Joelle James Phillips, many others return for Birmingham-Southern College’s ‘Hilltop Cabaret’

Joelle James Phillips.

Astute fans of Birmingham theater are in for a treat at Birmingham-Southern College’s “Hilltop Cabaret: An Evening of Stories and Songs,” a show on Oct. 14 that’s part of the school’s homecoming weekend and kicks off BSC’s endowment campaign.

Produced by BSC alum Kyle Bass, executive director of Homewood Theatre, the night includes songs from the likes of Lucas Pepke, John-Mark McGaha and Cynthia Lamar-Hart and stories from Ginger Sharbel, Tommy Wilson and others.

The “others” include Joelle James Phillips, who was one of Birmingham’s most exciting young actresses while earning her theater degree at BSC (she graduated in 1989). A brief theater career led to law school and the business world. Phillips is now president of AT&T in Tennessee, and she’s the incoming president of BSC’s board of trustees.

Joelle James and Chris Janes in Birmingham-Southern College’s production of “Children of a Lesser God.”

At the cabaret, she’ll be one of 11 people lending their voices to an event designed to inspire folks to support the school that has gone through a time of financial uncertainty.

“The other performers will be sharing stories or songs that speak to their memories of BSC and celebrate BSC’s past,” Phillips says. “I will be closing the evening by turning the focus to BSC’s future – to our next chapter.”

For Phillips, who answers “Soooo long ago!” when asked the last time she performed on stage, the Hilltop Cabaret marks a return to the campus theater where she made her mark.

Phillips grew up in Auburn, and as a theater major at BSC, she stood out in productions such as “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Children of a Lesser God,” also winning the title of Miss BSC and memorably performing a monologue in the Miss Alabama Pageant. Her work also included shows for Town and Gown Theatre and Summerfest. After graduation, Phillips intended to pursue an acting career, spending a few years touring with Birmingham Children’s Theatre, doing voiceover work and commercials, even appearing as the dancing fig for Nabisco at a few corporate events.

Phillips loved acting, but she didn’t like the lifestyle. The traveling, schedule and uncertainty took its toll, and she turned to law as a career that might be more conducive to relationships with friends and family.

Her theater training served her well in law school at Washington and Lee University.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” she says. “Learning lines had made me very good at memorizing things. Reading the cases and discerning the rules of law those cases established was a lot like reading a play and identifying the theme. While some of my classmates seemed paralyzed with fear at the idea of answering questions in front of everyone in class, I was certain answering questions about contracts was unlikely to be the most embarrassing thing I’d ever done in front of an audience. After all, I was a dancing fig.”

She went to work for a law firm in Atlanta, and after marrying fellow BSC grad Brant Phillips, they settled in Nashville, where she worked in the legal departments of BellSouth and later AT&T. A decade ago, she became president of AT&T Tennessee.

All along, she says, her time at BSC helped her.

“My theater training serves me in so many ways,” Phillips says. “Experiences as a cast member and as a stage manager taught me a lot about teamwork. The coaching I received as an actor helped me develop communication skills.

“I think the most important way my theater training has prepared me for career and life had to do with the experience of preparing a play from the beginning – when the scripts are opened for the first time and the stage is bare, bringing the play to fruition, and then moving on to another play and starting all over again,” Phillips adds. “Seeing how much people can accomplish – starting from a totally empty stage – is empowering.  I think seeing that empty stage transformed over and over again gave me confidence that a good team can start with nearly nothing and create something extraordinary.”

The team creating the Hilltop Cabaret is a vast array of BSC alumni. The singers are Danny Potts and Ellen Woodward Potts (singing a duet), Greg James, Cynthia Lamar-Hart, Lucas Pepke and John-Mark McGaha. In addition to Phillips, the storytellers are Ginger Sharbel, Renee Brown Harmon, Sarah Mayhew and Tommy Wilson.

Bass says the cabaret was the brainchild of Virginia Gilbert Loftin, vice president for advancement and communications at BSC, with assist from Heather Milam, BSC’s director of alumni engagement.

“Birmingham-Southern has had a long and illustrious past, but there have been a few bumps in the road lately,” Bass says. “With this show, we want to energetically embrace the past while looking forward to a bright future. The performers, songs and stories will highlight what makes BSC special and what makes us able to turn the page into a whole new chapter.”

“The Hilltop Cabaret: An Evening of Stories and Songs,” Birmingham-Southern College’s Campus Theatre, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45-$150.

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