If you think downtown Mobile could stand a little more emotional highs and lows, with enhanced dramatics all around, then you’re in luck. You’ll have thousands of like-minded souls running its streets this week.
The Southeastern Theatre Conference will hold its 69th annual convention in the Azalea City March 7-11 to bring the arts front and center for the greater part of a week. It will also fill hotel rooms as 5,500 attendees are expected.
It’s the convention’s second visit to Mobile in the last five years. Though the prior date was on the heels of Mardi Gras, it was more than parades that brought them back.
“[Tourism personnel] have treated us like gold. We made a couple of different site visits down there and we did the convention there in 2014 and everyone involved has been stellar,” SETC Marketing Manager Clay Thornton said.
Thornton said more than 330 workshops will be conducted between Tuesday and Sunday across a wide range of specialties. Theater enthusiasts from across the nation will be here to learn, network, audition, interview and listen to keynote speakers such as playwright Suzan Zeder, costume designer Jane Greenwood and TV, stage and film actor Chris Chalk.
The visitors will be helped by Mobile’s theater community to boot. Joe Jefferson Players Executive Director Jason McKenzie is organizing a corps of local volunteers.
“We have folks signed up as liaisons for each of the 10 community theater groups coming in from out of town. Basically they’ll be answering questions about things in Mobile, finding out about a problem, if they have a flat tire or need a dentist or whatever, that kind of stuff,” McKenzie said.
Those community theater groups will form the most public aspect of the convention: free performances in Mobile’s grandest space. Thursday through Saturday, the Saenger Theatre (6 S. Joachim St.) will host 10 successive plays by community theater companies from regional states such as Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi.
“Specifically, those community theater performances are competition winners in their state and so they’re culminating in this main convention,” Thornton said.
Thursday’s lineup begins at 6 p.m. with “Flowers for Algernon,” followed by “The Last Five Years” at 7:30 p.m. and “I Am My Own Wife” at 9 p.m.
Friday’s slate starts at lunchtime with “The End of a Line” at 12:30 p.m., “Don’t Dress for Dinner” at 2 p.m., “Women On Fire” at 3:30 p.m., “Second Lady” at 6:30 p.m. and “Paper Thin” at 8 p.m..
On Saturday, “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” starts at 12:30 p.m. and the closer is “Doubt” at 1 p.m.
The crews will need to move at breakneck speed. How do they set up and strike sets in lightning-quick fashion?
“They have to fit in 10-by-10 blocks and that’s part of the requirement of the competition. We’ll be on hand to help when they load in their set for their Saenger performances,” McKenzie said.
He will play point man for the visitors’ time away from the convention center.
“I’m giving them a list of events while they’re in town, bars and restaurants and shops and things primarily downtown since that’s where they’re all staying. Artwalk is that Friday so that should be fun for them,” McKenzie said.
The JJP honcho said the city and the Downtown Business Alliance have been particularly helpful.
On March 8 and 9, 20 high school companies from 10 states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — will perform at the Mobile Civic Center Theater. Those start at 10 a.m. and run through 10:45 p.m.
“It is essentially a setup where we have two winning high schools rather than community theaters from each state. Those do cost a little bit of money, like $20 per block of shows,” Thornton said.
While attendance at the convention workshops is limited to paid members, a unique instructional phase will be open to public appreciation.
“A mural painting workshop will take place, I think in the Riverview Garage, maybe the Battle House, over a couple of days,” Thornton said. “Master painter Scott Bradley’s class will grid out a design, take their spots and then they’ll do the painting in two-hour blocks on Friday and Saturday. The public is welcome to watch the process, and the mural will be left after the convention leaves town.”
If history repeats, they’ll also leave some ringing cash registers for Mobile merchants, some great memories for conventioneers and another return visit in a handful of years.