WHEN COUSIN AL asked me to dine on a Thursday night, I explained that at that point I'd be in Alabama covering Shakespeare.

Even over the phone I could see his jaw drop. "Y'all must be kiddin'," he replied. "You mean they act Shakespeare in Alabama? . . . Furrr-ennns, Rowmaaaans, Country-min?"

Though as a 12-year-old he had won $64,000 on that quiz show, Cousin Al remains a product of Westchester County and Princeton and so has the think-slant of Northeastern provincial.

Yes, a town of 30,000 called Anniston does have an Alabama Shakespeare Festival. In its 12th summer season, it's completely professional, and in a few days I saw five performances in repertory, true repertory--three Shakespeares, one Shaw and the recent "Mass Appeal"--with several first-rate artists in a company of substantial abilities. It's become the State Theater of Alabama and former postmaster general Winton M. (Red) Blount is building a $12 million complex for the group in the state capital, Montgomery.

Summer Shakespeare has become a modest but far-flung summer industry in North America. Last time I tried counting, there were close to 40 such festivals. It's indicative that the first ones date from 1935 on the West Coast--Oregon and San Diego. California now has several, New York's Central Park is free and though Connecticut's Stratford began the East Coast surge, it's had a hex on it ever since Lawrence Langner opened it, admittedly prematurely, in 1955. Ohio has two that I know of; others are in New Jersey, Maine, Utah, Texas, Colorado and so on. Now Virginia has one in Williamsburg, where the Folger-New Playwrights' actor Ron Canada is presently playing Othello. The cream of the lot, with the largest government subsidy, is Canada's, in Stratford, Ontario.

While standards vary, the summer dominance of these plays is rooted in the large casts required, casts now far too expensive to make it in Gotham, though Connecticut's "Othello" came close. It would take the full casts of what few straight Broadway plays there are to populate a proper "Hamlet," "Caesar" or "Lear," and one shudders to think of trying to match the Royal Shakespeare Company's "The Wars of the Roses," a reworking of four plays' 12,350 lines, which ultimately gave director Peter Hall a nervous breakdown that lasted six months.

Even including the government-sponsored RSC, all these ventures are made possible through intricate networks of committees, patrons and volunteers who stitch costumes, paint scenery, hawk souvenirs and boost morale of the modestly paid professionals.

Often the players are a marvelous motley, drawn from regional theaters, Broadway, TV and films, some major stars, others actors' actors. They are attracted by the chance to play roles they'd otherwise never act and by the chance to work with like-minded, serious players.

The plays aren't just from the favorite half-dozen of Shakespeare's 37. Generally it's a different play each performance, and it's possible to see a half-dozen or more plays in three or four days. There also are flings with Shaw, Wilde, Chekhov, Congreve and Gilbert and Sullivan, mostly from the nonroyalty lists.

Such biggies as Ontario and Oregon have literally changed the landscape of their areas. When I first went to Stratford, Ontario, there were two hotels (fire escapes were ropes attached to the beds) and churches served meals in parish halls. In the generation since newsman Tom Patterson cooked up his wild idea, big firms have relocated in Stratford, using the long festival season (March to October) and its accompanying music and film festivals as enticements for employes.

Much the same has happened in Ashland, Ore., where three stages run a dozen productions in repertory. Motels and restaurants are all over the region. When Angus Bowmer, then a stage-struck English instructor at its small normal school, talked the town fathers into a July 4 "Julius Caesar" for the old Chautauqua shell in the center of town, the fathers took out an insurance policy. They booked a prize fight for that afternoon. The fight lost money; Shakespeare paid its bills. And this spring Oregon won a Tony from Broadway in appreciation of the players and directors it has spawned.

So, heigh-ho to Anniston, halfway between Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala.

Founded 100 years ago as "the soil-pipe capital" of the United States, Anniston would seem an unlikely festival seat. But its high school had a 1,000-seat auditorium, something which did not go unnoticed by then 22-year-old Martin L. Platt, who was hired to direct the town's little theater 13 years ago. He also got a giant push from Josephine Ayers, wife of the editor and publisher of The Anniston Star, and vital help from a squad of volunteers. (The costume committee has the grand title "The Flying Needles.")

This season, which runs through Aug. 21, plays five in repertory: "All's Well That Ends Well," "King Lear," "The Taming of the Shrew" and Shaw's "Arms and the Man" on its main stage and, in its smaller playhouse, Bill Davis' recent "Mass Appeal."

This is hardly the sort of fare Cousin Al would expect to find in midsummer Alabama and he'd be even more amazed by the general quality.

Charles Antalosky, a scientist who turned to acting in his late thirties and is known for solid performances, repeats his Lear for the third time, a powerful, affecting performance. Michele Farr, a superbly graceful former dancer, is back after two years in Broadway's "Amadeus." The speech is exceptional; Betty Leighton, of such stages as the Shaw Festival and the Minneapolis Guthrie, and John-Frederick Jones with his deep, welcome tones, lead the list.

Any theater that opens with "All's Well" immediately asserts sophistication. This production underscores the modernity of the play's filmlike construction and its interreacting characters. Bertram is played by Bruce Cromer, a young actor of promise; also in the company is Arthur Hanket, who resigned from the Naval Academy for a life in the theater after winning an American College Theater Festival salute for his performance in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."

Guest director Allen R. Belknap and his improvising cast have a marvelous new look at "Shrew," placing the action, with no change of lines, in post-World War II Italy. It's rather like watching every Italian movie ever made. The principal set is a beat-up old truck. Petruchio's pals rattle machine guns, and the brawling battle between Kate and her tamer is so boisterous audiences scream at the fun. This is a spectacular, hilarious revivification.

There's original music, always apt and often, as in "Shrew," funny, by Philip Rosenberg. The costumes and the relatively simple sets and lighting are obviously in the hands of professionals.

Now, about money.

This season of five productions had a budget of $700,000, which wouldn't be enough to mount one drama in New York. Major parts are played by Equity professionals under a LORT (League of Regional Theaters) contract minimum. Minor roles are drawn from students of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Conservatory Program, whose instructors are the major cast members.

Sixty-seven percent of the budget (more than in most regional theaters) comes from the box office and gift shops; private gifts total 26 percent, and the remaining 7 percent is from state, city and federal funds. Though bankruptcy threatened a couple of years ago, the Blount proposal of land averted disaster.

With audiences having reached what looks to be a saturation point, hope for further funding from public sources is thin. Most national leaders think that tax monies for the arts will be lucky to stay where they are.

Here is where the Blount gift, 100 acres on Montgomery's Wynfield estate and its Palladio-style complex, can be both a solution and a challenge. There will be two theaters, a 750-seat thrust and a 250-seat flexible stage, expected to be ready early in 1985.

Will the capital's 200,000 population be able to support a theater for much of the year? Will Anniston's leaders manage to improve the school auditorium, in rugged use for 12 years? Are they alerted to the commercial advances such festivals have meant in Oregon and Ontario?

So, though Cousin Al's mind set tilts toward his native Northeast, the South keeps chugging along without much of the national spotlight. Virginia's was the first state theater in the United States (1946), North Carolina's schools for the performing arts have set a national standard, Florida's state theater tours from its Sarasota base, and now Alabama's state theater is proving itself to be in at least the upper quarter of American regional theaters.