John Bateman, Summer Scholars writing instructor, works with a group of student-writers on act one of their collaborative play at Cresswell Residence Hall at Mississippi State University. Twenty-six writers came together to write a three-act play in one week. The students will rehearse for the next two weeks before the public performances on July 13 and 14. Pictured behind Bateman are, from left, Christian Dunne of Starkville, R.J. Rutherford of New Albany, Breland Lucious of Tupelo, Kennedy Hardaway of Dallas, Texas, and Esther Reeves of Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
July 3, 2018 10:12:13 AM
After her first day of camp for Summer Scholars, Randie Cobb, 18, immediately felt she could finally be herself among her peers without judgment.
"(The camp) helps you express yourself," said Cobb, a senior at New Albany High School. "I love singing and dancing, but the problem is, I don't like being in front of people. But I can just sing and dance here."
Summer Scholars is a residential theater camp through the Mississippi State University College of Education, sponsored by the Mississippi Arts Commission, which allows students who just finished seventh through 12th grades to collaboratively write and perform a three-act play in just three weeks.
After the script's completion during the one-week writer's camp, the production camp begins. The campers then have two weeks to quickly build sets, produce, rehearse and design costumes before the play's performance in mid-July.
Summer Scholars Director Joe Underwood has been working with the theater camp since its inception in 1982. The camp has evolved from producing 20-minute sketches to a nearly three-hour original musical and theatrical performance.
This year, 26 writers from seven states moved to the MSU campus on June 24 and immediately started the playwright process with their writing instructor, John Bateman, who also directs the Starkville Area Arts Council.
The production camp started Saturday and added 40 scholars to help perform and assist with the play's production. Students will perform the play, the title for which the writers must still decide, in the McComas Hall Theatre at MSU at 7 p.m. July 13 and 1 p.m. July 14. Both shows are free to the public.
Campers find their place
Kennedy Hardaway, 17, traveled from Dallas, Texas, to spend her second summer with the program. Coming back to camp was an opportunity Hardaway felt she could not miss.
"We are not all the same but we can appreciate our differences," Kennedy said. "I realized last summer, I was really happy. It made me happy being here, so I had to come back here again. It's something that I need in my life."
The campers work every day, including weekends, and have very little downtime. Each day starts at 9 a.m. and campers work consistently until "lights-out" at 10:30 p.m.
Though the process appears exhausting, Bateman said the campers thoroughly enjoy working through the creative process.
With 66 campers and 47 camp staff members, each camper is given individual instruction throughout the creative process.
"Sometimes it's a lot of coaching," Bateman said. "Reminding them that no idea is bad. Any idea can be a story. You need to be flexible, but go ahead and be confident in your ideas."
Some campers use their Summer Scholars experience to pursue theater on the collegiate or professional level, Underwood said. Even the ones who don't go on to study theater learn invaluable life skills, he added.
"You learn self-acceptance (and) how to communicate," Underwood said. "You lose your stage-fright. The good thing is, there are 66 kids and we've written 66 parts. You take it and make what you can out of it, because no one else is going to have (that part). I think that's special."
Each year, a few campers in the writer's camp start writing and composing original musical numbers for the play. Instructors and professional musicians help train the scholars throughout the musical process in order to incorporate musical numbers within the script.
"In some cases, they discover themselves. They learn more about their own potential," Underwood said. "Our greatest challenge is not to get in the way, but be there when they need direction. And that's a tough act to balance."
For Cobb, the experience of helping create a production for the public, as well as the friends she makes along the way, makes Summer Scholars worthwhile.
"I'm happy with however the play goes, but for me, it's more about the memories. Memories last forever," Cobb said.
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