There wasn’t a drama program at Fairhope High School when Erin Langley was a student, but that didn’t diminish her early interest in theater. Before graduating from Spring Hill College with a degree in elementary education, she introduced herself to companies at the Joe Jefferson Playhouse in Mobile and Theatre 98 in Fairhope.
She taught in the Baldwin County school system for a few years but decided, in conjunction with her musician husband, Karl, to pursue arts full time. She started a for-profit company called Jitterbug Theatre to largely teach skills lessons in schools, but after discovering a larger interest in theater performance, chose to pivot to a nonprofit community model.
Langley is the founder, executive director and artistic director of Eastern Shore Repertory Theatre (ESRT), which currently caters to hundreds of students annually. Each year, ESRT produces two high-quality local performances, hosts summer camps, teaches classes, and facilitates students to participate in national festivals and competitions.
In 2018, they crossed the bay to present “A Christmas Carol, The Musical” at The Steeple on St. Francis and that same year, they won the Nappie Award for Best Play or Performance of the Year, with “Newsies” at Henry George Park. Their outdoor, blufftop performances in Fairhope have memorably included such classics as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Matilda, The Musical” and this year, “The Wizard of Oz.”
In October, Langley is taking the troupe to New York to perform “Godspell Junior” at the historic Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, which reopened last month after extensive renovations.
“I had no idea it would be something people would be interested in, but I decided to give it a go and it started a snowball effect into this kind of huge thing we have today,” Langley said, adding ESRT isn’t just for performers. Students can also learn about set design, costuming, music and more.
“Right now we are doing a summer camp for special effects, where kids are learning how to do lighting, sound, work with fog machines and bubble machines and dry ice and all kinds of fun stuff,” she said. “So we love all types of students. Honestly, I feel like there’s a place for everybody in the theater, no matter what your skill set is. We feel strongly about incorporating everyone so it’s not just the ‘performer type.’ I feel like it’s my goal to create a space for all levels of interest so if it’s just something you want to explore, we have something for you. But we definitely have kids who are very serious about this. Many have gone on to very elite acting programs.”
During COVID-19 shutdowns, the theater had no live performances, but did stage an outdoor “haunted forest” for Halloween, which Langley quipped was “actually the most-attended thing we’ve done in this area.”
“We had no idea it would be a thing but we had people coming from other states to see it,” she said. “I guess if theater ever goes out of business I can make a living doing haunted houses.”
But people familiar with her passion for ESRT know that’s unlikely.
“I’m deeply grateful to be recognized,” she said of her Nappie Award. “And I feel so grateful to be able to do what I love. This is who I feel like I’m created to be and what I’m created to do, so I’m appreciative people are responsive to it and want to be involved. But this is representative of all the people that work with us and all the volunteers and all the people who are involved in our theater program. So this is for all of them.”
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