We Need to Talk


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Written by Rosalind Fournier \\ Portrait by Beau Gustafson

Theatre images provided by Red Mt. Theatre

Back in 2007, Red Mountain Theatre Company (RMTC) Executive Director Keith Cromwell was selected to take part in Leadership Birmingham, an invitation-only program that brings local leaders together once a month for a year to learn more about the community, its strongest assets, and its biggest challenges. The program is also designed for leaders from different sectors to learn more about one another—so they kicked off the first session by simply introducing themselves.     

“I said, ‘Hi, I’m Keith Cromwell. I’m the executive director of Red Mountain Theatre Company, and I’m an out gay man,’” Cromwell remembers saying.

There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, which neither surprised Cromwell nor particularly bothered him. This wasn’t his first rodeo when it came to outing himself (and he’d been out of the closet for decades, anyway). Yet “even now in our culture, that can cause a profound moment of silence when nobody knows what the hell to say,” Cromwell says, careful to add that he was hardly the first openly gay man or lesbian to go through Leadership Birmingham. “But for me it didn’t seem like a big deal. I was thinking, ‘I’m in a situation where I’m supposed to be participating for all of who I am, and I’d like to be known as an incredibly smart businessman and a great artist, but I’m also gay.’”

This article began as a story about Red Mountain Theatre Company and the man who transformed it into a nationally respected institution recognized for its high-quality performing arts presentations and first-rate theatre education programs. It is still that story. But that anecdote about his experience with Leadership Birmingham (which he also co-chaired in 2010) struck me as part an even larger narrative about Cromwell’s ongoing contributions to his adopted hometown. He doesn’t just promote the arts, though he is a major player in the local arts scene; he is also passionately dedicated to promoting dialogue, understanding, and diversity in all its forms.

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Theatre as Therapy

If Cromwell is comfortable discussing his sexual orientation today, it wasn’t always that way. His coming of age as a young gay man was nothing short of traumatic. “I am a recovering homophobic,” he says, describing a childhood in which he was convinced he must be a horrible human being. Though Cromwell remained closeted through high school, it hardly mattered. “I was ostracized, bullied and mistreated,” he remembers. “When you’re a child and the social atmosphere and religious dogma and entire culture are telling you that what you are is wrong and should be hated, we as gay men of my age internalized that.”

Theatre was Cromwell’s refuge—and even that didn’t come easily. He says he had to work harder than everyone else and even overcome the humiliation of having a teacher say to him, “‘Keith, you need to do anything but this. You’re never going to be successful in the arts.’” But other teachers were supportive, and his persistence paid off. Theatre became his career and his lifeline.

“Once I began to explore what it was like to go to an audition, watch the room, study it and learn how to excel at that, I translated that psychologically into being accepted and loved,” Cromwell says. “So my drug began to be getting cast. I thought, ‘Wow—I am now part of a unit of people who all have fun together and love each other.’ This became the place that I fit in.”

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His career took off—Cromwell performed in the first Broadway national tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with Donny Osmond and Sam Harris; the off-Broadway hit “Howard Crabtree’s Whoop-Dee-Doo!”; the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, and more. Yet along the way, there were times he wondered if he was doing it for the right reasons. He questioned if it was worth it—the relentless auditions that were always cutthroat, even among friends. “There is simply no job security as an actor,” Cromwell says. “There is the perpetual search. And at some point I became disenchanted with that search.” He made a switch to directing and choreography, which he found to be an even more relentlessly competitive world—never mind that he enjoyed great success serving as associate director and choreographer for the Off-Broadway show “Pete ’n’ Keely” and show supervisor and associate choreographer for the award-winning Off-Broadway production of “Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly!”. Cromwell also won awards for a re-creation of “When Pigs Fly!” in Los Angeles and still more awards for a production of “Cabaret” at Trinity University, including Best Musical. He also directed a production of “Damn Yankees” at The Muny, America’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theatre, located in St. Louis.

Then one day in his 40s—just as he was coming off of a painful breakup with his life partner of 10 years—he had a moment of disillusionment, or at least questioning, about his life in the theatre. “Have I based my entire career over healing my broken inner child?” he remembers wondering. “And if I’ve made so much progress healing my inner child, is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?

“I finally said, ‘I don’t think I want to have to put myself out there anymore to be validated. I don’t need that approval now.’” So he decided to make a 180-degree career change and become an innkeeper in the mountains of New Jersey, writing a business plan and securing an SBA loan. “I love the idea of nurturing and hospitality,” he explains. It seemed like the perfect change he was looking for.

