bigger idea, the fulfillment of a mission. And the– You know, as humans, we’re so complex. We can’t grasp the entirety of humanity in 14 shows. But we can when lots of different people are involved over longer periods of time, the threads and the networks are so much stronger. The impact is deeper.

Jo Reed: And I wonder if there are things you’re doing now during the pandemic that you can see continuing to do, you know, we ended up doing it because we had to but damn, this is really worth striving for. And particularly around Speak the Speech. If there are things you learned from that project that you can build on moving forward?

Rick Dildine: Yeah, well, the outdoor as a canvas. Unexpected spaces. These were ideas that I had brought to the table in my first season and for one, you know, who knows what reasons some things happened or didn’t happen. But actually now, we’re forced to look to unexpected partnerships, relationships, spaces, styles. This coming spring the entirety of our program will be outside. On the pond, we’re actually doing a project on the water and then in our garden and then in another little nook in the park. So those things, I think once people see them and experience them they’re going to want them all the time. But you know, you’re always working against, “Well, we’ve never done it that way before.” And so when you’re working against that, but now you can’t do it that way at all.

Jo Reed: And I’d like to end on Shakespeare: I’d like you to share why you think Shakespeare continues to connect with us and can actually be a great source of solace now as we struggle to connect with one another.

Rick Dildine: The ability for Shakespeare to capture a human rhythm is what has always as an actor turned me on, that when I lean into the language I can actually feel my heart beat stronger. And the fact that language can do that and capture that and can remind you that you’re a living, breathing person even though you’re speaking iambic pentameter, that you are a living, breathing human being, that’s pretty remarkable. And I think that’s why people keep coming back to it over and over is because you find something new in it every single time there’s a new discovery because we have history, you know, as we live our decades and our lives. Today’s my birthday. And as we–

Jo Reed: Happy Birthday.

Rick Dildine: Thank you. As we go another year around the sun, you find you’re connecting with new characters and you graduate into a new generation and you learn something new. I think that for me that’s the joy.

Jo Reed: And Rick, I think that’s a great place to leave it.

Rick Dildine: Thank you for including us.

That was Rick Dildine he’s Artistic Director of Alabama Shakespeare Festival…you can find out more about Speak the Speech, their one-woman production of A Christmas Carol and everything Alabama Shakes is up at ASF.net

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts….subscribe to Art Works and then leave us a rating on Apple…keep up with the arts endowment at arts.gov or by following us on twitter @neaarts. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed…stay safe and thanks for listening.

Carlos Arrien
Fri, 12/04/2020 – 15:04

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December 4, 2020 at 10:04 am