Hear how one Nashville sound designer got his start at the Virginia Samford Theatre

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Justin Walker returns to the sound booth as a professional, where he was once just learning the ropes as a high school student. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

When Toto pulls back the curtain at the Virginia Samford Theatre (VST), you won’t find the Wizard of Oz, but Justin Walker. Learn how the man behind the scenes and a Birmingham native became an integral component for shows in Nashville and beyond. Plus, hear why it was an honor to return to the theatre as a sound designer for Frozen Jr. and The Fantasticks.

Frozen Jr. made more special by a former STARS student

Justin Walker, sound designer for Frozen Jr. at the VST
Justin addresses the cast of STARS presents Frozen Jr. with directions before diving into an in-depth tech rehearsal. Photo via Bham Now

If you’re reading this, there’s a probability you’re in the creative industry. And, if you’re in the creative industry there’s an almost 100% probability you’ve been affected big time by the pandemic.

So was sound designer Justin Walker. On March 13, 2020 (in case you don’t have a calendar handy, that’s Friday the 13th) he toured his last show as Chris Lane’s sound designer. But, an eight-month opening in his schedule allowed him to return to the place where he learned the skills that have paved the way to a successful career—VST.

A call from where he learned it all

Currently, Justin is offering his talent as a sound designer for Frozen Jr., presented by the theatre’s STARS (Students Take A Role at Samford) program. The gig is special on several different levels, one of which is that Justin is a former STARS student himself.

Another is that he’s able to step behind the sound booth, once again, at a place he has a deep connection with and help give patrons an in-person show they’ll love.

“When I got that call, I was pretty happy and honored. I’d spent the last eight months at home. It was devastating after being so busy up to the point before everything in the entire industry came to a halt.

So, it’s amazing to be able to come back the theatre and take baby steps to put on a show that is safe and creates a sense of community.”

Justin Walker

Before he was a sound designer for the stars, he was a STAR

sound designer Justin Walker helps mic VST STAR student
Tech rehearsals are a long and intricate process, but expertise from professional sound designers like Justin ensures everything runs smoothly for opening night. Photo via Bham Now

Justin attended The Jefferson County Academy of Theater and Dance at Shades Valley High School. With a focus on tech, he soon became a STARS student at the VST.

Throughout the program, he learned how to build sets and work as a stagehand, but what Justin really had a passion for was sound design. The interest became known to him when he attended his first concert.

“I remember my first concert when I saw someone behind the scenes doing that magical part of making things happen. That’s what eventually led me to where I am today. But, I didn’t get to tell the sound designer that, or any of the people on stage and behind the scenes.

So, I wonder if they know that one person wanted to be just like them. I think about that everywhere we go and every time we do a show. There could be somewhere we go where it makes an audience member realize their passion like I did.”

Making the magic happen

Once he understood what he wanted to do, it was time to set about how. Justin studied to be a sound designer in college. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Show Production and Touring from Full Sail University, he booked his first job in Nashville.

From there, Justin worked with Rascal Flatts for two summer tours and has toured with Chris Lane since 2016. But, it was at the VST that he learned professionalism and skills that go beyond technical.

“What I really got here, that’s been more valuable than anything, is experience and professionalism—being held to a high standard. That’s what people do at the VST. It’s a community theatre, but everyone is on their A-game all the time.

You can’t beat that experience of being around great professional people who are talented—very talented.

A long way from home, but closer than he realized

Justin ended up working about 100 shows, touring across the U.S. and internationally.

However, no matter if he was at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in San Francisco or the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Justin relied on the expertise he learned as a high schooler at the VST.

“You learn the tech and how things work in school and college. But, in addition to those skills, the team at the Virginia Samford Theatre taught me how to stay calm, cool and collected when things don’t work and you have to fix it in the middle of a show.

Almost every day at my job there was something that happened where I’ve thought, ‘I’ve already seen this at the Virginia Samford Theatre.'”

Justin isn’t the only one who took what he learned at the VST and turned it into a successful career. DeMarius Copes, another former STARS student, was recently cast in the movie version of the Broadway smash hit, Dear Evan Hansen. If you want to make more dreams like Justin and DeMarius’ come true, find out how to donate to the theatre today.

A passion made possible by the VST

Thanks to the time he spent at the 93-year-old theatre, Justin found an outlet to fuel his creative passion. Now, he’s able to do what he loves every day and share that zeal for the arts with entire communities.

“There’s something that happens when we’re creating art and people are watching. Whether it’s live or at home, there’s a connection and there’s a look in people’s eyes and I get to see it on tour.

Especially because I work from the stage. There’s a feeling that you can tell that they have when art connects with them. It’s rare, they’re falling in love with something in real-time and that changes them.”

Looking to get your start at the Virginia Samford Theatre or want to ensure others get a chance? Donate to the theatre today and find out more information by following the VST at their socials below.

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