It is hard to imagine a better place for theater students and professionals than the Magic City.
Since Red Mountain Theatre opened its new 60,000-square-foot Arts Campus in the city’s burgeoning Parkside District in 2021, opportunities for University of Alabama at Birmingham theater students and faculty are booming.
The cross-pollination occurring between Theatre UAB and RMT is unprecedented in this community, says Kelly Allison, chair of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Theatre and vice president of Education on the RMT Executive Committee. The relationship between the groups is historic, going back to the days of the legendary Town and Gown Theatre and SummerFest; but the scope and breadth of their collaboration are bigger and better than ever before, and will only get stronger.
The new campus, with its scenery and costume shops, theaters, audio booth, sprung-floor rehearsal rooms and more, and RMT’s excellent productions give students an experience that is truly professional. After years of working piecemeal in locations spread around the city, RMT Executive Director Keith Cromwell and staff were able to take time during the pandemic’s early days to thoughtfully design the building to meet their exact needs.
Birmingham now rivals some of the biggest and best cities across the country for theater performance, says UAB Assistant Professor Roy Lightner. Lightner serves as RMT’s Singh Associate Artistic Director and recently directed its production of “Once.”
Located just four blocks from the UAB campus, the new Red Mountain Theatre Arts Campus is an outstanding place for college students to learn, grow, connect and work. It also gives Theatre UAB faculty and staff professional opportunities to practice their craft in their own backyard. Outsiders are catching up to the creative potential in Birmingham; visitors from New York and other regional theaters have been “gob-smacked” at the quality of art here. It also helps UAB and other entities recruit professionals to work here.
“Theatre is a collaborative art form, and the industry is currently forcing talent and skill levels to be even better and greater as we go,” Lightner said. “Just as this beautiful building that has opened here fosters that sort of excellence, it then encourages the theater and musical theater program to be better and greater — it’s as though we are coming together to rise up as a whole versus feeling competitive.
“It’s an awesome, artistic skill-building collaboration between the two,” he said. “It is a wonderful relationship that I have not seen in a lot of places. It is super unique and powerful, and just how UAB has reached other areas of the community is so exciting to see.”
Working together in so many ways is leading to a rich creative environment in Birmingham, says RMT Managing Director Jennifer Jaquess.
“We are always connecting individuals, especially college students, to the next opportunity,” Jaquess said. “As we have needs, we’re asking our friends at UAB, ‘Who do you know who might be good for x?’ or ‘This person has applied or auditioned. What can you share about your experience with them?’ Some of those might be different roles within RMT’s company, such as acting, front of house, box office, stage crew, scene shop and more, and others might be at sister organizations in town or even across the country.”
Nearly every one of Red Mountain Theatre’s performances boasts a UAB graduate. RMT may hire up to five current UAB students per production, providing them with real theater experience and employment income. Red Mountain is always in need of stage crew, sound and spotlight operators, and many of those assistants come from its UAB relationships.
The professional opportunities RMT provides UAB students will have a significant impact on their careers, especially those who choose to pursue opportunities in other markets, Allison says. Students will have the advantage of making professional connections while in college, which gives them additional references beyond their university faculty.
“We want our students to get experience at UAB first, matriculate, train them up so they actually provide a valuable service to RMT,” Allison said. “It can’t be symbiotic if the students don’t bring something of value.”
Theatre UAB faculty know the people in this community and where students will get a good experience, Allison says. Every theater company operates differently, and working with several theaters will show whether a student can adapt to other ways of doing things.
“I’ve discovered that UAB holds their students to an incredibly high standard that they not only meet but usually exceed,” said Patrick MacDonald, RMT’s resident sound designer and engineer. “Since we work so closely with staff, we’re able to share resources quickly when there’s an opening or need.” MacDonald is also a huge help when Theatre UAB needs assistance with audio challenges, and Brad Cozby, RMT resident lighting designer, and Anthony Smith, RMT music supervisor, have also done work with Theatre UAB.
“Professional theaters are much more impressed by a one-page resume with three companies than a three-page resume with one place — especially if they know those companies,” Allison said.
UAB graduates on staff at Red Mountain include costume director Kendra Weeks, costume assistant Olivia Bowles, props supervisor Jessica Mathews and lead carpenter Dustin Green, among others. For the current show, “Kinky Boots,” costume design is by UAB Costume Studio Supervisor Sharon Morgan and recent graduate Bailey Dumlao is assistant stage manager. Multiple actors at different stages of their careers in “Kinky Boots” are Blazers, including junior McKenna Shaw, recent grad Thomas McFerran and veteran actor Terrance Campbell.
Later this summer, Valerie Accetta, head of UAB Musical Theatre, will direct “Cinderella.” Dennis McLernon, UAB’s head of Performance and professor, made his RMT debut with “Once” this spring and will return in “Cinderella,” with recent graduate Rachael-Marie Strazza and current student Jalen Kirkman joining the cast. Student Morgan Tapp wowed with her memorable performance in “Once,” and Campbell, Eboni Janae and Kirkman were recently in “Once on This Island.”
“RMT always wants to get better,” Lightner said. “Relationships help us push forward. The caliber of theater is continuing to rise in Birmingham, and as the bar keeps rising, we want to know where we can improve and implement programming to keep us competitive.”
Education for students under 18 is a huge component of Red Mountain Theatre as well — from camps in the summer and its ensemble program to the upcoming launch of a conservatory program that will offer more intensive performing skills development. Those young people are a great pipeline into UAB as prospective students.
“We’re seeing kids go from our educational programs to competitive musical theater programs all over the country: Rider, Pace, DePaul, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music,” Lightner said. “And UAB is one of the schools they’re choosing because of the strides we have all made here and the community support.”
“We view ourselves as a teaching theater,” Jaquess said. “Whether you are a child or a seasoned veteran, we always seek to provide an environment of learning and growth, personally and professionally.”
This story originally appeared on the UAB News website.