By Emily Williams
On March 26, Virginia Samford Theatre leaders made the call to cancel the remainder of their 2019-2020 season, not knowing how long it would be before they reopened or whether they would have room for the cancelled shows in their next season.
One of those productions, starring Jan Hunter, will now be presented as the season opener.
Hunter will return to the stage in the show, “Love, Linda,” directed by Henry Scott. It will run Sept. 17-27 on the Virginia Samford Theatre’s Mainstage.
“It’s the perfect vehicle to open back a theater season,” Hunter said, as there will be a limited number of people on the stage. Only one, to be exact.
Hunter will take on the role of Linda Lee Thomas in a one-woman show about her life as a Kentucky-born socialite and her marriage to legendary songwriter Cole Porter.
Hunter will sing a selection of Porter’s 1920s tunes and act out scenes inspired by the couple’s 35-year marriage, the successes and the darker elements.
“She was pretty much the driving force behind his success, so it is her story woven in with his incredible music,” Hunter said.
Folks can expect to hear well-known songs, such as “I Love Paris,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Night and Day,” and “In the Still of the Night.”
Though she has had just a few rehearsals so far, Hunter said just being at the theater after a long quarantine was an amazing feeling.
“I’ve only had two rehearsals, and I walked into the backstage of that theater and my whole spirit lifted,” she said. “It was like the light turned on in my soul.”
Long History in Birmingham
Hunter has a long history with the Virginia Samford through a few different iterations of its existence as a staple of the arts community in Birmingham.
Hunter lived in the area for a year in the 1970s, between graduating from college and moving to New York City. While she was in the Magic City, she worked as an intern at the theater for professor James Hatcher.
“I moved back here in the ‘90s and got involved again, when it was Town & Gown,” Hunter said.
Over the years, she has seen the arts community continue to grow and expand.
“We have added more and more theater companies in Birmingham,” she said. “Our symphony thrives. Our ballet does really well. Our museum is so beautiful… . So, I think we are a very culturally aware city.”
At times, the arts community has been saturated and a few companies have been lost along the way. Like in the restaurant world, sometimes there are only so many people who go out.
“That has happened, but I think the general support of the arts is still extremely strong, thankfully,” she said.
When the pandemic hit, the entire arts community felt the weight of lockdown measures immediately, canceling one show after another as the “new reality” set in.
“The friends of mine who are music directors and directors and depended on these shows for financial livelihood … they were devastated,” Hunter said.
Scott was working with a team of actors and crew members on a production of “The Fantasticks” that would have opened March 26.
In response to that production being closed down, one of the actors in the show, Barry Austin, collaborated with Hunter and fellow actor Joe Zellner to create a virtual singalong, dubbed One Voice Birmingham. The trio banded together with fellow artists and friends to create a YouTube video, all singing the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and sending a message of support to fellow artists.
The original video was posted April 30 and has been viewed more than 10,400 times. It even garnered social media praise from the likes of Barry Manilow.
Back in Action
At Virginia Samford, shows that were cancelled due to the pandemic will find their way back to the stage, as “Love, Linda” has.
“The Fantasticks” will show Oct. 15-25. In addition, summer productions have found a home in the 2020-21 season. “Frozen Jr.” by the VST Stars students has been moved to Nov. 12-22, and “1776” will show Jan. 21 through Feb. 7.
According to Hunter, this first production will be a learning experience for the Birmingham theater community – actors, crew and audience members alike.
“I know in our hearts and in our spirits we are ready to come back,” she said. “Physically, I don’t know if we are. We’re all afraid of getting sick and exposing ourselves and exposing others, so the Virginia-Samford Theatre is taking every precaution with this piece.”
The theater will be conducting temperature checks at the door and will require masks. In addition, seating will be set at 50% capacity.
“I just want to applaud the Virginia Samford Theatre and thank them for taking this chance, and for the sponsors that are supporting the show,” she said.
“I just want to applaud them for getting us back in the groove.”