‘Try to Remember’: As Birmingham-Southern College prepares to close, alumni and faculty recall the theater program through the decades

Then: In Bimingham-Southern College’s 1961 production of “The Fantasticks,” The Narrator (Professor Andrew Gainey) stands with his arms outstreched, while The Girl’s Father (Jerome Smith) and The Boy’s Father (Chris Jones) stand on either side of The Girl (Linda Clark) and The Boy (Jack Mann) sitting on a bench.

It’s almost poetic that the final production of Birmingham-Southern Theatre will be “The Fantasticks,” the classic musical that includes the beautiful “Try to Remember,” a story of longing and nostalgia.

The school’s 1961 production of the Harvey Jones-Tom Schmidt musical, which premiered in 1960 and ran for 40 years, becoming the world’s longest-running musical, is believed to be the first production of the show outside New York. (See Philip Mann’s memory of it at the bottom of this story.) That BSC show in 1961 starred Andrew Gainey and Jack Mann, among others.

The current production will run April 18-21, and on May 31, BSC will close its doors forever. Many alumni are coming into town for the final show and gathering to reminisce.

The theater program at BSC is a storied one, from its ground-breaking stage with its turntable and lifts to a who’s who of faculty throughout the years, including Arnold Powell, Michael Flowers, Terrell Finney, Aubrey Berg, Pat Anderson-Flowers, Patti Manning, Matthew Mielke, Judy Pandelis, Karen Drews Hanlon, Mandy Thomas and Alan Litsey.

And now: “The Fantasticks” in rehearsal at BSC in 2024. The musical is BSC’s final show ever. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Yeager)

Hundreds of students have come through the department’s doors, moving on to Broadway or local stages or successful careers outside of show business.

I asked some folks to “Try to Remember” their days with BSC Theatre, and the response was overwhelming. What follows are responses for memories of the program, presented largely in chronological order by graduation year. Faculty memories are up top. Interspersed are some photos provided by BSC of productions throughout the years.

NOTE: If you are a faculty member or student who would like to add their memories to this story, please don’t hesitate to email me at alec@byalecharvey.com. Any omissions are inadvertent.

MICHAEL FLOWERS ON BSC’S LASTING LEGACY

Michael Flowers came to BSC in 1984, retiring in 2021 as chair of the theater department. Flowers has directed 108 plays and musicals, most of them at BSC, and he has a particular interest in the work of Stephen Sondheim. “I am grateful the college supported our department’s commitment to making a contribution to the liberal arts education of the students who participated in our efforts and those who were audience members,” he says. “That has continued until the final upcoming production.”

2011’s production of “Spring Awakening.”

From Michael: “There are so many (highlights), but two that come to mind are our productions of the musicals ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Spring Awakening.’ In my mind, ‘Sweeney’ is Sondheim’s master work, and that our small college, with small departments of theater and music, with very modest-sized faculties and staffs, was able to pull off such a difficult show is still amazing to me. And ‘Spring Awakening’ is the only show I’ve been involved in where we received two mid-show standing ovations (after a particular song with a strong four-letter word in its title!). It was a stunning moment for everyone involved, and something for which we were completely unprepared. I’ll never forget it.”

More from Michael: “When I think of legacy, I think of the students who came through the department, whether as theater or musical theater majors, theater minors, or folks who just wanted the opportunity to exercise the artistic part of their brains. Our graduates have gone on to pursue so many different vocations, from performing on stages all around the world, to becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers, arts administrators and just about anything else you can think of. And I’d like to believe that is because not only did they learn how to do theater, but they learned theater in the context of becoming good writers, critical thinkers, team players and overall great communicators. In addition to the many plays and musicals that contributed to the arts in Birmingham, my hope is that BSC Theatre’s legacy is that it helped equip students to be decent, kind and thoughtful human beings.”

ALAN LITSEY ON WORKING WITH STUDENTS ACROSS DISCIPLINES

Alan Litsey has been at BSC since 1991, working with BSC veterans – Michael Flowers, Matthew Mielke,Patti Manning and Judy Pandelis among them –  as well as Rebecca Yeager and Jennifer Luck, who recently joined the faculty. Litsey is professor of theater, coordinator of the theater program and director of community engagement at BSC.

From Alan: “I had learning adventures with hundreds of students in many kinds of courses. it was a privilege to connect with students across disciplines in such courses as acting, directing, leadership, service learning. … It’s a joy to celebrate so many students who are making important contributions in the world, many of whom are close friends.

BSC presented “Hamlet” in 2010, with Michael Flowers (center) on stage.

“Magic happens when a team comes together to create and share theater. It’s challenging to identify highlights, but 1993’s Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival entry comes to mind, ‘The Immigrant.’ Also, an intimate ‘Hamlet’ in BSC’s Underground Theatre and a fierce ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ both of which featured remarkable student performances and Michael Flowers in key roles.

 “I treasure experiences students and I had to learn from many of our neighbors who grew up during the rights era. Generous members of our community shared their stories with us, including Kamau Afrika, Judge Houston Brown, Madelyn Coar, Jeff Drew, John Nixon and Barbara Shores.”

More from Alan: “Theater connects students to opportunity, as we share and learn through storytelling and community collaboration. BSC’s remarkable students will continue to make a powerful positive difference in our world.”

MATTHEW MIELKE AND HIS TWO FAMILIES

Matthew Mielke joined the BSC faculty in 1990, where he has taught design and technology, heading up more than 150 scenery and lighting designs. His wife, Debbie, a pianist and music director, also worked on a number of BSC musical productions. “My life has been balanced between my two families: Theater students and faculty on one side and wife and children on the other,” he says. “It was magical when those two worlds intersected: my daughter working in the BSC theater shop learning how to build scenery, my wife acting as pianist for shows and our kids viewing the shows to see what mom and dad had been working on lately.”

1993’s “Baby” featured Angel Aderholt Baker and David McMahon.

