Shakespeare in Our Backyard

A group of musicians perform in a park
The Rude Mechanicals performing at a park

The Rude Mechanicals combines the famous workings of Shakespeare with the warm and open summer evenings of The Park at Manderson Landing to create a one of a kind live show for Tuscaloosa residents. The Rude Mechanicals were formed in 2003, by then directing graduate student Andre LaSalle and Tuscaloosa News journalist Mark Hughes Cobb who both shared the same passions for writing and Shakespeare. They set out with the intention of only producing one show that summer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; however the small group enjoyed the production so much that they decided to do a second summer show, Twelfth Night. What began as a one-time only event quickly became an annual theatrical tradition on Tuscaloosa’s own Black Warrior River.  

I was privileged to get to sit down and talk with The Rude Mechanicals’ co-founder and the man who gave the theatre troupe their lasting name, Mark Hughes Cobb. Mr. Cobb was filled with an almost overwhelming abundance of Shakespearian knowledge and was quite astute and informative when it came to the history of the Rude Mechanicals. He spared no details when it came to how he and a handful of people could produce such a performance that would lead to an increase in audience members year after year.

Early on during our discussion, I was intrigued by Mr. Cobb’s passion and enjoyment he showed when talking about The Rude Mechanicals. The first thing he said that really caught my attention was how one show became two: “About halfway through rehearsal, we were having so much fun together as a group that we decided to do a second show that summer.” This showed me that acting was more than a hobby for these people; this was a passion that inspired them to create an official logo for their troupe (designed by Erin Brown) which they still use today.

Cobb acted in the first three plays, during the 2003-2004 summer seasons, but was handed the task of directing the troupe by Andre LaSalle once he left for graduate school at Northwestern: “I’ve been in all of the shows since the beginning, and he looked at me as some sort of defacto leader, perhaps because I’m a community member and would stick around, or perhaps simply because I’m large and loud.”

After talking with Mr. Cobb, I have no doubt that he could have handled this task alone. However he felt that since he only had three shows worth of experience in the troupe, he would need a partner. Enter Steve Burch, a professor of theater history at UA’s Department of Theatre and Dance. The two sit together during the fall and winter months to work on the shows for the summer: “He directs the first show of the summer, which lands in late May/early June, and I direct the second, which runs late June or early July.” While Mr. Cobb and Mr. Burch do handle the brunt of the work, they are not without other assistance from many talented people.

Over the past four or five years, several students from our own Department of English have lent their knowledge and expertise to The Rude Mechanicals. English students Nic Helms and Alaina Jobe were the first two students to offer up their assistance to Mark and Steve. They used their education in literature to serve as dramaturges. Dramaturges handle most of the heavy research required for the production of plays or operas. Nic and Alaina have since developed a staged reading spinoff of The Rude Mechanicals, The Improbable Fictions. They perform two to three shows per semester and include some Shakespearian and classical shows. Natalie Hopper, another student with the Department of English, assisted the The Rude Mechanicals as dramaturge, actor, and assistant director.

Other notable UA faculty members who give their talents to the The Rude Mechanicals are Laurie and Koji Arizumi. Both are current Japanese language instructors and actively give their free time to supplying the The Rude Mechanicals with wonderful professional musical background.

The Rude Mechanicals has played a variety of different venues. While they predominantly played at The Park at Manderson Landing, the summer 2014 shows were performed at Marr’s Spring Park, due to construction at Manderson Landing. They plan to be back at the Park at Manderson Landing for 2015. Other places The Rude Mechanicals have played include the Presidential Pavilion and Ferguson Plaza on campus, Wintzell’s for a West Alabama AIDS Outreach Benefit, the riverboat landing downtown (two shows of the 2005 Pericles, Prince of Tyre), and a church basement for a soup kitchen benefit for 2006’s A Comedy of Errors. This last season’s shows were Julius Caesar May 28th–31st and Two Gentlemen of Verona June 25th–28th. “We’re prepping All’s Well That Ends Well for May 2015 and Pericles, Prince of Tyre for June 2015.”