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The power of theater: MUW hosts state festival this weekend for second time in six years


Taylor Battey and Chiraag Bhakta, both 17, of Northwest Rankin High School rehearse a one-act play they will perform today with classmates. The play is part of the Mississippi Theatre Association's 2018 theater festival held at Mississippi University for Women this weekend.

Taylor Battey and Chiraag Bhakta, both 17, of Northwest Rankin High School rehearse a one-act play they will perform today with classmates. The play is part of the Mississippi Theatre Association's 2018 theater festival held at Mississippi University for Women this weekend. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff


Juniper Wallace

Juniper Wallace


Parker Moak

Parker Moak



India Yarborough



Taylor Battey hustles across the stage, shouting in an Irish accent and throwing foam bricks at a fellow actor hidden behind the left stage curtain. She pauses for a moment in front of a backdrop donning a 20th century family portrait and covered in images of 1970s propaganda posters from the Irish Republican Army -- a prop she and her theater troupe made themselves. 


Battey isn't Irish. And she's not a professional actor. She's a 17-year-old student from Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood performing on the Rent Auditorium stage at Mississippi University for Women this weekend as part of the state's annual theater festival. 


The festival, organized by the host college and the Mississippi Theatre Association, has attracted more than 500 students and 160 adults to Columbus for a weekend full of acting workshops, scholarship auditions, monologues and productions put on by schools and community theaters from across the Magnolia state. 


David Carter has taught at MUW for 16 years. He said the school has a quality theater program that is often overlooked, and holding the festival on the university's campus allows the school to recruit potential theater students. 


MUW last held the festival in 2013. The school applied almost two years ago to host the 2018 event and has been planning with MTA for nearly a year to make the four-day affair possible. 


MTA funds the festival through grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, according to a press release from MTA director Stacy Howell. 


"We've been at MUW before, and it was just a great festival, a great faculty and staff to work with and some great facilities," Howell said. "We were excited to do it several years ago, and we're excited to be back." 




'We pick really good shows' 


This is Battey's third year attending the festival with her high school theater director Juniper Wallace. Wallace brought 24 students this year. They'll perform a one act play today -- "The Shape of the Grave" by playwright Laura Lundgren Smith -- for a shot at advancing to the Southeastern Theatre Conference in March in Mobile, Alabama. 


The one-act plays produced by high school and community theater troupes are scheduled to take place today and Saturday and are open to the public. Viewers may purchase general admission tickets on-site. Tickets are $25 for all shows, $15 for a day of performances and $5 for a block of shows. For a festival schedule visit 


"We pick really good shows in my opinion," Battey said, smiling. 


She and fellow Northwest Rankin student Parker Moak, both seniors, tout theater as a transformative art that forces people to be the best versions of themselves. 


"Before theater I didn't really do much," Battey said. "Then I met all these wonderful people that have such different lives and different perspectives, and I guess it's helped me open up to things that are outside my comfort zone, to people that aren't like me ... which can be hard." 


Battey and Moak both became involved in theater at young ages -- Battey when her parents signed her up for a summer theater camp in sixth grade and Moak when he played the part of a stink bug in an elementary school play. 


"Every single year I could take theater I did," Moak said. 




Shaping lives 


Moak considers himself an attention seeker who has "always loved big entertainers like Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley," so the ability to be himself, make people smile and surround himself with open-minded people with similar interests brings him back to the stage year after year. 


He argues activities students choose for themselves outside of core classes help determine who they are. 


Carter agrees the arts have a positive impact on students. Theater, he said, makes students more involved citizens and more marketable people, teaching them how to take criticism and enhancing a variety of other skills. 


"A number one fear of most people is getting up in front of others and speaking, so they've conquered that," he said. "Two, they know how to present themselves well ... how to design, how to dress properly, how to develop a work ethic and how to meet a deadline." 


Theater, Moak said, has had quite an impact on who he is today. 


"I have a lot of bad social anxiety, I find, when I come to competitions, but since I'm with my people and they're really nice and into the same sort of things I am, I feel like I can openly talk to them," he said. "I feel like I don't have to be worried about anything. I feel better in my own skin." 


Wallace said theater, like many extracurricular activities, gives kids a purpose, an outlet for expression. 


"I've seen (theater) transform lives and save them," Wallace said, "even when I didn't know it at the time." 


In fact, the instructor notes, her extracurricular activities -- forensics, speech and debate -- are what kept her going when she attended Murrah High School in Jackson years ago and what ultimately led her to teach. 


"When I came to a time in my life where I decided I needed to have a career rather than just a job -- because I did not decide to become a teacher right out of college -- I looked at what was the most influential time in my life and how I would have liked things to be different," Wallace said. "I had two very influential teachers, and I decided, because high school was a terrible place for me, I wanted to give kids a place to belong and be that teacher that someone was for me."




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