From Matthew: “Some highlights from over the years:  our little department producing BIG musicals like ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’  ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ‘Hair’ and ‘Rent.’ All done on our amazing machine of a stage.  And a highlight from a little show: the musical ‘Baby’ in 1993:  my colleagues Alan Litsey, Michael Flowers and I all had young children at the time.” 

 More from Matthew: “BSC Theatre has been a home to so many gifted students over the years: not only theater majors but students from all areas of campus: pre-medicine , pre-law, business, etc. We gave each and every one a safe place, a home to practice their craft and explore their world. It is sad that we will not be able to do that again.”

BSC presented “Rent” in 2012.

PATTI MANNING ON MENTORING HER ‘BABIES’

Patti Manning has been costume designer in residence at BSC Theatre for 43 years, designing costumes for theater productions and opera productions. She recalls moments such as Olivia de Havilland, on campus for BSC’s GALA event, giving advice to theater students.

From Patti: “One year we produced ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘La Boheme,’ both in the same nine months. I think the show that was the one that topped them all was ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ We produced a lot of Sondheim! … My 43 years has been filled with students that I costumed and mentored. I call them ‘my babies.’”

REBECCA YEAGER, FROM STUDENT TO FACULTY

Rebecca Yeager graduated with a degree in musical theater in 2006, but she came back  in 2013 to work part-time with Patti Manning in the costume shop and as a guest artist and adjunct instructor. In 2023, she took a full-time job on BSC’s theater faculty, and she is directing the college’s final show, “The Fantasticks.”

Morgan Smith, left, and Rebecca Yeager in 2005’s “Young Zombies in Love.”

From Rebecca: “The fall of my senior year we did the musical ‘Young Zombies In Love.’ It was a ridiculous, campy, fringe show in the best way. It was the first performance of the production in the Southeast and I played the Mom to the main character, Lu (played by Morgan Smith) and designed costumes and makeup. At the other end of the spectrum, my first Interim was spent in an Acting Shakespeare class with Alan Litsey. That is BSC Theatre to me. We studied and worked on the classics, we learned history and technique, and then we surrendered to the joy and challenge of creating new, exciting works of theater. The whole program was a microcosm of what liberal arts should be.”

More from Rebecca: “BSC Theatre is a place that empowers kind, intelligent, creative people to use theater to change the world. I know that is really saccharine and trite, but it’s true. Many folks I was in school with, or who I taught at BSC, still work in theater as actors, designers, teachers or administrators. Many are lawyers, doctors, accountants, entrepreneurs. That’s BSC and BSC Theatre. What you learn there doesn’t stay in the building; it goes out into the world in a myriad of ways.”

Rebecca on “The Fantasticks”: “I picked it because it is a beautiful show to which I feel a deep connection. I knew it was a show with historic significance to Birmingham-Southern, but at the time that felt secondary. I knew it was a show that would showcase the wonderful student talent we have and also the incredible alumnae working in Birmingham-area theater. If anything, I hoped this production would bring recognition to the program and the revitalization we were beginning to have. And now, rather than a new chapter, it is a closing. But it is not an end. After this curtain falls, the show is struck, and the ghost light turned on one last time, we will all begin a new season, a new “September” where we can look back on the grief and hurt of this “December” with joy and gratefulness that we were part of it. The members of this cast and crew, like all BSC students, will go to their next academic and artistic homes and continue to move Forward, Ever!”

NORTON DILL ON BEING AN AUDIENCE MEMBER

Norton Dill graduated from BSC with a degree in music in 1968, and though he wasn’t involved with the theater department, he was an avid theatergoer during his time there.  “I was fascinated by the unique design of the theater, especially the revolving stage with its elevators,” he says. “I’ve still never seen a design like that.” Dill now lives in Helena and has been involved in Birmingham theater for more than 50 years.

From Norton: “Even though I wasn’t able to perform with the theater, attending the shows had an impact on me and stirred an interest that shortly after I graduated became a big part of my life.  (One) memory I have about the BSC theater department actually happened when I was still in high school in Anniston.  A BSC touring production of ‘The Fantasticks’ came to Anniston.  It was probably the first musical-theater production I had ever seen.  The director was Arnold Powell, who was at BSC for a long time, including when the new theater was built.  An interesting note is that Powell was the first person to direct the show outside of New York.  He jumped on it when the rights became available.”

QUINTON COCKRELL RECALLS FUGARD, ‘OTHELLO’

Quinton Cockrell graduated in 1985 with a degree in theater arts and has since worked throughout the U.S. as an actor, director and playwright. A member of Actor’s Equity Association and the Dramatists Guild, he’s an associate professor at Troy University.

1994’s production of “Othello.”

From Quinton: “The great thing about BSC Theatre was that faculty paid great attention to students’ individualized education.  I started out as a freshman with small roles and was trusted with more and more responsibility as I progressed.  I played one of the brothers in Athol Fugard’s two-person play, ‘Blood Knot.’  It was a very demanding role, assigned to me at the exact moment in my development when I needed such a role to get me to the next level in my acting.  In my senior year, I played Othello.  I got to play Othello at the age of 21!  I have gone on to play that role several times, but I will never forget my discovery of the genius of Shakespeare.  I will always credit BSC with opening my eyes to the power of the written and spoken word.”

More from Quinton: “My professors at BSC were phenomenal and changed my life:  Terrell Finney, Aubrey Berg, Michael Flowers, Karen Drews and Bill Andrews. I was exposed to BSC through high-school theater festivals that BSC hosted.  I was captivated by the building and how knowledgeable the students seemed. After my initial exposure, I never considered going to any other school.”

KYLE BASS ON ESCAPING TO THE THEATER

Kyle Bass graduated from BSC in 1986 with a degree in computer science. Retired from Blue Cross and Blue Shield, he is now executive director of Homewood Theatre.

From Kyle: “Every once in a while I would escape the computer lab, and thanks to some great folks like Michael Flowers, Andy Gainey and Hugh Thomas, I was given a chance to do a few things in the theater and music buildings. I had dabbled in the theater a bit, but they did a small off-Broadway musical –  I think it was called “Charlotte Sweet” – and it really caught my attention.  I thought it was really different and clever.  I wasn’t even in the cast of that show, but I ended up watching multiple rehearsals and several performances. I was mesmerized by its quirkiness and dedication to a theme.  I think that’s what an academic setting of theater can do really well – really have people who have bought into the “master plan” of the entire production.”

