Paul Pierce, the producing artistic director of the Springer Opera House, went to the University of Georgia. He’s directing “Bear Country,” a new play about the last day legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant spent in his office.
Plenty of Pierce’s friends have called him and asked why on earth he’s presenting a play about Bear Bryant at the Springer Opera House. His University of Georgia friends, that is.
Pierce said it was simple. After just a few years in Columbus (he’s been the Springer’s top man for 23 years), he figured out that Columbus “is the crossroads of SEC hatred.” Fans of the Universities of Alabama and Georgia and Auburn University love to trash-talk each other about which team is the best.
And during his opening curtain speech before each show in the fall, Pierce will look out into the audience and see men with earphones as they listen to one football game or another.
So what better place and time to present “Bear Country”?
Rodney Clark, who plays the older Bryant, originated the role in Montgomery’s Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The ASF had commissioned the show for its Southern Writers’ Project. It is written by Michael Vigilant, who is the ASF managing director and a playwright.
Clark reluctantly took the part.
“I couldn’t think of a worse idea than playing Bear Bryant in Alabama,” he said.
Because it was a new play, there were several rewrites but he still called it “daunting.”
On opening night in Montgomery, 22 former players who had been coached by Bryant, showed up.
“Afterward, I talked to them,” Clark said. “They loved it.”
Getting the thumbs-up from those former players allowed him to relax and get into the role.
When the production had a run in Birmingham, more ex-players came to see the show, Clark said. He got the same reaction from them.
Clark noticed tailgaters in the ASF parking lot.
“That’s not something you do before you go to a play,” he said with a chuckle.
Scooter MacMillan, the Springer’s marking director, said tailgating will be allowed on Saturday before the show. But he figures tailgating will happen throughout the run.
From baseball to theater
Pierce and Clark both grew up in Anniston and the University of Alabama was always part of their families’ lives.
While they weren’t close buddies, they played on a championship city league baseball team and lived three blocks apart.
“That was way back in 1961,” Clark said. “I knew him, but I remember his family better. We met again later and hung out together in New York in the 1980s.”
Pierce’s parents both went to the University of Alabama and he broke their hearts when he opted for the University of Georgia. Clark went on to get his master’s degree in directing at the University of Alabama.
The other characters
Four actors play all the other characters, including Jonathan Le Gallais as Bryant as a child, Adam Archer as the young Bryant (ages 14-58), Daniel Stargel as nine different characters and Michael Stiggers as three different characters.
Stargel and Stiggers just closed “The Full Monty” earlier this month and are having the challenges of their lives juggling all these different characters.
Two of the characters Stargel is playing are high school and college coaches who shaped Bryant’s life as a coach.
Stiggers is playing the owner of a restaurant where Bryant stops to get directions to a prospective player’s house. As Grandpa, Stiggers tells Bryant what he expects from him come fall.
Bryant took over a “moribund” football team, Pierce said, and had to teach the players to win.
Both Stiggers and Stargel also characterize players on Bryant’s team.
More than football
Though the title is “Bear Country,” everyone connected to the play says it’s not just about football.
“You really take the journey of his life with him,” Stargel said. “We get to meet the people who helped him and shaped his life.”
Clark says it’s more about life than football.
“Many people will come because of Bear Bryant,” Pierce said. “Even if this was a made-up character, it would be absolutely interesting.”
But ultimately, it’s about a football coach who stayed at one school for 25 years.
The play begins in 1926 in Bryant’s hometown of Moro Bottom, Ark., and ends in 1982 when he died, just 28 days after he retired from coaching.
Here's the cast for the show:
Paul “Bear” Bryant: Rodney Clark is making his Springer Opera House debut. He has worked at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for 15 years in approximately 75 plays, most recently in “Cymbeline,” “Death of a Salesman,” “A Christmas Carol: The Musical,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Proof,” “A Christmas Story,” “Peter Pan” and “All My Sons.” He has toured the United States and Europe and has performed in the Cincinnati Playhouse, Cleveland Playhouse, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Barter Theatre and Theatre Virginia in plays like “The Rainmaker,” “Othello,” “The Tempest,” “Hamlet” and “Holy Ghosts.” He regularly played bad guys on soap operas including “One Life to Live,” “The Guiding Light,” “Another World” and “Loving.” Films include the soon-to-be-released “October Baby,” “A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz” and “Rude Awakening.” But his real claims to fame are that he and Springer artistic director Paul Pierce were on the same championship baseball team as children in Anniston, Ala., and that he is married to long-time ASF actress Greta Lambert.
Young Coach Bryant: Adam Archer appeared in the Mainstage productions of “Inherit the Wind,” “Father of the Bride” and “The Complete History of America (Abridged); in the Springer Children’s Theater productions of “The Big Friendly Giant” (twice) and “Afternoon of the Elves” and in the Studio II productions of “Crimes of the Heart” and “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline.” He is the Springer’s assistant education coordinator and improvisation teacher. He studied improv with Second City and is studying at the Whole World Theatre in Atlanta. He has performed with CLIMB Theatre in Minnesota, Barter Theatre in Virginia and Rose of Athens (Ga.) Theatre.
Coach Cowan: Daniel Stargel just finished playing Jerry Lukowski in “The Full Monty” at the Springer. Over the past year, he has been busy playing in shows like “Dracula,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “The Miracle.” He also performed in the Springer’s “Footloose” last season. He met and fell in love with his wife on stage.
Grandpa: Michael Stiggers is a theater education graduate of Columbus State University. He was last seen as Buddy “Keno” Walsh in “The Full Monty.” Other Springer productions include “Peter Pan,” “Footloose,” “Big River,” “Charm School” and “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline.” He has worked with the Springer Theater Academy for four years. He has also worked as an actor/educator with CLIMB Theatre in Minnesota and recently performed in “Rent” with the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Pennsylvania.
Child Paul Bryant: Jonathan Le Gallais played the Wolf and Prince in “Into the Woods” at Veterans Memorial Middle School. He also appeared as a Lost Boy in the 2008 Springer production of “Peter Pan.”