A different type of Olympics is coming to Furman in November.
It’s the ultimate theatre skills challenge for more than 70 South Carolina high school students. The first task of this year’s Tech Olympics: hanging and focusing an ETC Source 4 Ellipsoidal Spotlight. Next are tests in knot-tying rigging scenery, folding theater drops, setting up sound systems, and even sewing buttons.
Inaccurate work or improper technique could mean timing penalties or disqualification for the teams. That’s why the Olympians are practicing months in advance.
They aren’t the only ones.
Sixteen members of Tim Brown’s drama club, D2Stageworks, have been regularly rehearsing their 45-minute play, Hush Little Celia, Don’t Say A Word, for a chance at state honors, followed by regional competition in March.
“Knowing that they’ll be performing for a diverse audience, including judges, raises the stakes,” said Brown ’92, a theatre teacher and director at Travelers Rest High School. “They’re really upping their game.”
Between 1,000 and 1,200 guests from across the state will join renowned educators and Broadway stars on Furman University’s campus November 5-8 for the South Carolina Theatre Association’s annual convention. Visitors will include a mix of youth theater representatives, high school students and teachers, college and university students and professors, community theatre companies, and professional actors for the convention themed, “Redefining the Triple Threat: Performance, Education, Production.” It’s the first time the convention has been hosted in Greenville in almost 40 years.
“It’s a great opportunity for students, community members and other universities to see the vibrant Furman community and all the quality experiences available to our students,” said Theatre Arts Professor Maegan Azar, president of the South Carolina Theatre Association. “It’s also an amazing opportunity to see all that Greenville has to offer.”
Keynote speakers will include Broadway veteran Kate Shindle, the youngest-ever president of the Actors’ Equity Association, and Tony Award Excellence in Theatre Education Award winner, Corey Mitchell, a theatre arts teacher at the Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, N.C.
Tony Award winner for Best Costume Design Gregg Barnes will speak on his work in productions such as Aladdin, The Drowsy Chaperone, Follies, Kinky Boots and Something Rotten. Final keynote events include Brennan Reeves performing the play, Breathe, and a performance by the South Carolina Children’s Theatre.
The four-day program features a Community Theatre Festival, staged readings of 10-minute play works, professional screening auditions for college students, and a plethora of workshops on topics from stage combat techniques to six tips in the “Batman Acting Toolbelt.” Greenville County School students have been invited to attend a performance of the play, Interrupting Vanessa, presented by students from South Pointe High School in Rock Hill.
Planning for the event began last fall and ramped up in January as Azar and other members of the SCTA Board of Directors toured area facilities and met with the VisitGreenvilleSC tourism staff.
The Furman Playhouse, McAlister Auditorium Roe Art Building, the Physical Activities Center, Daniel Music Building, Furman Hall, and the Cherrydale Alumni House are all booked for workshops and performance spaces throughout the convention dates, with the Warehouse and Centre Stage theatres hosting special performances off campus.
“It really does take everyone,” said Azar, citing an outpouring of support from both the Furman and Greenville communities.
Support for Furman’s Theatre Arts program has continued to grow in recent years. In 2011, Furman’s Fine Arts Initiative was awarded two generous grants, $2 million from the Duke Endowment and $800,000 from the Mellon Foundation. The Mellon grant supported the addition of faculty positions in the Fine Arts Divisions while the Duke Endowment grant supported community outreach, programming enhancements and activities supporting increased student recruitment and engagement.
“Although these grants were central to adding significant momentum to elevating the profile of the arts at Furman, they also became the catalysts for other institutional support,” said John Beckford, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty. “Specifically, for the first time, the Theatre Arts Department received scholarship awards and increased support for technical staff. The combination of all of those initiatives has had a significant impact on the department’s range of activities, increase in the number and quality of performances, the number of majors (now at record levels) and our general presence in the theatrical community.”
The Duke grant and the Furman Fine Arts Initiative have also raised the department’s visibility in a different way, by bringing guest teaching artists to campus to enhance students’ education, explained Theatre Arts Professor and Department Chair Jay Oney.
Dozens of guest artists have visited with theatre arts students in the past few years, providing instruction on everything from creating three-dimensional make-up effects to learning the latest in Lab and Audacity sound design computer programs.
“We have been able to bring guest artists to Furman with so many special skills and so much first-hand knowledge of the profession that our students are exposed to a really wide variety of techniques and artists that few small liberal arts colleges can offer,” Oney said.
The grants have also provided funds for Furman students to attend SCTA at other campuses as well as the regional Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) meeting and national United States Institute of Theatre Technology (USITT) conference.
Now that this year’s conference is on their home turf, the nearly 30 theatre arts majors couldn’t be more excited. They will all be busy at the convention, meeting speakers, welcoming guests, sharing in behind-the-scenes work and of course, enjoying great theatre experiences.
“I’m excited to help out because it will be a great opportunity to connect with other theatre artists from across the state,” said Erin Barnett ’16, a double major in theatre arts and economics from Marietta, Ga. “I want people to know that Furman’s program does a great job creating well-rounded theatre artists.
“Personally, just this semester I have been able to costume design a mainstage production, act in a mainstage production and in a student-directed show, construct costumes for two shows, hang lights for one show and intern at the Warehouse Theatre downtown in marketing and development,” said Barnett. “These experiences have not only strengthened my love of theatre, but in a more practical sense have let me develop a broader range of skills that could help in the future.”
“The SCTA conference is a truly inspiring gathering, and nothing could’ve stopped me from participating again this year,” said Victoria Buck ’14, who is returning to Furman to volunteer at the event all four days. “I am looking forward to bragging a bit about the theatre that has become my home.”
Brown said he’s proud that his alma mater is hosting the convention for the first time. His high school students will have the opportunity to enjoy more than 20 performances in a single weekend at the convention.
“They’ll be able to experience such a wide range of theatre,” said Brown. “It is really going to open their eyes to a whole spectrum of possibilities for theater and build their appreciation for the craft.”
Day passes are available for $10, while tickets for keynote events are $5 for the Furman community and the public. For more information about the 2015 SCTA convention at Furman, visit http://www.southcarolinatheatre.org/