More from Kyle: “The BSC Theatre is truly a gift to the region. The physical building is an engineering marvel, and it needs to be preserved. The mechanism for the rotating/lifting stage can be, let’s say, temperamental. But when that stage is in fine working order and it’s being used as an asset of a production it can really shine.  I remember a couple of Sondheim shows (“Into the Woods” and “Sunday in the Park with George”) that really used it to their advantage.”

BETHE ENSEY BONDS WITH A FUTURE PLAYWRIGHT

Bethe Ensey, who graduated in 1986 with a degree in theater, is now directing theater in Birmingham (right now, that’s “Junie B. Jones: The Musical” at Birmingham Children’s Theatre. She mainly acted or stage-managed shows while at BSC, though she directed “The Real Inspector Hound.” “I cast my friends, and it probably wasn’t very good, but we had a great time,” Bethe says.

From Bethe: “Rebecca Gilman and I became friends in a Religion and Modern Fiction class and then survived Algebra 1 together. Her friend, Joe Ross, had told her to find me, because he thought we’d get along. We bonded over watching ‘Jeopardy’ in the snack bar, Walker Percy and Major League Baseball.  One favorite memory of BSC was Dr. Berte and his kindness. He came to every production and always sent these really nice thank-you notes to everyone after the show. One day I was coming out of the cafeteria and Dr. Berte was there. He said, hello, called me by name and complimented my latest performance. I was amazed that the president of the college really knew who I was.” 

ERICH McMILLAN-McCALL GOES TO BROADWAY AND BEYOND

Erich McMillan-McCall, who graduated in 1986, went on to appear on Broadway in “The Who’s Tommy” (with fellow BSC alum Jim Newman), on tour with Maurice Hines in “Jelly’s Last Jam” and now is CEO and founder of Project 1Voice, a not-for-profit performing arts service organization.

From the 1985 production of “Charlotte Sweet.”

From Erich: “My first experience with the theater department at Birmingham-Southern was in my sophomore year.   I was cast in the ensemble of ‘Candide,’ starring Paul Chisolm and. Patti Wilemon.  Terrell Finney directed and Aubrey Berg played Pangloss.  Both men were at the helm of the BSC theater department at the time. They both left the following year, to start the musical theater program at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.  As I recall, only had one line, ‘The frigate approaches!’  I also remember playing a dead body a lot in the show.  ‘Candide’ was my first near-professional experience in the American theater.   I was so green, eager and ready to try anything on stage. I did not do another show at BSC until my senior year.  By this time, Michael Flowers had taken over the department.  Michael gave me my first big BSC theater break — a role with lines in a musical.  It was the theatrical jackpot!   He cast me in Michael Colby’s ‘Charlotte Sweet.’  I played Harry Host, the show’s emcee.  Among the talented bevy of performers were Adelia Patrick, Kristi Tingle, Barry Austin and Jim Newman.  By this time at BSC, I was studying voice with Andrew Gainey and Jane Glaser. Also by this time, I had a few Summerfest and Town Gown shows under my belt.  So I was a bit more seasoned but still not ready for prime time, as they say.” 

More from Erich: “Thanks to BSC’s far-reaching influence and its alumni’s extensive leadership in the Birmingham performing arts community, I was beyond prepared and ready for New York City. … My liberal arts degree at BSC prepared me for a career beyond the stage.  In 1989, I began working in various capacities at Conde Nast Publications.  While at Conde I worked at several magazines including Mademoiselle, Glamour, Vanity Fair, Self, Bon Appetit, Self and Vogue.  At Vogue, under the leadership of Anna Wintour, I became executive assistant to Andre Leon Tally, the magazine’s editor-at-large.  After an extensive career in the theater,  I now work as an advocate for Black creativity and a PR/Marketing consultant/strategist for various companies.   BSC not only prepared me for a performing arts career, it also prepared me for life — literally.”

JIM NEWMAN GOES FROM BSC TO BROADWAY

Jim Newman, who graduated with a degree in music and theater in 1986, has appeared in nine Broadway shows and toured the world as the Cowboy in the Village People. He’s also doing TV work (including appearing in “Succession” and three other series last year), and right now he’s on tour in the 25th-anniversary Broadway tour of “Mamma Mia!”

Jim Newman as Jesus in “Godspell” in 1985.

From Jim: “A couple of highlights. First, I was in the fall play ‘Whose Life Is It Anyway’ and three days before the opening I broke both of my feet doing a back flip in a dance contest off-campus. Michael Flowers, who was my theater professor, had to go on for me. Second, I was playing Jesus in ‘Godspell,’ which was a huge hit, and when I would come out for my bow, the audience would stand up (mostly because I was Jesus … lol). But the night my family came, everyone stood except my family. I’m looking at them like, ‘What the hell?’   I asked my mother why and she said she didn’t want people to think she was bragging.”

More from Jim:  “(BSC) was everything to me at the time. I was so grateful to be given scholarships because it was so far out of my family’s financial capabilities to send me there, and it prepared me sooooo well for New York. I was a little shocked at how unprepared others were when I got to New York and went to auditions. I had sheet music in my key. I had a current 8×10 headshot with my resume stapled in the back. I knew how to pick up a dance combination quickly and perform it back in castings. I had vocal and acting and dance technique. I didn’t realize what a luxury it was to know all those things. I was able to work and support myself because of all that, much to the surprise and delight of my father.”

ADELIA PATRICK THOMPSON FINDS HER ‘TRIBE’

Adelia Patrick Thompson graduated in 1986 with a degree in English, though she was involved with the music and theater programs throughout her college career. She now is in Newport News, Virginia, where she is vice president liaison for the directors of the Ferguson Center for the Performing Arts and M. Torggler Fine Arts Center at Christopher Newport University. She has served in a variety of capacities there, including interim president.

