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COLUMN ONE : Culture in the South Rises Again : An economic boom and social change are bringing back pre-Civil War glory days. But money problems and poor management hamper the revival.

December 15, 1989|DAVID TREADWELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 3-year-old project at Duke University called the Duke Drama Pre-Broadway Series has turned the campus into a testing ground. Two current Broadway productions that previewed at Duke are the revival of Somerset Maugham's "The Circle," starring Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger, and Tom Stoppard's newest play, "Artist Descending a Staircase."

Others have included "Metamorphosis," starring Mikhail Baryshnikov in Steven Berkoff's adaptation of the Franz Kafka classic; Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," starring Jack Lemmon, and Lee Blessing's "A Walk in the Woods," starring Sam Waterson and Robert Prosky.

The series is the brainchild of Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg, winner of 29 Tony awards for such shows as "Biloxi Blues" and "Children of a Lesser God." Azenberg first visited the campus when his daughter was a student there. Six years ago, he became a drama professor--commuting from New York 22 weeks a year--and proposed the idea of the Broadway preview project to the university.

David Ball, Duke's director of drama, said a play can be produced at Durham for much less than in many Northeast cities. At the same time, the audience is "not a bunch of hicks," he said. "This area has the highest concentration of Ph.Ds and MAs in the country. So the artists get a fairly good gauge."

The arts rebound is even penetrating the rural South. In the south Georgia community of Tifton, for example, the Arts Experiment Station headquartered at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College has worked with local arts councils in a five-county region to develop a lively and varied cultural scene.

Created in 1976 with the help of a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the station last year coordinated more than 150 activities and events that served 58,000 people--almost 40% of the total population in the five counties--at a total cost of about $500,000.

The way up was not easy. "When we first began programming, our arts exhibits had to be shown in bank lobbies, in automobile showrooms and, in one case, in an appliance shop," said Syd Blackmarr, executive director of the station, whose name was designed to be reminiscent of the agricultural experiment stations that helped develop the South's farm life.

"The Atlanta Ballet had to perform in unair-conditioned gyms in 90-degree heat in summer, and the auditorium at Abraham Baldwin was the only facility we had that could be used as a theater."

Since then, several newly constructed or renovated facilities in the various counties have been provided for the arts, including an 850-seat theater, a 2,000-seat auditorium in a civic center and space for visual exhibits at four libraries.

The South arts revival is also boosting black culture in a way that many blacks compare to the role Harlem and Washington played in previous decades.

Last year, for instance, Atlanta inaugurated a National Black Arts Festival that attracted more than 500,000 people. More than 120 activities and events were held over 10 days in eight artistic disciplines, including theater, dance, film and folk arts. Among the cultural offerings were the world premieres of playwright Charles Fuller's "Sally" and George Faison's "The Apollo . . . It Was Just Like Magic."

This year, a similar biennial festival devoted to black theater was launched in Winston-Salem, under the impetus of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. The seven-day event provided an unprecedented showcase for black theater groups, ranging from New York's Negro Ensemble Company to San Francisco's African-American Drama Company to Atlanta's Jomandi Productions.

"I'm a native New Yorker, but I find the South affords us many more possibilities and opportunities than the North," said Thomas Jones III, Jomandi Productions' co-founder and artistic director.

Like many major arts organizations elsewhere in the nation, however, those below the Mason-Dixon Line often are staggering under heavy budget deficits that pose a constant threat to their survival.

Eight of the 10 major symphonies and almost half of the leading theater companies in the region operated in the red this past season.

Several ballet troupes are also in dire financial straits. The 60-year-old Atlanta Ballet, which bills itself as the oldest performing ballet company in the nation, was forced this year to do away with its 61-member orchestra as part of its effort to erase $1.6 million in red ink.

Only eight of the 25 opera companies in the South operated with a surplus in the most recent year for which figures are available.

Last year when the Nashville Symphony Orchestra declared bankruptcy and shut down in the face of a projected $700,000 deficit, the collapse sent shock waves through "Music City USA," one of the most economically competitive communities in the South.

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