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But just as he was about to take the plunge, he got a call from what was then Summerfest Musical Theatre about doing a production of “Grease.” It came out of the blue—he’d never even been to Birmingham—but it was only a three-week gig, and he was willing to put his plans on hold at least that long. Then he returned to direct “Footloose,” and Cromwell realized that Summerfest had a lot to offer and even more potential to be realized.

By 2004, he was the new, full-time executive director of the theatre, soon rebranded Red Mountain Theatre Company, and he threw himself headlong into growing its ambitious production schedule and expanding its programs for youth. Cromwell’s contagious enthusiasm and willingness to introduce bold concepts have also served him well in attracting more attention and money to the theatre. A 2014 article on AL.com estimated that RMTC had increased its annual budget by 700 percent under Cromwell’s leadership.

He has also fallen in love with Birmingham. Though his success at RMTC could easily lead to job offers from theatres in bigger markets, he’s tired of being asked if he’s planning to stay. “I have had headhunters contact me about other jobs during my time here,” he says, “(but) I have a board of directors and a staff who challenge and allow me to cast the vision and lay the track…so whenever I’ve entertained the idea to go somewhere else, I’ve always thought, I don’t know that I want to give up the blessing I’ve been given to be able to chart the course of the destiny of this organization.”

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Challenging Audiences, Building Bridges

A huge part of what he sees as that destiny is to create a new platform for exploring human rights. To that end, he is actively building partnerships between RMTC and like-minded organizations in the community. Tina Kempin Reuter, who heads the University of Alabama at Birmingham Institute for Human Rights, says she was looking for opportunities to partner with artistic institutions when Cromwell reached out to her. “Art plays a huge part in advocacy for human rights, peace and social justice,” she explains. “Theatre specifically has the potential to elevate human-rights issues by integrating viewers into the theme of the show and making them part of the experience, thereby fostering understanding and empathy.”

Last year, the theatre challenged audiences to take a deeper look at mental illness with “Next to Normal,” a drama-musical about a mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder. “So with that we ask ourselves, ‘When will society learn to have a conversation about mental illness? When will we take it out of the dark closet to talk about how to manage these beautiful people who have an illness just like diabetes?’” Cromwell says.

The RMTC has also created a new, ongoing Human Rights New Works Festival, which kicked off in February with “The Green Book,” a play—presented in conjunction with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center—about the dangers and indignities African-Americans faced just trying to travel during the days of Jim Crow.

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Cromwell’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. At the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) Alabama Region awards dinner in March—dedicated to “celebrating change-makers in our community”—the group awarded Cromwell with its Brotherhood/Sisterhood Award (along with General Charles Krulak, former president of Birmingham-Southern College; Joyce Spielberger, community convener; and Odessa Woolfolk, founding chair of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award). Business leader Cathy Friedman and longtime community volunteer Mary Johnson-Butterworth nominated him for the award. “Red Mountain Theatre Company promotes inclusion of all young people, which is the mission of the NCCJ—to promote understanding among all races, religions and cultures,” Friedman says. Meanwhile, “Keith, as executive director, chooses material for productions that are not only entertaining but are truly educational and often deal with subjects that are controversial and difficult,” Friedman says. She also welcomes Cromwell’s inclusion of sexual orientation in discussions about diversity. “Keith has opened the lines of communication with the Birmingham community about sexual orientation. That, too, is a quality that is very important to NCCJ’s mission.”

For Cromwell, while his own early struggle to come to terms with being gay might hit the closest to home, he considers it our shared calling to bring all human-rights issues out into the open at any cost. “My thought is,” he says, “we are at a critical mass. Either we engage in authentic conversation and (work to) reduce fear and uncertainly, or our society and community are literally in peril.”

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That doesn’t mean that Cromwell expects every production at RMTC or other theatres and art venues to reach the level of provocative, hard-hitting subject matter as a play like “The Green Book.” He believes any performance has the potential to provoke thought. “What we do is create amazing theatrical art that inspires conversation,” he says, “and that is why I’m doing what I’m doing. If it leads to a conversation in the car on the way home or it’s simply that fleeting thought, now it’s entered your consciousness.

“I am so proud of the challenging human situations RMTC has brought to life onstage over the years,” he continues. “It’s been beautiful to watch conversations blossom as people contemplate what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.”

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