From Adelia: “We did a wacky little musical called ‘Charlotte Sweet’ that was a show within a show, each of the characters a zany, melodramatic type.  It was loads of fun, and funny and over the top. And hard. Which was good! We all had to learn that playing a caricature requires lots of commitment – nothing you can phone in – because you as the performer have to be that crazy excessive 150%, start to finish. Another highlight for me was as an audience member, my senior year, for the production of ‘Godspell.’ Watching my friends become those characters, and deliver on that music song after song, scene after scene – I will never forget that.  So proud.  So moved. Changed – which is exactly what should happen because of that show.”

More from Adelia: “It was through music, and theater, that I found my voice, confidence, a healthy dose of humble pie, discipline – and my ‘tribe.’ The faculty – especially Michael Flowers -– were incredible.  Having worked in higher education for a while now, I have an even deeper appreciation for that program.  Being part of performing arts at BSC brought along so many other opportunities like being in the company for Birmingham’s Summerfest for a few years and becoming connected to Town and Gown Theater – which led to opportunities for marvelous professional performing experiences in other cities as I have moved through my life (and is how I met my husband, J. Lynn Thompson, too!)”

KRISTI TINGLE HIGGINBOTHAM ON FORGING A CAREER IN MUSICAL THEATER

Kym Williams-Johnson, left, and Kristi Tingle Higginbotham in 1987 at BSC.

Kristi Tingle Higginbotham graduated in 1987, one of BSC’s first two graduates (with Kym Williams-Johnson) in musical theater. “I started with Dr. Aubrey Berg and Terrell Finney as my theater professors, and my sophomore year was when Michael Flowers joined the team,” she says. Kristi has gone on to become one of Birmingham’s most popular and prolific actresses, and she also teaches voice and Pilates.

From Kristi: “One of the highlights for me was Michael Flowers’ production of ‘Godspell,’ starring Jim Newman as Jesus. Others in that great cast were Barry Austin, Buck Johnson, Kym Williams, Joelle James and Scott Ivey. It was such a successful production that the theater department blew up the cast picture, and it hung in the lobby for many, many years!”

More from Kristi: “My education there certainly propelled me into a musical-theater career that has now expanded into its fourth decade. After graduating from Birmingham-Southern, I moved to New York City with my fellow classmate and good friend Barry Austin. I had a brief shot at a lead in a Broadway production called ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’ The score was written by Hugh Martin, another BSC alum. A severe knee injury kept me from being a part of that production, so I moved back home to Birmingham, where I have been able to carve out a beautiful and satisfying performing career over many years.”

KYM WILLIAMS-JOHNSON ON ‘GODSPELL’ AND MORE

Kym Williams-Johnson graduated from BSC with a degree in musical theater in 1987, the same year she was crowned Miss Alabama. “I was so excited to be there,” she says of BSC. She and Kristi Tingle Higginbotham were the college’s first two musical theater graduates. Kym and her husband, Buck, whom she met at BSC, live in Nashville, where she has run her own business, Music City Music Together, for 23 years.

From Kym: “This new musical theater scholarship required acting classes, of course, and I had some of the best experiences with Aubrey Berg and Michael Flowers. I often reminisce with Kristi Tingle Higginbotham and others about shows, and one in particular that stands out for me is ‘Godspell,’ which was directed by Michael Flowers. We had so much fun putting that show together. It really had a deep impact on all of us at that time. I met my husband, Buck Johnson, at BSC, so that’s a highlight I’d say for sure – 31 years married and going strong! Just the overall connections and dear friends I am still in touch with have shaped my life in so many beautiful ways. I am so sad to see this incredible institution come to a close, but all of us who were blessed to have the opportunity to go to Southern will continue to talk about our experiences and the great fun, learning and friendships that will live on forever – forward ever!”

CARI GISLER OLIVER AND THE STEINWAY

Cari Gisler Oliver graduated in 1987 with a psychology degree and all the credits for a theater degree (she chose not to go to BSC for an extra year for a dual degree). She is now program director in the Center of Clinical and Translational Sciences at UAB.One of my programs is ACTion Learning, where I work with local actors to provide an immersive training experience to bring real-world research scenarios to life,” she says. “I’m also vice president of Terrific New Theatre’s board of trustees. I use my theater training every single day, and I credit what I learned there for molding me into who I am.”

From Cari: “I received the award for distinguished theater student my senior year (shared with Tina Lilly). Oddly, I also originated the Steinway Award –­ the award for the worst technical mistake of the year. How did I originate it? Well, first you have to understand that the stage at BSC is called a split revolve. That means that the main portion of the stage is round and split down the middle. You can play a scene on the front half of the stage while the back half can be lowered two floors down to the scene shop and be set up for another scene, raised back up two floors, revolved 180 degrees, and a new scene can be played. It’s an amazing thing, and at least at the time I went there, it was one of only two or three in the world. Only highly responsible and trained students were allowed to operate the stage, which was controlled underneath the main floor of the stage. I was asked to lower the stage one day right after the Spring Dance Performance. I forgot to check the stage before lowering it, only to discover that a grand Steinway piano was straddling the split. As the back half lowered, the piano slowly tilted downward and ultimately flipped over. It landed when the back half was about even with me in the control room. I am one of a few people in the world (and possibly a roadrunner running from a coyote) that has ever heard what a grand piano sounds like being dropped 15 feet. Thus, the origination of The Steinway Award. It was given out in rare instances throughout the rest of the time BSC theater operated.”

More from Cari: “My time there was full of opportunities and fascinating people. I was in Michael Flowers’ inaugural year at BSC. I like to think I helped break him in. It was an amazing place. I was free to be weird, messy, quirky and completely me, which I was discovering every day.”

HENRY SCOTT MADE MEMORIES BEFORE TRANSFERRING

Henry Scott attended BSC from 1986-1989 before transferring to and earning a musical theater degree at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. He moved back to Birmingham to be artist in residence at Red Mountain Theatre, and he now directs and choreographs a few shows a year.

