UAB’s Musical Theatre program celebrates first graduating class

Before they graduate, the seniors will help deliver one more musical when “Hairspray” takes the stage April 11-15.
musical theatre action 900From left: Head of Musical Theatre Valerie Accetta, with Alicia Batterson, Ben Lundy, Kayli Porter, junior Brian Wittenberg, Meredith Morse and Jeremy X. Richardson.

The first cohort of students earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Musical Theatre program will graduate April 28.

Earning their degrees from the College of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Theatre are Alicia Batterson, Ben Lundy, Meredith Morse, Kayli Porter and Jeremy X. Richardson. In many ways, the students have been collaborators in the development of the program, says Valerie Accetta, MFA, assistant professor and head of Musical Theatre.

“I am so grateful to have these exceptional students in the first-ever class,” Accetta said. “They have bravely been the first to go through the curriculum and have set a very high bar for every subsequent class. They so articulately share their successes and frustrations, and it has allowed us to amend projects, classes and delivery to better cater to the needs of our students.”

UAB provides a wealth of opportunities to work in and around the theater, which helps students build many different skills to take with them in the professional world, Porter says. While earning their degrees, the students worked in nearly all aspects of theater production, from coordinating auditions and assisting directors to dramaturgy, working with costumes and scenery building. In addition to classes and performances with Theatre faculty, they have also worked with voice faculty in the Department of Music and trained in jazz, ballet and tap dancing, and puppetry. The students have performed in the department’s touring ensembles and its main stage productions, including “Women of War,” “Avenue Q,” “A Little Night Music,” “Urinetown: the Musical,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “You Can’t Take it With You,” “Spring Awakening,” “Silent Sky” and more. They can be seen in Theatre UAB’s season-closing musical “Hairspray,” happening April 11-15 at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center.

The best part of their story is that each of the five have been offered jobs, although not all have decided what the next steps will be in their creative journeys.

A common theme in each student’s story is the support they felt along the way, professionally, academically and emotionally.

musical threatre brianJunior Musical Theatre major Brian Wittenberg, of Johns Creek, Georgia, is continuing the program’s excellence. At the Region IV Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, he won both the Musical Theatre Initiative Award and the Open Jar Award, which granted him a scholarship to the Open Jar Initiative in New York and the opportunity to compete at the national festival for a full scholarship to Open Jar. He is unable to attend because of “Hairspray,” but he may be granted other summer opportunities nationally with KCACTF.

Jeremy X. Richardson of Mobile

Richardson, the youngest of six siblings raised by a single mother, will be the first person in his family to graduate from college. In high school, performing in choir helped save his adolescent life, he says. “The director was the first of many people who saw potential in me, didn’t label me as a ‘thug,’ and cultivated an inspiration inside of my dreams and goals,” Richardson said. He transferred to UAB after studying music and performing in the gospel choir and jazz band at Coastal Alabama Community College. Coming to UAB as a transfer student was nerve-racking, but he says he gained so much knowledge from the professors. “I wanted my craft to expand as much as possible, and I knew that I had to depart from Mobile to get that experience. Immediately, I had to step out of my box the first moment I got here.” While at UAB, he performed in the UAB Opera production “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and Theatre UAB’s “A Little Night Music,” “Working” and “Hairspray.” Richardson says he will treasure the constant reminder of self-awareness and deep, authentic passion for the craft instilled in him by his work at UAB. After graduation, Richardson has his sights set on New York or California, and hopes to perform in theater and work in television and commercials. His advice for upcoming students in the BFA Musical Theatre program? “Release your full self, and don’t hold back.”

Alicia Batterson of Columbus, Ohio

Batterson says she personally feels “so prepared” to enter the professional theater world because of the program. “A lot of the work produced at UAB is cutting-edge and comments on the world we live in. I have become a better person because of the projects I have been a part of at UAB.” The professors at UAB push young performers to be the best artists and people they can be, she says. “The faculty have poured their hearts out into this program, and it shows in their students.” You have to have a love of hard work to succeed in it, she says. “All of our students work their tails off, and it shows in the quality of work we produce. The creative environment at UAB is incredible. I have seen students produce plays and their own work when they’re not involved in one of the UAB main stage plays. There is so much creative stimulation here if you love to work and develop something new.” Batterson has been offered a contract to tour the United States performing children’s theater. She plans to continue to perform and gain professional experience, and hopes to teach on the collegiate level about storytelling through performance. 

Ben Lundy of Fairhope

Lundy will graduate with an individually designed minor in dramaturgy, and was dramaturge on “Working” and “Silent Sky.” In addition to his work with Theatre UAB, Lundy was a teaching assistant with the Alys Stephens Center’s ArtPlay summer musical theater intensive. He has worked in both professional and academic theater productions — he starred as Princeton in “Avenue Q.” The biggest strength of UAB’s Musical Theatre program is the individualized attention students receive, he says. “I have grown so much, not only as an actor, but more importantly as a person, because of the nurturing and supportive faculty who have encouraged me to be bold and be brilliant. UAB taught me that I was not just a performer but a storyteller, and I think the focus of this program is learning how to craft and tell compelling stories that will engage audiences.” Lundy has accepted a performance apprenticeship with Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, Florida, for which he will tour with school shows, teach students and audition for its main stage season. 

Meredith Morse of Westerville, Ohio

Morse ended her first year in the program in 2015 by being named Most Outstanding Freshman. During summers, she worked at Horn in The West revolutionary war drama in Boone, North Carolina, and at Peach State Summer Theatre in Valdosta, Georgia. “Hairspray” will be her seventh Theatre UAB production. “Every show that I have been in or seen at UAB has been extremely well-executed, with grace and professionalism.” The program has been very difficult at times, she says. “But knowing that I’m getting to do what I’m most passionate about every day has gotten me through those tough parts.” The best advice she can give to an upcoming student would be “try to keep a good mind about everything. Things will get really tough. But knowing that you’re in a good community of artists and supportive professionals will truly help you get through these hardships.” After graduation, Morse says, she plans on continuing professional theater anywhere she can, and she is currently weighing performance apprentice positions on offers from two theater companies. “I was so lucky to get these offers from the Southeastern Theatre Conference and Unified Professional Theatre Auditions. It’s been a busy audition season, but all of my classmates have successfully ended it with a job offer, which is stellar,” Morse said.

Kayli Porter of Bessemer

After graduation, Porter will spend the summer touring the Midwest with a children’s theater, performing and teaching kids the joys of storytelling. After that, her plan is to move to New York City and begin her professional career. Porter was assistant director alongside Accetta for UAB’s productions of “Spring Awakening” and “Working: The Musical.” “The amount of love and support the faculty and students in this department give is overwhelming,” Porter said. “They have made these past four years the best years of my life and made UAB my home away from home. The professors here are so approachable and are always willing to help out in whatever aspect they can. The faculty have helped navigate me through my career in the industry, and they have also helped guide me through important life milestones. Leaving this department, I am so grateful for all of the training I have received, all of the opportunities I have been provided, and all of the lifelong relationships I have made. This place will never be forgotten.”

Read more stories from Commencement Spring 2018