By Emily Williams
The man behind Central Alabama Theater is hoping to use his experiences and connections in “the biz” to inspire the arts community in Birmingham and its youth.
Growing up in Gardendale, Carl Peoples never saw an acting career as a viable option for his life. He spent time singing with the youth choir at his Southern Baptist church but, living spitting distance from both sets of grandparents on their own Walton’s Mountain, he never imagined a career in entertainment.
“That’s really the problem with the arts in this state, because while we support the education side of it, we don’t support it as a vocation that pays for bills,” Peoples said.
Putting his theatrical passions aside, he pursued a degree in psychology at the University of Alabama for a year, ultimately deciding to transfer to UAB to seek a degree in theater. From there, Peoples booked his first job with the Crystal Pistol show at Six Flags Over Georgia and remained there for four seasons before making his way throughout the Southeast until he landed in New York City.
“If you’re going to be a success in the entertainment world, and it doesn’t matter what aspect, you’ve got to go where the work is,” Peoples said. He remained in New York for a time, until California called his name.
Peoples made his cross-country move very much on a whim just days after returning from a nine-month European tour of “Jesus Chris Superstar.” As he stared out of his apartment window at the cold, gray skies of a New York winter, a friend offered him the chance to housesit in a sunny and 76 degree California city, where he would remain for 15 years.
After six days in LA, he booked a part in a Billy Crystal movie and obtained a recurring role on “The Young and the Restless,” which he said was worth its weight in gold.
“Once you’re on TV the door is open,” he said.
With his success in television, he took some time on the side to direct and cast shows for local theaters. But that endeavor came to a grinding halt because his work producing and directing in television took up too much of his time while giving him only limited joy.
“To me, I’m not dogging the television business, but their idea of art was faster and cheaper,” he said. “It wasn’t for the sake of telling a story. I’m a storyteller and that’s why I love the theater.”
So when his parents told him they were planning to sell his grandparent’s house on the family land, Peoples found himself imagining a life in his hometown and spotted a chance to tackle his longtime dream of running his own theater company.
“All I could think about was that house and how I wanted to fix the house up and how I wanted to slow down,” he said. He took a leap and today he serves as artistic director and executive producer for the Central Alabama Theater, with help from his co-executive Butch Noland, a fellow veteran of the Crystal Pistol show.
Peoples hopes to teach the community that there are viable careers to be found in the theater through performances and a new summer camp for kids.
“I never really thought that I would love kids in theater as much as I do,” he said, recounting that his passion sprang from directing a Christmas show at LegoLand.
“James Hatcher had this philosophy of taking kids and educating them at a younger level, even if they don’t want to be in the theater as a vocation,” he said. “You are educating them at the very base as an educated audience member.”
For those students who are bitten by the bug, the two-week day camp will offer a daily rotation of an acting class taught by Peoples, a music and vocal class taught by Carolyn Viola, who is musical director of UAB’s Department of Theater, and a dance class taught by Lani Dill.
Each day also will include a master class that will focus on a different subject, for example a creative writing class, a break dance class or a dialect course. Everything is coordinated to give the students well-rounded insight into what it takes to make it in the theater business.
“We’re giving them not just the experience of being on the stage in, say, ‘Aladdin Jr.,’ which certainly has its place, but we are giving them tools for success in the business and exposing them to the amount of hard work it takes,” he said.
The inaugural camp will not only be the first of its kind for CAT, it will mark a venue change for the company’s performances. After celebrating a year of the theater’s monthly cabaret series with a birthday event May 14 at the Clubhouse on Highland, Peoples and his crew will say goodbye to that venue and move their series to Mountain Brook’s Steeple Arts Dance Studio.
Peoples said it’s a bittersweet change because of support the venture has gotten from the clubhouse’s owner, Bob McKenna. But with the venue’s popularity as a wedding and event space, the move will be beneficial for both parties, he said.
Peoples said Steeple Arts is a “great location with people who appreciate the arts and will support it.”
“If we can start doing things here, I think we’re on to something,” he said.
For more information on the Central Alabama Theater, visit centralalabamatheater.org.