From Henry: “I attended BSC for a year-and-a-half.  In that short time, I gained clarity regarding my life’s work, received excellent training and made connections that have stood the test of 37 years.  My time at BSC led to many professional opportunities.  In the spring of 1987, Aubrey Berg (the chair of theater at BSC) was appointed the head of musical theater at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.  He asked me to choreograph his debut production of ‘Nine’ for the Hot Summer Nights series.  It was an incredible opportunity and I jumped at the chance.  Two years later I returned to choreograph ‘Pippin’ and ‘Once Upon a Mattress.’ Michael Flowers became the chair of theater at BSC, and our friendship and collaboration have continued to this day.”

BUCK JOHNSON ON ‘GODSPELL’ AND MEETING HIS WIFE

Buck Johnson, who graduated from BSC in 1988 with a degree in business administration, met his wife, Kym Williams Johnson, at BSC. They now live in Nashville, where Buck is a successful musician, singer-songwriter and producer. For 10 years, he has been the keyboardist and backing vocalist for Aerosmith. His solo album, “Tongue and Groove,” will be released in September.

From Buck: “I was fortunate to be in the production of ‘Godspell’ my sophomore year.  It was a special time for me to work with such talented lifelong friends Kristi Tingle Higginbotham, Jim Newman, Scott Ivey, Joelle James and, of course, my wife, Kym Williams-Johnson. My first BSC Concert Choir trip during the interim term in January was pivotal because that’s when Kym and I first connected as a couple and we both knew we were meant for each other.”

More from Buck: “While I was only able to be a part of one show at BSC, I attended almost all the shows.   I always marveled at the high level of talent at our small liberal arts college and how lucky we were to have great theater teachers/directors like Michael Flowers and his wife Pat Flowers.”

JOELLE JAMES PHILLIPS ON IMMERSING HERSELF IN A CHARACTER

Joelle James Phillips graduated with a theater degree in 1989, and though she performed on stages in Birmingham, she earned her law degree and went on to a successful business degree, most recently as president of AT&T Tennessee. She was on BSC’s board of trustees and was its incoming chair. Her first production as a freshman was “Godspell.”

From Joelle: “Right away I noticed that the ‘Godspell’ and crew included lots of talented folks who were not at BSC majoring in theater. Instead, I sat down at our first read-through and met accounting majors, history majors and psychology majors in the cast. BSC was always a place where people who loved fine arts could study something else while still having a chance to sing, to play an instrument, to act or paint. That first ‘Godspell’ rehearsal night was also sorority bid day – and I was so happy that evening (wearing my AOPi bid-day t-shirt) that the cast included two of my brand-new AOPi sorority pals (Kristi Tingle – now Higginbotham and Kym Williams – now Johnson).  That night really emphasized the way the BSC theater department was integrated into the college community.”

Joelle James Phillips, left, and Betty Campbell in 1988’s “Children of a Lesser God.”

More from Joelle: “The January interim term (where students focused on one intensive class for one month) gave us a chance to take on complex theater projects.  The most memorable of those for me was our production of ‘Children of a Lesser God’ (by Mark Medoff).  We used the January term to study American Sign Language, working with a teacher (herself the child of congenitally deaf parents) to ‘translate’ each line of the play into American Sign Language.  Line by line, we built our sign vocabulary and explored ASL –  which is a visual language, free from the limits of word, more like dance or art than spoken language in some ways.  

“I played a smart, observant, and ambitious woman who is congenitally deaf.  It was a challenging acting exercise to immerse myself in the language and lifestyle of that person, someone living a life so foreign from my own life experience – but, it was also bigger than an acting exercise.  It was a chance to think about the challenges that face people whose lives are very different than my own, and it was a chance to explore the ways people can connect beyond the communities most familiar to them, how they find the courage to connect with people whose experience are so different from their own.  

“I’ve thought about that experience every time I’ve summoned the courage to explore new connections, new situations, and new ideas.  I’m so grateful for it.” 

CHRISTOPHER GRAHAM ON BEING PREPARED

Christopher Graham graduated in 1993 with a degree in musical theater and has recently moved to New Hampshire after 23 years in Los Angeles. He’s currently providing the voice for one of the villains in an animated sci-fi series that’s in pre-production. He says his college experience was defined by the work he did at BSC Theatre, working on almost every production at the theater during his time there.

From Christopher: “Getting the opportunity to perform in our productions, of course, was a highlight each and every time it happened. Looking back, though, what stands out more than anything is the instruction and wisdom offered by the professors and professionals that we, as students, were fortunate enough to have guiding us. Without a doubt, my training in the theater, music and dance departments at BSC prepared me incredibly well for my professional career. Once I was in the ‘real world,’ I could see a very distinct difference between the level of preparation and training that I had achieved and that of some of my peers in the field. That being said, the greatest gifts were the people – friends and loved ones with which I remain in contact to this very day.”

DAVID McMAHON AND LIFELONG FRIENDSHIPS

David McMahon graduated in 1994 with a degree in theater and English. He was in a number of productions as an actor, wotking backstage as well. Now, he lives in New York, where he works in film and some theater. He returns to Birmingham once a year to direct a play.

BSC’s “The Immigrant,” with Chris Lawson, left, and David McMahon, was an entry in the 1993 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

From David: “From an artistic and educational standpoint, I’d say the production of ‘The Immigrant’ was special, rewarding and moving. What I remember most are the friendships and the fun. A majority of the most profound and important friendships in my life were forged in that building, friendships still going strong after so many years. We just had such a good time, and we still do. We found each other in BSC Theatre.

“I learned so much from Alan Litsey and Michael and Pat Flowers. I cherish and revisit them to this day. While I did receive extraordinary training at BSC in terms of pursuing a career in the arts, what I’m most grateful for is what theater and the department gave me. Working with my professors, with Patti Manning, with many guest artists, opened up the world to me. The experiences made me more empathetic, more curious about the world, more involved, all the great qualities that a liberal arts education should provide. 

“I will treasure those years and treasure BSC Theatre and the people that made it what it is. In some way it will never go away, even if the college is gone. We will keep practicing what we learned there, we will teach future generations those lessons. Forgive the grandiosity, but long live BSC Theatre!”

