Geoffrey Sherman, Citizen of the Year – Arts
By Lori M. Quiller
From his office at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF), Geoffrey Sherman can peek at the action on stage by switching on the small closed circuit television sitting beside his desk. His favorite moment is witnessing emotion catch fire in the audience. From a giggle to a crescendo of laughter, stolen moments such as this are treasures for Sherman, who will be retiring as ASF’s Producing Artistic Director at the end of this season after 12 years.
“That moment shared by everyone in the audience…that’s what I get out of this,” Sherman smiled, reflecting on that stolen moment he shared in his office while the main stage, the Festival, was filled with schoolchildren watching a performance of “A Christmas Carol.”
Originally from London, Sherman jokes about how he came to America “by accident.”
“I was directing plays in Canada, and I met a woman I ended up marrying, my first wife, who was an American choreographer,” Sherman smiled. “We went to New York and wrote letters to find work. I wrote to theatre companies across America saying, ‘Hey, I’m available and can meet with you.’ She wrote to dance companies in England saying the same thing. We got work almost immediately in each other’s countries and the marriage did not last very long, alas. I joke about coming to America quite by accident, but looking back I realize that living in New York in a small studio apartment with almost no furniture that it was possible to live simply and happily.”
At one time Sherman said he decided to dabble in television work, which he found lucrative. In fact, he’s shocked even today at how much money he made by directing just a few episodes of “Another World.” But, television was not for him. The call of live theatre beckoned, and an opportunity through a colleague brought him to Montgomery in 2003.
“I had my ‘Oh, my God moment’ driving into the park and rounding the corner and seeing the Festival for the first time,” Sherman laughed. “It really wasn’t what I was expecting! Really? I had no clue! I knew this place had a decent reputation at that time, but it was so far off the beaten track. It was a beautiful building in a beautiful park, and then I got to work with the actors. My first production was “Arcadia.” I loved the production and the play itself. We were reviewed, and they liked it. I was asked to come back and direct “Shirley Valentine.” I happened to be in the right place at the right time when they were interviewing for this position.”
In 2005 Sherman soon settled into his new position at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Even though the theatre had lost its state funding a couple of years previously, Sherman began to see opportunities for the theatre to continue to thrive.
“There is opportunity in the theatre to preserve our community,” Sherman explained. Preserving community was a task Sherman and his team as ASF took to heart when he instituted new programs, which will surely serve as part of his legacy. Today, SchoolFest, the ASF Touring Company and The State Youth Theatre have all served to help bring the theatre, and specifically the works of the Bard, to the masses.
During the year, thousands of Alabama’s school children travel to ASF as part of SchoolFest’s matinees, which enhance their understanding of literature and their curriculum. The actors take time to visit with the students taking the play off the stage and to the audience to answer questions about the material, costumes and what it’s like to perform.
The ASF Touring Company and The State Youth Theatre work hand in hand. The Touring Company take a play on the road bringing the theatre to Alabamians who might not know about ASF or be unable to travel to Montgomery. Upon their return, the company then works with high school students from across the state who have endured a true audition process to become part of The State Youth Theatre to produce the theatre in the Octagon.
Although he confesses that he doesn’t attend the theatre as much as he would like these days, he admits that with all his years of producing and directing plays, there are still surprises awaiting him on the stage.
“Live theatre isn’t flourishing the way it should be because it’s so expensive to produce,” he said. “No one is getting rich on Broadway or in any other theatre setting. We do this because we love what we do. There is nothing that can equal the effect of a live audience. I’m still doing this because I still believe the theatre can change lives. It’s important. If we didn’t believe in it, we wouldn’t all be here.”