You might be tempted to say that Theatre Downtown is back, but Sara James, the president of the theater’s board, says it never really went away.
Yes, it has been more than three-and-a-half years since the theater’s last full production, but throughout the loss of a theater space and the pandemic, people have been behind the scenes making the theater’s return possible.
That happens Oct. 5-14 with a production of “The Crucible,” presented in Birmingham Festival Theatre’s space.
James and B.J. Underwood are co-directing Arthur Miller’s classic drama “The Crucible,” set during the Salem Witch Trials but an allegory for McCarthyism, when in the 1950s Sen. Joe McCarthy led the persecution of Americans accused of being communists.
James took a break from rehearsals – and board chairman duties – to talk about Theatre Downtown’s return and the production of “The Crucible.”
First, tell me about you — where you are from, went to school, theater background, etc …
I’m from Birmingham and started doing community theater when I was 16, in Centerstage Productions’ “South Pacific.” I graduated from the University of Montevallo with a degree in voice rather than theater, so I could continue to focus on classical vocal training. I moved to New York for a little while after college but moved back for a boy. I got sober in 2012 and got back into Birmingham theater that fall. I’ve stayed heavily involved for the last 11 years. I’m also heavily involved in the film and music communities in the city.
How did you get involved with Theatre Downtown?
I didn’t do any performing at all from 2007-2012. In summer 2012, newly sober, I was cast in “Dragula,” an original musical at Theatre Downtown, and remembered what I’d been missing for the past five years. I was subsequently cast in “Seminar” the following spring, which was my first full-length straight play, and TDT just kind of became my home away from home. I joined the board in 2016 and was elected president in 2020.
Can you tell me about Theatre Downtown? Did it go away during the pandemic? Why start again now?
Theatre Downtown’s struggle started a little before the pandemic, actually. In November 2019, mere months before the world ended, our landlords sold the building, and we had to vacate the space where we had lived for 10 years. We intended to continue with our 19-20 season, producing shows in temporary spaces. Our last show, “Small Mouth Sounds,” was produced at Edgewood Dance in February 2020, and then … well, we all know what happened.
I wouldn’t say TDT “went away” during the pandemic, we just weren’t producing. Ironically, the loss of our space meant we weren’t bleeding rent money, but it also created a massive obstacle in every function of the theater. Once live theater started to tentatively return to Birmingham in fall of 2021, it simply wasn’t a stable enough market for TDT to take the financial risk of losing shows to COVID. But we were here, quietly working behind the scenes to coordinate all the moving parts of producing a show without a venue. After a few years of active fundraising and planning (and vaccines), we’re ready.
Any significance to “The Crucible” for you or the theater?
We didn’t choose it for this reason, but “The Crucible” was the first show we did in our old space, above Fifth Avenue Antiques. I had hoped it could also be the premiere in our new space, but that hasn’t happened for us yet. I, personally, set my sights on this show last summer. My favorite podcast did a deep dive on the Salem Witch Trials at the same time some big stuff happened in D.C., and it struck me that, in certain ways, society has not evolved much since 1692. I wanted to use this show as a way of demonstrating that.
What is it about “The Crucible” do you think makes it so enduring?
“The Crucible” is an almost perfect play. The fact that Miller took a (mostly) true story and turned it into an allegory for his own persecution during the McCarthy hearings is brilliant on its own. But the piece still stands today and can serve as an allegory for the dangers of groupthink, or “cancel culture,” or zealotry, or false accusations, or false confessions and how fear is at the root of it all. It’s wordy and the language is stilted and unnatural in 2023, but if you really flesh out the characters, we know these people. Everyone went to high school with an Abigail Williams. Everyone loves to hate their Thomas Putnam. Rebecca Nurse is somebody’s grandma.
Tell me about casting it. So many roles — it must be difficult. Can you tell me about your cast?
I have never directed anything except a scene in high school, so this was my first real experience with casting, and I did kick myself several times for choosing a show with so many roles. We got lucky, though, and so much talent turned up at auditions. I could have cast this show about four different ways, but ultimately I found the right actors to tell this story. Carl Dean and Rachel Marshall as John and Elizabeth Proctor are a gift from the theater gods, and Tahauny Cleghorn is creating an Abigail that I’ve certainly never seen before. I made a few non-traditional casting choices, and I think the reasons why will come across to the audience. Everyone is bringing so much life and depth to their characters.
Where do you think Theatre Downtown fits into the landscape of Birmingham theater?
Theatre Downtown is Weird Barbie, to make a topical pop-culture reference. We’ve built our reputation on unconventional show choices from day one, some of which are bound to alienate certain audiences. But we believe these stories should be told, and we’re happy to fill that niche in Birmingham theater. “The Crucible” is hardly experimental theater, but this production will hopefully be unlike the ones you’ve seen. Some of it will be weird, and I’m sure there are plenty of folks who would have taken my vision for this show and said, “Thank you for the option …” But TDT said “Yes, and…”
The website talks about looking for a new permanent home. Is that still a hope?
A new permanent home is only the beginning of my hopes for Theatre Downtown. While fund development is one of my strengths and main focus as president of the board, we are a relatively young theater company, we don’t have any generational or “angel” donors. But what we currently lack in funding, we make up for in tenacity and sometimes just plain stubbornness. When the presidency was handed to me in September of 2020, I decided that TDT was not going to die on my watch. It’s too important to me.
Do you have the coming season planned?
We do! We have a shortened season for 2023-2024, but there are three more shows on the schedule for next year. Since we have to find temporary production venues for these shows, we’re playing them close to the vest. However, I can tell you that our season closer next summer will be a fully staged production of “The Final Issue,” an original play by local playwright and TDT board member Rich Mansfield. I can also say that you really want to keep an eye out for what we have planned for February.