CAROLYN HEMBREE FOUND LOVE, LIFELONG FRIENDS AT BSC

The cast of 1995’s “As You Like It.”

Carolyn Hembree, whose mother also graduated from BSC, earned an English and theater degree in 1995. Her favorite roles at BSC were Rosalind in “As You Like It,” Chris in “Dancing at Lughnasa” and Beatrice in “The Servant of Two Masters.” She’s now associate professor in the University of New Orleans MFA program in creative writing. Her third collection of poetry, “For Today,” was released this year by LSU Press.

From Carolyn: “As a freshman in a theater seminar taught by Alan Litsey, who was a fairly new hire, I met my husband, Jon Padgett. I remember running lines with Jon at night on the soccer field for his role as Jim Casy in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ He was luminous. We’ve been married 24 years now and have a 14-year-old! I also met many dear and lifelong friends, including David McMahon, Dane Peterson and Emily Wright, through BSC theater. I remember going to see the cast list posted on the bulletin board after auditions, which was so nerve-wracking and thrilling.”

JOHN LAVIN ON REVISITING ‘PIPPIN’

John Lavin graduated in 1996 with a degree in history, though he attended BSC on a musical theater scholarship and appeared in shows every semester. He now owns a small inn in Blue Ridge, Georgia, where he often welcomes guests with BSC ties.

John Lavin in 1993’s “Pippin.”

From John: “Twenty-five years after playing the role of Pippin at BSC, I went back to the theater and had one of the most profound experiences of my life. The theater department was again mounting a production of ‘Pippin,’ directed by the wildly talented Todd Underwood, who was the Leading Player in our production back in 1993. I drove up for the Sunday matinee from New Orleans and sitting in that iconic round theater, I watched a young actor (Luke Otwell, incredible) speak the same words and sing the notes that I had attempted on that exact same stage 25 years prior. The story of a young man setting off to find himself now ricocheted and echoed around the room in a kaleidoscope of memories as I viewed my 18-year-old self through the prism of the past two-and-a-half decades. The power of once again being back in that sacred space acutely reminded me of the dreams in my head at that age and who I imagined I might become. It was wild, profound even. Not exactly known to be an emotional show, I had tears in my eyes the entire time as I traveled back and forth in time, crisscrossing the globe from my seat, and I understood how much of that character I’ve carried with me since then. What a gift. I hugged Michael Flowers (then head of the theater department and the director of our show in ’93) in the lobby after, somewhat speechless and unable to relay the soul-stirring two hours I’d just experienced. My four years in the Birmingham-Southern theater department and that show in particular altered my life for the better. There’s no amount of appreciation I can offer to Michael for the gift he gave me.”

BILL SMITH AND THE GOAT

Bill Smith, who graduated from BSC in 1996 with a degree in political science and a minor in theater, lives in Washington, D.C., where he built a public affairs firm and founded a national mental health advocacy organization called Inseparable. He was part of the cast and crew of “The Servant of Two Masters,” assistant stage manager for “Pippin” and company manager for “The Challenge” and “The White Rose.”

From Bill: “Every production that I was involved in and every class in the theater were such an incredible part of my experience at BSC. And while every production was special in its own way, the first story that always comes to mind is the goat. For ‘Pippin,’ a special show for Michael Flowers who himself had played Pippin in his youth, the theater department went all out ­– spectacular costumes and set design and, much to my chagrin, a duck and a goat. I had a family friend who had goats, so I purchased a dog carrier and put it in the back of my Toyota Camry to bring the goat to campus. It lived in the green room for the run of the production with the duck, which is about as absurd as it sounds. One afternoon when we were taking the goat outside to do its business, it took off — running across the quad, up the hill across the residential quad, down fraternity row and on to the intramural field, where we finally captured it and returned it to the theater for the remaining performances. Between the high-speed chase across campus and having to diaper the goat for performances after an unfortunate incident during tech, it was an experience I will never forget.”

More from Bill: “It’s hard to put into words everything I learned from Michael Flowers and Alan Litsey, as well as all of the wonderful actors and artists in the theater. Discipline, craft, storytelling … there is so much that I learned in BSC Theatre that has served me well throughout my career.”

DANE PETERSON AND THE BEST TIME OF HIS LIFE

Dane Peterson graduated with a degree in theater arts in 1997 and has put it to good use, from directing the John Carroll Catholic High School theater program to spending a year in New York and returning to work at Birmingham Children’s Theatre and the Southern AIDS Coalition. Since 2016, he has been the director of theater arts at Indian Springs School and continues to direct throughout the region.

1996’s “La Bete” featured, from left, Dane Peterson, Aaron White and Alan Litsey.

Dane provided a list of highlights: “The many impromptu ‘off-the-record’ chats with Judy Pandelis; Patti Manning clothing me in the best costumes; learning the fundamentals of lighting, telling stories with scenic elements and the joy of prop design with Matt Mielke; going head to head and chewing up the scenery with Alan Litsey in ‘La Bete’; developing standards of aesthetics, decorum and preparation instilled by Michael Flowers; meeting and befriending Bob Penny; being asked back to my alma mater in 2007 to guest artist in ‘Urinetown.’”

More from Dane: The Hilltop gave me a place to learn not just about theater and liberal arts, but, perhaps more importantly, a place for me to learn about myself. A place where I could begin to understand who I am and how I might make a difference in the world as an artist challenging others to think for themselves and as a person with empathy underscoring every action. From my first moment as an actor appearing before a ‘Southern audience in ‘Baby.’ downstairs in Theatre One, when I rushed off the stage euphoric to four years later, cleaning out my make-up counter following my final performance as a student in ‘The Secret Garden,’ my life was never more wonderful.”

LAUREN CANTRELL ON THE CAMPUS VISIT THAT CHANGED COURSE OF HER LIFE

Lauren Cantrell, who graduated with a theater degree in 2002, didn’t intend to go to BSC. “Then I joined a friend on a college tour, and the rest is history,” she says. “I got involved with the theater department as soon as I got there.” Thanks largely to her BSC Theatre experience, Lauren pursued graduate work in theater and is now teaching theater at Calhoun Community College.

