Thursday, September 13, 2007

Once Upon a Time in Fairhope

September 13, 2007

Edward J. Kearney, Sam Guncler in I Hate Hamlet

One of the prospects that enticed me to move back to Fairhope from New York in 1988 was that I could start another theatre company, as I had in Switzerland with the American community group we called the Little Theatre of Geneva. Fairhope seemed a good location for the first Equity theater in the southern part of the state, due to the huge success of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, first in Anniston and then in Montgomery, where it sat, and still does, in the middle of a 40-acre tract of land and a physical plant that cost something like $50 million.

If people from Fairhope would drive nearly three hours to see Shakespeare, I reckoned, would they not go across town to see a little Neil Simon, Noel Coward or Tennessee Williams? The Grand Hotel offered us space in the loft of their golf club, and I used the sale of a little scrap of land as seed money to create my theatre.

I named the company the Jubilee Fish Theatre, in an attempt to be, as I stated in the flyer, "imaginative, innovative -- and fun!" My husband tried his best to talk me out of the name, but the locals enjoyed it. Someone from Fairhope (perhaps me) will explain to you sometime what is meant by jubilee fish, but anyway I liked saying we were the only company in the world with that name. It definitely wasn't pretentious, and it definitely set us apart.

The first season consisted of four plays: A.R. Gurney's The Middle Ages, The Price, by Arthur Miller, The Deadly Game, and Somerset Maugham's The Circle. I scouted Montgomery for some of my first actors, including the dynamic young man named John Preston, who went on to become a favorite at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, playing, among other roles, an unforgettable Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. I made contact with Lewis Chambers, a New York agent who sent some of his stable of actors to me, and we worked for years together, with him supplying me with appropriate members of the actors' union for my plays.

We did such new plays like Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest, pictured here with Jed Dickson, Martina Vidmar, backed by a cast of onlookers including Carter Inskeep, Sarah Benz Phillips, Mary Margaret Thomas (mostly hidden), and Tina Hightower. At the end of that production one of my regular audience members took me aside and asked plaintively, "Why do you keep doing these comedies that are so sad?"

It was kind of a trademark at Jubilee Fish Theatre, comedies that had some sadness, or serious plays that had some laughs. I had to keep the casts small because of the space in that loft, and I never made a cent at my chosen profession, but kept pouring my own money in to keep it going. At the end of nine years I was losing about as much as I did on that first event that launched the company. My daughter was in New York City and pregnant with my first grandson. The theatre no longer seemed a viable profession, at least not for me.

So I moved on, and have now boxed all the memorabilia I can find into cartons for packing. In researching this, I found I had kept alarmingly little, and vital bits of information about my casts and my seasons seem to have been discarded over time, and over the recent purge of papers as I pack up to move. You can't keep everything, but there are moments in one's own once-upon-a-time when remnants of past projects will light up your heart. Just thinking about the days of Jubilee Fish Theatre make me a little happy, like a comedy tinged with sad moments.


Boone G. Rountree said...

Mary Lois,

Hello. My name is Boone. You may not remember me but I was the boy from Prattville who played John Henry West in your 1992 production of The Member of the Wedding. I happened upon this post by accident while writing about my achievements for a graduate school scholarship application.

I am sad to hear the Jubilee Fish Theatre has closed as I have many fond memories from my time there (including my first time cussing on stage). I am also sorry to hear you have lost so much of your memorabilia. I was lucky enough that my mother kept a very thorough portfolio of my early productions so I have photos, articles, and programs from that show. If you are interested, I would be happy to make digital or hard copies of these for your collection.

My e-mail address is If you are interested please let me know.

Boone Goodwin Rountree

P.S. I am very interested in any stories you may have from that production so please don't be a stranger.

Mary Lois said...

Boone, anybody who saw that glowing production will remember you as practically the glowing-est! You were a delight to work with and a marvel in the role. I'm so glad to hear from you again.