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Trailblazing Alumni Chris McCauley January 31, 2024

Being an “army brat” isn’t always easy. With each move—and each army base—comes a series of familiar steps: get acquainted with your new school, find friends, explore the neighborhood. For Jereme Kyle Lewis—whose mother and father were both in the army—he had one additional step.

“Every time we moved cities… I’d always find the community theatre or the drama club, and that’s always how I’d make my friends,” said Lewis, a freelance Actors Equity Association (AEA) stage manager in New York City and an alumnus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Theatre.

His interest in theatre stemmed from a performance he attended when he was nine years old. Soon after moving to Savannah, Georgia, his mother suggested they go see a movie to take a break from unpacking boxes. While looking up movie showtimes, his mother discovered something that piqued her interest.

“There was a listing for a play,” said Lewis. “My mom was like, ‘It’s a new city, we’ve never been to a play before, let’s do something different.’ So we went and saw Charlotte’s Web. To this day, I will always remember that production—it was so fantastical. I was captivated.”

From that point forward, Lewis knew he wanted to pursue a life in theatre. And that interest only deepened with each city and local community theater that gave him a “home.” By the time he was in high school in Enterprise, Alabama, he was driving three hours one way to watch his friend, Emilie Soffe, perform in Theatre UAB productions.

“I’d drive up to Birmingham and see her perform and sleep on the floor of her dorm room,” said Lewis. “It was the closest I got to Charlotte’s Web. I saw spectacle—and I’ve grown to learn that the theatre I love is a spectacle.”

Those experiences—paired with his desire for an affordable in-state option—led Lewis to enroll at UAB. Initially, he wanted to pursue acting, but an unexpected situation steered him in a different direction.

“It was my sophomore year. My best friend was stage managing The Rivals, and he needed an assistant stage manager (ASM) and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it, I need a technical [requirement] for my degree,’” said Lewis. “Then he had a family emergency and had to leave. I got bumped up to the production stage manager (PSM) in week two of rehearsals. I had no clue what a stage manager was at that point.”

But rather than be overwhelmed by the challenge, Lewis saw the situation as an opportunity to learn something new. With that in mind, he sought out mentorship and guidance from the department’s chair, Kelly Allison. According to Lewis, every morning he’d wake up early and go spend a few hours with Allison, discussing best practices and reviewing mistakes from the previous night.

“I got a crash course on stage management,” said Lewis. “I would fall on my face, make mistakes, and say that it would be better tomorrow. Then I would wake up early, go to Kelly’s office, tell him what happened, and he would be like, ‘Alright, cool, here’s what you should’ve done, here’s what you can do.’ And that night I would go to rehearsal with that day’s lesson and do better.”

And he did do better—in fact, he thrived as a stage manager. Through that production, Lewis was nominated for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and competed (and won) at the regional level. He then competed at the national level and subsequently won a scholarship to intern at the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut.

Jereme with stage manager headgear“That was the beginning of it all,” said Lewis.

Lewis used these opportunities to nurture a longstanding network of collaborators and friends, which proved valuable as he began to build his career. After earning his bachelor’s degree and serving as an intern at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, Lewis pursued more internships, fellowships, and jobs in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles. Each experience helped Lewis develop more connections in the industry, while also deepening his knowledge of stage management—and reinforcing the value of his time at UAB.

“I never had to learn the mechanics, because ultimately I already had that from UAB,” said Lewis. “The lighting board that we used at UAB was the same lighting board that was used at these Tony Award-winning regional theaters. I already knew how to work a lot of the technical elements, because it was the same [gear, computer programs, technology] that we used at UAB.”

Lewis’ talent began to ring out across the country, resulting in an invitation to work with the legendary stage manager Robert Bennett on The Trip to Bountiful (TRIP) on Broadway in 2013. The production brought him to the epicenter of theatre in the U.S. and forever changed his life.

“It was the reason why I moved to New York City. Through that show… I went from being the PA (production assistant) to the ASM, allowing me to join the union and receive my equity card,” said Lewis. “After we closed on Broadway, I got the opportunity to travel with that show across the country on my first national tour. I will forever be grateful for everything TRIP gave me, especially the family it gave me. It was a really special moment in my life.”

Lewis worked with the Tony Award-winning production for three years, setting the stage for a diverse and busy career on Broadway. Since The Trip to Bountiful, Lewis has worked on 11 more Broadway productions, including his first musical, Caroline, or Change in 2019.

“My entire career, I’ve always wanted to work on musicals,” said Lewis. “A lot of my early career was plays, and so I fought really hard to get on a musical. And it took me six years to book one.”

And, unsurprisingly, Caroline, or Change served as a springboard into more musicals, leading Lewis to serve as stage manager for one of the most well-known (and aptly named) shows in the country: New York, New York.

“It was the biggest musical of the season with 40 actors on stage and over 30 locations/transitions of pure spectacle. It was the most expensive musical on Broadway that season,” said Lewis. “I built it. I ran it. I called it. I got to be a part of it. I am very proud of that.”

After working on a dozen Broadway shows, Lewis is quick to note the importance of proactively seeking out job opportunities and saying “yes” when they become available. It’s an approach that he encourages current UAB students to embrace after graduation and one that he sums up with a very simple (and familiar) phrase.

“Say yes to the dress,” said Lewis, smiling. “Don’t say no to yourself. Apply for everything—even if you don’t think you’re good enough for it, apply for it.”

Lewis is now a decade into a career full of “yeses” that brought him to stages with some of the biggest Broadway stars, including Cicely Tyson, Kevin Kline, and, most recently, Danny DeVito. To this day, he cites his one-on-one mentoring meetings with Kelly Allison as the place where it all began.

“If it wasn’t for those early morning pep talks, hard lessons, and guidance, I wouldn’t be living my dreams today. I owe it all to Kelly (along with Karla Koskinen and Cliff Simon), my UAB family,” said Lewis.

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