From Lauren: “I have two main BSC Theatre highlights — playing Mrs. Lovett in ‘Sweeney Todd’ and directing my first production.  I have gone on to play many roles and direct many shows, but this summer I’m directing ‘Sweeney Todd’ for the first time and so it feels like I have come full circle.”

More from Lauren: “The people I met at BSC Theatre remain the most talented group of artists  I’ve ever had the privilege to work with at one time.  It was rare and it was magical.  I’ll never forget the effect that they or the incredible faculty had on me, my artistry, and my career path.”

The cast of 2000’s “Sweeney Todd,” led by Lauren Cantrell and Nat Gunter.

NAT GUNTER HAS FOND MEMORIES OF BIG SHOWS

Nat Gunter, who graduated with a music degree in 2003, spent a lot of time in the theater at BSC, appearing in nine musicals, one opera and a one-act musical, “John & Jen,” directed by fellow student Richard Wallace. Now living in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife and two children, Nat works in the world of fine wine. He contributed extensive memories of a number of productions. Here are a couple of them.

Nat on “Company”: “The downstairs black box – Theatre One – is home to some of my most vivid memories. During the spring semester of my freshman year, we put on ‘Company’. I still remember just how talented the upperclassmen were, especially the seniors. Chris Hardin, Amy Miller and Gabe Belyeu were so good. And it was clear that they were good because they cared about their craft and thought deeply about their characters. Their performances, their demeanor in the dressing rooms and green room, the respect they gave the students Michael Flowers put in charge of technical direction, set design, choreography and costume design…all of that really set a tone – for me, certainly – but I think for all of us. The following year-and-a-half the department produced some really ambitious repertoire. I don’t think it would have been possible without the example those Seniors set that year in ‘Company’ (and also ‘Twelfth Night’).”

Nat on “Sweeney Todd”: “A pretty big bite of the apple for a small liberal arts college. A lot of ground covered here already and to be perfectly honest I’m foggiest about this show. The one very clear memory I have is from the end of opening night. Matthew Mielke had designed an incredible set and the apron of the stage had grating through which lights shined upwards and in the center was the trap door through which Sweeney came and went to open and close the show. As I climbed down the ladder under that door and slammed it shut on final note I was just overwhelmed with what we had all accomplished together. I remember running upstairs and hugging anyone who would hug me back. We all just kept saying, ‘We did it.’ I cannot imagine the conversations Michael, Matthew, and Lester had about that production and the decision to go for it. I know it required a gargantuan amount of belief and dedication to get us all prepared to not just do it, but do it at a really high level.”

More from Nat: “I’m writing this having read many of the other remembrances already collected. Memory is a fickle thing. Time and perspective shape and reshape the events of our past, but it is striking the degree to which every student feels that their time, their four years, coincided with an important time for the theater department. I cannot think of a greater testament to the faculty and staff than that. Imagine fostering a learning environment in which a significant number of students over a span of multiple decades felt that they were part of a creative high watermark.”

DANA McARTHUR PORTER RECALLS ‘SWEENEY’ AND BERTE

Dana McArthur Porter graduated with a musical theater degree from BSC in 2003 and earned a master’s in public and private management. At BSC, she appeared in productions and was president of Alpha Psi Omega and a Charles B. Vail fellow for Beginning Acting in Alan Litsey’s classes. She has gone on to a prolific career in Birmingham on stage and in TV commercials.

From Dana: “One of the highlights of my time at BSC was when we reinstated the Alpha Psi Omega theater fraternity in 2002. One of our first orders of business was getting a small plaque made to honor Ms. Patti Manning’s mother, ‘Nana,’ for her commitment to the costume shop. Everyone loved Nana. Her sweet time with us didn’t go unnoticed.  My favorite stage moment was riding the lift on main stage in the opening number of ‘Sweeney Todd’ in the fall of 2000. Everything about that show was magical. We had Sweeney camp that summer to learn the score before we started rehearsals in the fall. Most colleges couldn’t pull off an all-undergraduate cast of that caliber. But BSC’s relationship between the music and the theater department made it such a successful program during that time.”

More from Dana: “I was a student at BSC during the Berte years. If you made good grades, participated in a performance or a sporting event, you’d receive a congratulatory letter in your school mailbox from Dr. Berte. We called them ‘Berte grams.’ He ended each letter with the tag line, ‘I look forward to your continued success!’ We used to joke about that phrase, but still use it with friends to this day.  Dr. Berte paid special attention to all his students; in fact, I had to call him in the fall of 2021 regarding the distinguished alumni awards brunch, and when I introduced myself over the phone, he responded, ‘Oh, Dana! Yes! You were a theater major, correct? How are Lars and the boys?’ I love telling that story. Almost two decades after I graduated, he still knew my college major – and now my family!”

KATIE HOLMES FINDS HER CAREER AT BSC

Katie Holmes, a 2005 theater graduate, was at the piano for the national tour of “Jersey Boys” before returning to Birmingham, where she’s resident music director at Red Mountain Theatre.

From Katie: “I’ll never forget how blown away I was as a senior in high school watching ‘Sweeney Todd.’ That production made me decide to attend BSC, and I was star-struck around the cast for my entire freshman year. I got to create a character (Ramona) in an original play by Alan Litsey – ‘Marian Faustus, PhD.’ I had so much fun bringing her to life for the first time. She was a house painter when she wasn’t a secretary at the college, and she had a wonderful monologue about wallpaper.  The first time I music directed a show was ‘The Spitfire Grill’ in the small black-box theater. I was amazed that Michael Flowers asked me and so flattered that he saw something in me and thought that I was capable of being an MD. I owe him my career, truly. That was the magical part of BSC for me – the faculty truly cared and knew us each as individuals and found ways to allow us to grow our skill sets in the ways that benefitted us most long-term. And gosh, everything about that show was special. My friend Brie designed the beautiful set, the cast was stacked with amazing performers. it was such a wonderful experience. If I could go back and do anything again in college it would be that show, with those people. I’ll always treasure how much fun Becky Crunk and Jonathan Poole and I had during ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.’ We played the Proteans and had the best time creating these very broad comedic characters – I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in a rehearsal as we did then.”

