Like other arts organizations, the Virginia Samford Theater in Birmingham’s Highland Park has been forced to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic from March 2020.
The theater was finally able to present part of the 2020-21 season live while complying with a wide range of safety precautions.
But now theater staff are upbeat and have a full list of productions slated for their 2021-22 season.
âOur staff worked continuously during downtime and kept us coming back with our usual Broadway quality entertainment,â said Marketing Director Ben Burford.
And the president of the theater, Cathy Gilmore, is excited about the new season, in part because of the reactions expected from her regulars.
âI’m excited because it turns our audience on,â she said. âWe try to choose shows that we think have broad appeal. “
Gilmore and his team seemed to have chosen well over the past two decades, as the theater has grown into one of the metro area’s most popular theaters.
A Birmingham native and longtime arts administrator, Gilmore is also a longtime Mountain Brook resident.
Gilmore also seems to enjoy his job as the head of the Virginia Samford Theater and has no plans to leave.
âIt has been so gratifying to see over the years that we are still here,â she said. ” We continue. It’s funny. It’s a challenge. I wouldn’t do anything else.
Gilmore recently spoke about the new theatrical season; his love for high quality live theater; the importance of running the non-profit organization like a business in order to maintain financial viability; the way the theater offers paid concerts to local theater professionals; and how the theater’s youth program helps introduce young people to the joys of theater and, she hopes, retain patrons in the future.
The next stop for the 2021-22 season is âThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,â an original musical that won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards. The show is scheduled to run October 14-24.
âIt’s a very, very funny show,â said Gilmore, who said the show should appeal to young adults as well.
âOne of our hardest things right now is attracting this young millennial audience,â she said.
One of the best directors of the Virginia Samford Theater, David McMahon, will stage the Tennessee Williams classic “The Glass Menagerie” in the intimate Sykes Studio from October 28 to November 28. 7.
âNobody does the classic pieces,â Gilmore said.
The show that Gilmore and his team are “really excited about” is their production of the hit musical “9 to 5”, which has music and lyrics by Dolly Parton and premieres in January.
âOur customers love musicals,â said Gilmore.
The theater show at the end of January “has always been a huge source of money for us,” said Gilmore. âFootball is over. People are looking for things to do.
âI hope the virus will be under control,â she said.
Later in the season, the theater will stage two more popular musicals, Stephen Sondheim’s âCompanyâ in March and âThe Sound of Musicâ in June.
Gilmore studied speaking and acting at Birmingham-Southern College, where he graduated in 1968, and worked professionally in theaters in Birmingham, Atlanta and New York.
She then became a director, serving as Executive Director of the Alabama Ballet from 1983 to 1996 and Executive Director of the Metropolitan Arts Council from 1996 to 1999.
Gilmore was involved in the restoration and reopening of the Virginia Samford Theater in 2000.
The theater has a 30-member board of directors, many of whom have been associated with the theater since the purchase and renovation in 2000, Gilmore said.
After COVID-19 arrived, Gilmore said the Virginia Samford Theater decided to remain open from last September. This choice was necessary because the theater owns its building, which is 95 years old and needs regular maintenance, Gilmore said.
Utilities, insurance, maintenance and other expenses for the theater cost between $ 5,000 and $ 6,000 per month, she said.
âWhether we operate or not, we still have to pay these bills,â she said.
The theater has taken numerous precautions against COVID-19, such as maintaining one-third of the seating capacity and temperature controls at the door.
âWe have done everything we can to be safe,â said Gilmore.
Gilmore is also committed to maintaining a true live theater. âVirtual shows don’t do anything for me,â she said.
The theater made it through the year financially, despite canceling its January 2021 production. It received two federal PPP loans and secured additional grants, Gilmore said.
âOur staff did not miss a paycheck,â she said.
He also had great success with a âMillion Dollar Quartetâ production in June. âWe had a full house for three weeks,â said Gilmore. âPeople were delighted to be back.
When Gilmore, staff, and one or two board members choose shows for each season at the Virginia Samford Theater, they face critical financial questions.
“Will that bring in any money?” Can we afford to do this? Will he call? Gilmore said.
Their projections appear to have been generally correct.
âWe’ve never had a show where we lost money,â she said. “There are some where we did just a little.”
As a small theater that can’t accommodate more than 325 people, it’s important to keep an eye on sustainability, Gilmore said.
