Camp participants write play at MSU summer program

Participants in the 2017 Summer Scholars On Stage program are in the process of writing a play to perform on June 30 and July 1 in McComas Hall on campus. (Left to right) Script Coordinator John Bateman, camp participants Meg Gousset, Anna Pierce, Clara Williams, Elliot Rezek, Assistant Writer Brannon Godwin and Lead Writer Colin Damms. (Photo by Sarah Raines, SDN)
Staff Writer

Mississippi State University's Summer Scholars On Stage program is at the end of its first week, and middle school and high school students are working together to write an original three-act play to perform at the end of the month.

The program is a performing arts camp for teenagers from 8th grade to 12th grade. The campers write, produce and perform an original show in three weeks. The students create a custom set for the show and write original music for the performance. This year's show will be performed at 7 p.m. on June 30 and July 1 at McComas Hall. The community is invited to attend.

Camp Director Joe Ray Underwood said the program began in 1982 and has evolved over the years. Campers stay at one of the residence halls on campus for three weeks while they work.

One week of the camp is spent writing the play and working on the set. The next two weeks are spent finishing the set and rehearsing for the production. MSU now offers a college credit to participants who take a class to help build the set for the play.

"We have a very nurturing camp, unlike most theater, which is cutthroat," Underwood said. "There are no stars. Everybody is important and everybody has equally important parts."

This year there are 54 children participating in the camp. There are 20 campers who have worked together since Sunday to write the play, and eight who are taking the class to build the set. The rest of the campers will begin their roles in helping with production and performances this weekend.

Script Coordinator John Bateman is overseeing the writing process for the show.

Bateman is a film writer from Starkville. His short film "The Bench Project's LOST & FOUND" won Best Written Film at the 2016 Magnolia Film Festival.

Bateman said the campers are broken up into three groups. Each group writes one of the acts, and they come together to brainstorm and coordinate every so often before breaking up again to write more content.

"Writing is a process," Bateman said. "The creative process is really collaborative. Not only are the campers exposed to writing and telling a story, but they are also learning how ideas build off of other ideas."

Bateman said there are six writers who are helping the campers, but the jobs of the staff writers and of Bateman, himself, are strictly to help the campers in the writing process.

"The idea is that the campers are actually writing the story," Bateman said.

Bateman said he believes the campers are taking two important things from the experience. The first thing they are getting is how to tell a story. The second thing the campers are learning is how to collaborate together and build off of each other's ideas.

"Anytime you have to communicate with someone you have to be able to tell a story of some kind," Bateman said. "That is both in a business setting, as well."

Bateman said he is learning a few things from the experience.

"It's really inspiring to work with a group of energetic, dynamic and passionate teenagers," Bateman said. "The idea of coaching and trying to help these young writers gain the skills that they need to make them better story-tellers reminds me of what I love about story-telling and writing."

To expand on the camper's experience, Bateman organized Skype sessions with Jane B. Jones, who works with the Actors Theatre of Louisville and the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival. They also had a Skype session with Michael Zam, co-writer of FX television series "Feud."

During the Skype sessions, campers were able to talk with the experienced writers about their writing and hear their feedback.

The production portion of the Summer Scholars On Stage will begin on Saturday, when auditions will take place and roles will be assigned and then rehearsed for the performance.

Underwood said the fee for the 2017 camp was $1,900 for the full three weeks, including the writer's camp and production camp. Tuition was $1,300 for those participating in the two-week production camp. All tuition goes into room, board, food and necessities for the camp.