The cast and crew of 2004’s “The Spitfire Grill.”

More from Katie: “I wouldn’t be the person or the theater professional I am now without the BSC Theatre. I got such a well-rounded education there and learned innumerable lessons (both life lessons and theater lessons) from the faculty and staff. I am so grateful for Miss Patti, who was endlessly patient when I couldn’t sew a straight seam to save my life, for Matt, who trusted me to craft props for a show with very little guidance and lot of resources, for Alan, who was the kindest, most supportive and encouraging mentor you could ask for, and for Michael, who saw more in me than I saw in myself. I also have lifelong friends as a result of our time in the program.”

LUCAS PEPKE HONED OPERA, THEATER SKILLS – AND LEARNED A PARLOR TRICK

Lucas Pepke, who graduated in 2005 with a degree in music, says he was “fortunate to live in both the music and theater buildings at BSC.” “My involvement at the theater rramped up during my junior year, when I had the pleasure of taking musical-theater classes with the amazing Michael Flowers,” he says. “It was a joy to be able to hone my craft in both opera and musical theater in a really healthy and collaborative artistic environment.” Still a performer, Pepke lives in Birmingham with his wife, Talia, and two children. He works in the pharmaceutical industry and is putting together a cabaret that he hopes to debut soon.

Lucas Pepke and Katie Holmes in 2005’s “Into the Woods.”

From Lucas: “There are so many fond memories, and I built many life-long relationships that continue to enrich me to this day. Some theater highlights include my induction into the Alpha Psi Omega National Theatre Honor Society and performing in shows like ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘among others. I also competed and and won the regional NATS vocal competition in musical theater as well as the school talent show alongside my dear friend Katie Holmes, who accompanied me singing ‘Part of Your World’ from ‘The Little Mermaid,’ a parlor trick I continue to pull out to this day.”

More from Lucas: “BSC Theatre is about exploration. It’s about connections. It’s about digging deep and crafting amazing art in a collaborative environment. For me, and probably others, it’s our team sport. Go, Panthers!”

SHEA GLENN REMEMBERS ‘SPRING AWAKENING,’ ‘LIZZIE’

Shea Glenn, who graduated with a degree in musical theater in 2012, is instructor of technical theater at Calhoun Community College. She also freelances as a lighting and scenic designer and performs some, too. She is lighting designer for BSC’s production of “The Fantasticks.”

From Shea: “As a student, working on ‘Spring Awakening’ (was a highlight). There are some shows that stay with you forever, and having to hold the show for a standing ovation is certainly memorable. As a returning guest artist, working on ‘Lizzie’ (Michael Flowers’ final show) was the most memorable. It is easily my greatest triumph as a designer. Both on the performance side and as a designer, I feel my best work has been on the Mainstage Theatre at BSC.”

More from Shea: “BSC has been ‘home, sweet home’ for so long it’s hard to conceptualize that the physical community is going away. I didn’t walk my graduation (I had rehearsal), but the last thing I did was go to the theater that morning. Michael FLowers caught me on my way in and just said, ‘It’s not over. You know that, right?’ And that’s very much the way I feel now. BSC Theatre is not over. It’s just changing.”

MEGAN PECOT ON TEACHING AND ACTING

Megan Pecot graduated with a theater degree in 2018, and has designed costumes for the final production of “The Fantasticks.” She is a freelance actor, costumer and stage manager in Birmingham and will be costume coordinator for “Sunday in the Park with George” when Terrific New Theatre reopens with the Sondheim musical in November.

From Megan: “One of my favorite semesters was when I got to teach Beginning Acting with Dr. Alan Litsey. I learned so much that semester and really treasure the time working alongside Alan. All of the teachers and staff in the theater building have meant a lot to me and I still ask their advice to this day. I think another highlight would be performing in ‘Noises Off.’ It was our January Term show my junior year and we only had about three weeks to rehearse before we opened. We had a two-story set that revolved on our turntable stage. It’s an insanely fun show to be a part of and me, and my husband (who was also in it) still like to talk about it. We hope to be in it again someday!”

More from Megan: “BSC Theatre really shaped me as a human being. It taught me determination. It taught me leadership skills. It also gave me a community to be a part of. I have been at BSC for about a decade now. When I graduated in 2018, I immediately took the job of costume shop supervisor alongside Patti Manning (the resident costume designer). It’s been a part-time position for me for the last six years and has supported me while I did other theater freelance work. Patti Manning has become family to me. She has supported and mentored me in my costuming journey, as well as just life in general. I owe a lot of where I am today to her, and to the other faculty and staff. I know these connections will last for my lifetime. I also met my husband, Brennan Martignoni, doing BSC theater. We worked on many shows together, including acting in several, and look back on it fondly. He works in the film industry here in Birmingham!”

PHILIP MANN ON HIS FATHER AND ‘THE FANTASTICKS’

Jack Mann front and center in 1961’s production of “The Fantasticks.”

Philip Mann attended BSC for a year, and though he wasn’t involved in theater during his time there, he holds great memories of the program thanks to his father, Jack, who graduated with an English degree in 1961 and was an integral part of the Birmingham theater community. Here, Philip, now executive director of the Virginia Samford Theatre, recalls his father talking about appearing in “The Fantasticks.” BSC is believed to be the first theater outside of New York to produce the long-running musical.

From Philip: “We talked about it quite a bit. Arnold Powell took some theater students (including Dad) to NYC to see the original production on Sullivan Street in the Village. Dad grew up in Mobile and it was his first trip to NYC. As I understand it, Arnold Powell wrote a letter to Lore Noto (original producer) and got permission to do it at BSC. Dad played Matt and he said the experience was life-changing for him. He went on to Direct it several times (giving Rebecca Luker one of her first paying gigs!) and he directed me in it at BFT in 1993 and was sure to always mention to me that he was a better Matt. That’s Dad for you.”

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