Allen Shankles on ALT, its history and a future without him

Area native Allen Shankles began his career as a professional actor, studying with the prestigious Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1980s. When that tenure ended, he came home to earn a little money and get married before moving to Los Angeles or New York City, where he dreamed of a career in entertainment. 

Amarillo had other plans for him. When Shankles returned in 1983, Amarillo Little Theatre was struggling, near bankruptcy, and in need of a director for the four shows it had planned that year. West Texas State University theater professor Dr. Larry Menefee recommended Shankles for the part-time job. ALT could only hire him by the show, unsure they’d have enough money for a full season.

Thirty-eight years later, Shankles has stepped down as ALT’s Managing/Artistic Director, handing  over the leadership of the acclaimed organization to Jason Crespin. During Shankles’ tenure, ALT rose to national prominence with an annual budget that puts it within an elite category of regional theaters. Our community theater is regularly recognized as one of the most successful in the nation, especially among cities with a similar population.

Eight years ago, Shankles was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the progression of the disease—along with its unpredictable symptoms—have finally convinced him it’s time to slow down. He’s not leaving ALT entirely, but officially handed his title to Crespin on July 1.

Right after the musical Matilda closed down the 2020-2021 ALT season with a sold-out run in May, Shankles sat down with Brick & Elm for an exclusive interview in his ALT office.

First, Allen, how are you feeling?

Parkinson’s is different for everybody. Some people have difficulty walking or have vision problems or swallowing problems. I don’t, so I feel very fortunate. I have a lot of uncontrolled movement but I’m still functioning. I’ve directed four shows this year, I play golf, but the beast is always on my tail. If my health were still as solid as it once was, I would probably not ever retire. But the reality is this doesn’t get better. 

When did you start thinking about pulling back from leadership?

About two years ago. I decided that I wanted to have control of how this transition went. I met with Jason [Crespin] and started to put this plan into motion. I put my whole life into this [organization], my adult life, and I wanted to control the future as much as I could. I’m a control freak for sure, so I want to know it’s gonna be in good hands when I walk out the door.

Let’s dig into the history. In 1983, you started working for ALT at night while working full time during the day for Canyon Glass Company. What was the biggest challenge for you during that first year?

People. There was nobody here. The first show I was to direct was Arsenic and Old Lace and there are 11 roles in that show. Eight people showed up at the auditions. I called a friend from college to play a role in the show, and then I played the other two. I built the set, I ran the light board, and during the performances I had to run downstairs and put a trench coat on and a hat and come on stage to be the cop, then run back around to turn the lights out at the end of .

What was the biggest challenge of your most recent year at ALT?

COVID. It will always be remembered as the most crazy season I’ve ever experienced. We dealt with fear, politics, a strict set of safety protocols. We let in an audience that was only 50 percent of our capacity. We had performers miss 10 days of rehearsals because they were quarantined. Our lead in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Tre Butcher, tested positive for COVID the day after we closed that show.

We lost $150,000 to $200,000 in ticket sales this season, but our contributions were about 50 percent more than we’ve ever had, so we’re actually going to end up with a better season than we had two years ago. That’s because of the generosity of our donors. 

You’ve directed hundreds of performances, including four in the most recent season. Which one was the most challenging to direct?

They all have their own problems and joys. But as a director, the biggest challenge is dealing with a large cast and a lot of spectacle. We did a huge production of A Christmas Carol that had 70 to
80 people in the cast and about 60 were kids. Big productions always have low spots—where the show dips a little bit, where the professionalism drops. Those low spots are what remind people you’re a community theater.

That’s one of the things I talk about all the time. I don’t want to put any of our performers in a position to fail. I have never liked hearing, “Well, for a community theater, you’re amazing.” I don’t want any of those qualifications. I just want it to be amazing.

Do you feel like you’ve achieved that level of excellence?

Well, I shared that vision with everybody. One of the things I like to say a lot is, “Why not Amarillo?” There’s no reason we can’t have a successful theater in Amarillo. Once I decided we could do it, I just let go of any inhibitions and said, “Let’s make it happen.” You just have to find people who give a rip and pursue [excellence] with laser focus, then treat people how you want to be treated. It works. We’re one of the most respected community theaters in the country. 

Look at our Academy. We’re growing our own talent right now and it’s turning out amazingly well. We’re populating some of our biggest shows with these kids who have been taking active training for 10 years. A lot of them are going off to big university programs, but more importantly, I think they’re being indoctrinated into how important it is to be an artist in this world. I’m trying to create people that will try to make the world better. Now that I’m suffering from a chronic illness, I’m even more keenly aware of that.

Beyond directing, you’ve personally performed in a variety of roles over the years. Is there a certain role that stands out as the most fulfilling?

Probably the C.S. Lewis role in Shadowlands [in the late 1990s]. That was the one that I got the best response from and that I enjoyed the most. The overall response to the show was extremely strong. For me as a performer, I thought it was one of my most consistent performances.

I remember that performance. It was powerful and so emotional. It killed me.

Thank you. It was a great show.

During your tenure in leadership, ALT has added a lot of elements: The Adventure Space, the Academy, the Terk Lobby, online ticketing. Which has been most consequential?

Definitely the Adventure Space [a more experimental theater for contemporary productions, separate from ALT’s Mainstage]. That’s what I’m most proud of. That’s the thing I can hang my hat on. It allows us to do the edgier stuff—the stuff our actors love. We do the big stuff like Matilda at the Mainstage so we can do the smaller or darker shows over there. That’s where we go play. 

I encounter theater people all the time who say, “I just can’t get an audience. The audience won’t support us.” I ask them what they’re doing and they’ll pull out four of these dark, twisted show titles. But you can’t survive on that. You have to balance your artistic desires with the ability to pay for it.

Speaking of “paying for it,” locals still talk about when Oprah Winfrey rented out ALT during her beef defamation trial in 1998, and taped The Oprah Show here for six weeks. How do you remember those few months?

Well, I have some great stories, but it was ultimately not a good memory for me. We negotiated on this property for about three weeks, and I felt like the antagonist all the way through the process. We were basically out of business for six weeks. I don’t think we benefited from [the national exposure] as much as we should have.

What has this journey taught you about the city of Amarillo itself?

That there are a lot of generous people in the city. I think I’m an enigma in some ways because I’ve never been one to ask for money if I didn’t really need it. That’s not typical for the arts world. But it just takes time to develop [a donor base]. I’ve developed such a closeness with all these generous people, so now I can say, “I really need you to help me here.” And their response is “How much?” 

Right now I’m trying to get new air conditioning. We’ve recently redone the lighting system, the sound system, we’ve added space over at the Adventure Space. My goal is to walk out of here and Jason just goes full speed ahead. That would be the best outcome. 

I don’t want to sit at home and say, “Well, I hope they’re missing me.” I want to say, “Ready? Go,” because I set them up to succeed.