âWe pay our artists,â she said. âThey are not volunteers. They are all professional actors, directors and choreographers.
âAlthough Birmingham is a relatively large market, there are only a few theater companies in town that have the facilities to produce large-scale productions like those produced by VST,â said veteran local director Carl Dean. “It is a paying company, so its artists can supplement their income by working under contract for the theater”,
Running the theater, which has an annual budget of around $ 1.2 million, is very similar to running any other large business, Gilmore said.
âWe have an accounting firm and we have to submit financial reports every month,â she said.
The important difference between the Virginia Samford Theater and a regular business is that, as a nonprofit, the theater must also solicit contributions, Gilmore said.
âI’m constantly looking for ways for people to get involved in theater and want to make a contribution, because that’s your sustainability,â she said.
By staying open, the Virginia Samford Theater seeks to achieve a vital purpose, Gilmore said.
âOur mission has always been to cultivate and showcase our local artists,â she said, citing seasoned local artists such as Jan Hunter and Kristi Tingle Higginbotham.
The theater seeks to showcase “all of these wonderful artists who live in Birmingham,” she said. âThe theater is a bit like an oasis of creation just for them.
Higginbotham said the Virginia Samford Theater is “like my home away from home, and has been for many decades,” noting that she played her first role there in 1982, when the facility was still called Town and Gown Theater.
Higginbotham has since played lead roles in plays such as “The Music Man”, “Gypsy”, “Chicago” and – just before the COVID-19 lockdown – “Cabaret”.
In running the Virginia Samford Theater, Gilmore makes good use of her own experience as a professional actress and ballet dancer, Higginbotham said.
âI think these skills have really helped her, along with her passion for the arts in Birmingham, to be able to run such a great theater which is a highlight for our community,â Higginbotham said.
Dean has worked in the theater for almost 20 years, he said. âIt really has become for me a creative and artistic home away from home,â he said.
Gilmore and the Virginia Samford Theater are âgreat at finding and identifying artists with a vision, whom they can trust to create unique and powerful theatrical works, and help them bring those visions to the stage,â Dean said.
Dean and Gilmore share a “raw passion for the theater,” Dean said.
Hunter’s next acting role in the theater will be what she called Amanda’s “intimidating and massive part” in McMahon’s production of “The Glass Menagerie.”
Gilmore is âalways inspiring to work with,â Hunter said. “She’s creative with a bit of quirky humor combined.”
The historic theater “is not only a beautiful theater to watch, but an equally beautiful place to perform,” said Hunter.
McMahon, originally from Birmingham, has directed several shows at the theater, most recently a production of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite”.
âI love coming back to Birmingham and working in the theater where I grew up, and Cathy gives me a lot of space to be as creative as possible,â McMahon said.
He praises the staff and the pool of local actors. âBirmingham has very talented people,â he said.
Another key goal of the theater is to grow its youth education program – under the direction of education director Jennifer Spiegelman – which “is growing by leaps and bounds,” Gilmore said.
Children and adolescents learn the craft of theater and how to put on shows.
Participants in the STARS (Students Play a Role at Samford) program will perform three shows this season, including the Disney musical “Madagascar Jr”. in November.
The youth program may be the source of theater audiences in the future, Gilmore said.
“We hope that these children grow up learning theater and when they become adults they enjoy it and they in turn will exhibit their children in the theater,” she said.
Gilmore is also globally proud of the quality of the shows the Virginia Samford Theater presents using talented local professionals.
“I am very proud of Birmingham’s talent,” she said.
Gilmore also expresses his pride in his staff.
âThey do such a phenomenal job for such a small group of people,â she said.
Hunter said the Virginia Samford Theater is an invaluable presence in Birmingham’s creative and cultural life. âCathy and this theater give those of us in need the opportunity to learn and develop our talents,â said Hunter.
Gilmore – now entering his third decade in the theater – said his work was very rewarding.
âIt’s gratifying to see that we were able to take over this building in 2000 when UAB put it up for sale and that we were able to work with Virginia Samford, who actually purchased the building, and our board of directors who did. is engaged to raise funds to completely renovate the building, âsaid Gilmore.
The Virginia Samford Theater is located at 1116 26th St. S. For more information, including the full 2021-22 season schedule, call 205-251-1228 or visit virginiasamfordtheatre.org.