ACT brings state theatre epicenter to Alabaster

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

For the past three years, nearly every live theatre performance in Alabama has had at least some connection with Alabaster. From Pell City to Wetumpka to the South City Theatre, the Alabama Conference of Theatre has impacted the way the state views the stage.

A new executive director recently shifted the epicenter of theatre in Alabama from Bessemer to Alabaster.

“We didn’t really have anything in Bessemer,” said Sue Gerrells, who has been executive director of the organization for the past three years. “We are involved with theatre all over the state, but our physical address moved to Alabaster after I became executive director.”

The ACT is a quickly recognizable name in high school, college and community theatre circles, and has helped dozens of theatre clubs since 1975, Gerrells said.

“We are an umbrella organization for theatre in all of the state,” Gerrells said. “We have been around for a long time. We want to be sort of a central place to bring all the theatre in the state together.”

ACT is currently broken up into three divisions, and is working to add a fourth.

The organization’s secondary division focuses on high school-level theatre programs, the collegiate division works with higher education programs and the community branch focuses on programs like Alabaster’s South City Theatre.

The organization is also working to establish its first professional theatre club, which will likely kick off in spring 2011 when an ACT-sponsored group of university theatre professors takes a show to Italy.

“We are just starting to develop our professional division,” Gerrells said. “We have a group of actors that are actually all professors at colleges across the state that are taking their show to Italy in early spring. That will serve as our first professional-level event.”

The ACT regularly brings theatre programs together to compete and exhibit their shows through annual festivals, Gerrells said.

Each year, the organization draws about 65 high schools to the Walter Trumbauer Secondary Theatre Festival in Florence. The festival, which began in the 1940s, is named after a former University of Montevallo theatre professor.

The organization also hosts the Alabama Community Theatre Festival in Pell City, which drew theatre companies from Wetumpka, Millbrook, Pell City, Birmingham, Alabaster and Jasper.

This year, Wetumpka and Alabaster took home top honors in the festival, and will move onto the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Atlanta in March.

On the collegiate level, ACT hosts the annual ACT College and University Festival at UM.

Because the organization represents theatre clubs all over the state, one of its main goals is to help those clubs apply for and obtain federal and state grants, Gerrells said.

ACT recently received a pair of grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The organization received $6,000 for the Trumbauer Festival and $1,370 for the Community Theatre Festival, which ACT will use to fund the festivals in the future.

“We organize the festivals as sort of a way to connect the different theatre companies,” Gerrells said.

“We thought, ‘if we can all work together as one voice, we will be a stronger voice for theatre,'” Gerrells said. “A lot of times, the grant organizations want to award the grants where they will do the most good and impact the most people.”