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The Evolution of Red Mountain Theatre

Keith Cromwell, Executive Director of Red Mountain Theatre, has never been one to shy away from a challenge, whether it was relocating from New York to run a then-struggling theater company, shepherding it through two decades of ambitious growth, or persuading audiences to take a chance on a new show. His most recent challenge, completed during the pandemic, has been the opening of RMT’s new 60,000-square-foot Parkside Arts Campus. As he talks about the evolution of Red Mountain Theatre, it’s clear that his love for the art form and his love for Birmingham would inevitably lead to the creation of a new artistic space for our city where people can come together to create amazing work, learn the craft of theater, or simply experience the magic of watching a show together.

You first came to Birmingham from New York in 2002 to direct a production of Grease for what was then Summerfest Musical Theatre, and in 2021 you are still here. What prompted you to make that temporary gig a permanent move?

Birmingham, as a city, is one of the most incredible opportunities if you want to transplant yourself and if your goal is to be a catalyst for change – even if you don’t know what you want to grow. I was planning to open a bed and breakfast, and I had never run my own business other than being an actor and a director. I thought I would take advantage of a chance to run a nonprofit for a few years and then go open the bed and breakfast, but I fell in love with the company and with Birmingham. And the potential kept revealing itself to me. As we started to grow and expand our roots and our base, our opportunity to really turn this organization into a regional center for the arts became more evident.

The organization has grown exponentially since your tenure as Executive Director began in 2003. Can you give us a sense of where Red Mountain Theatre was then and where it is now?

When the company’s founder, James Hatcher, started Summerfest, we were part of UAB and at Town & Gown Theatre, which is now the Virginia Samford Theatre, and at Boutwell Auditorium. When Hatcher, as he was known, passed away, it was one of those situations, as with any kind of dynamic leadership, where the organization struggled to find its way. It was almost bankrupt when I came and sat down at the desk, not knowing what the heck I was supposed to do. We were a little south of a $500,000 annual budget, although we didn’t even have an official budget, no audited financial statements, nothing. We started from there with the incredible Sharon Suellentrop, who was my one half-time employee. Now we’re approaching a $5 million annual budget with a staff that will soon grow to 30, and we just opened a $25 million arts campus. So, there’s certainly been a little bit of growth!

Audiences certainly know Red Mountain Theatre for its big blockbuster musicals, but you stage a variety of productions, including new work. RMT has not only a strong local track record but also a national reputation, with Broadway producing credits on shows such as The Bridges of Madison County and Once on This Island. How did that come about? 

I think one of the blessings of my early time here was that I was aware of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. Being a member of that organization and going to their conferences gave me this community of like-minded arts leaders from across the nation. They really introduced me to the producer side of the world. As an actor and a director, I’d had the privilege of being a part of new work, but I hadn’t realized that in Birmingham, we could have an opportunity to support new work. The more I became engaged with NAMT, the more I really began to rely on a lot of those arts leaders.

I then said, “it’s my turn to give back,” and I began to participate in various ways, such as speaking on panels and serving on the New Works Committee, which selects the new musicals to be presented at NAMT’s annual Festival of New Musicals in New York City. Then I joined the board, and the relationships that we had with folks in New York began to take a different turn in terms of our ability to participate in producing on Broadway. Once we began to put our toe in that new world, the national lens completely shifted to “Holy smokes – what’s going on in Birmingham, Alabama? Who’s this Red Mountain Theatre?”

And now we’ve spent 18 years encouraging people to please just come see this new show and take a chance. And frankly, to understand that sometimes it isn’t good and that’s art, that’s theater – it’s a living, breathing human thing. And it’s about learning when you come to be discerning and to think “I wonder why this one didn’t land.” It doesn’t mean don’t ever go back to that theater again.

Is there anything that really stands out to you as unique about Birmingham’s theater community? Are there any areas where you hope to see more growth?

We budget 14 to 16 months out, and I have to create those budgets considering what actors we’ll have. Are we going to be able to cast the show locally or do I also need to budget for some out-of-town talent? And I can’t tell you the number of times that our artistic community here has just wowed me – when we have had a hundred people show up at an audition and I’m sitting there in front of an embarrassment of riches thinking, “Oh my gosh, I can cast this whole show here.” That is the constant surprise and beauty of this community. Where there is room for growth, and I put this on us, is that we need to do a better job of finding all those artists that are the other side of production – the director, the music director, the scenic design, the set design. I think that they are here, and I just want us to do a better job of putting out that clarion call that we are looking for those people also.

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