June 2015

Savannah Summer Theatre Institute

Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

In every school there’s that one theatre kid who stands out. They’re often a little quirky and, unfortunately, many times in a school system that doesn’t have (or provide) the adequate funding for an arts program to thrive. People often tell these kids, ‘Just wait until you get to college, you’ll find your place there,’” said Ben Wolfe, founder and director of The Savannah Summer Theatre Institute. “At SSTI, those kids have a home. They’re surrounded by students and adults who have the same passions they do. Every year we watch students come in and they have all the insecurities that come with being a teenager. But by the time they leave, we’ve seen a great shift in maturity, personal accountability, and an increased level of respect for their craft and those around them. We’re not just shaping performers, we’re shaping people.”

I don’t want to be all dramatic on you, but let me be clear. The Savannah Summer Theatre Institute (SSTI) is not a camp. It is important that you know that. Yes, it takes place over the summer. And yes, the audience is high school students (rising ninth graders through graduated seniors), but you’ll find no cabins, canoes, or archery lessons. SSTI is the real deal. So real, that they aren’t even going to call you a camper. You’re a cast member, from the start. And you’re about to embark on a journey of small sessions filled with serious musical theatre students who work as part of a family to rehearse and perform a show to professional standards. Students are mentored through the process by an elite staff that includes award-winning directors, musicians, and Tony-winning guest artists. (Yes, as in Tony Award-winning artists.)

What began as a small summer experience, for Savannah Country Day School theatre enthusiasts has turned into something phenomenal, in a mere eight years. Perhaps most enthralling is that the concept was concocted by a 20-year-old theatre enthusiast. An idea. A lark. A whim. A desire to create something meaningful. But roadblocks ensued. “Well, to start, no one would rent me a theatre; I was a kid,” Wolfe said.

Could you blame them Ben?
“Not really, but the folks at White Bluff Presbyterian Church eventually said yes, and that summer the first group of cast members put on a production of Fiddler on the Roof. “It was a little local thing. To see if it could work,” Wolfe said.

Oh, it worked.

This summer, SSTI enters its eighth year of providing an unrivaled, boutique summer musical theatre experience for both performers and technicians. They’ve put on such productions as Les Miserables, Hairspray, RENT, and The Addams Family. With superior production values, and a four-to-one instructor-to-cast ratio, the program, formerly available only in Savannah, expands to Hilton Head Island this year. Two sessions. Two shows (Big Fish on Hilton Head and Little Shop of Horrors in Savannah). Twice the intrigue.

Ben Wolfe, the driving force behind the Savannah Summer Theatre Institute, plays the role of director, actor, set-builder and makekup artist for our photo-shoot

It is word of mouth marketing that has launched SSTI to national acclaim. Named one of the top five summer programs in the United States, and the only of its kind in the Southeast, SSTI welcomes cast members from 17 states (plus an overseas cast member from Saudia Arabia). The 71 percent retention rate may tell you all you need to know. And yes, even if you are an alumnus, you still have to audition the following year.

Speaking of auditioning, here is how it works: Potential cast members first complete an online application, and then (drum roll please) they move on to the more personal part of the process, their video audition. According to Wolfe, “For some, the video audition takes much of the stress away from an actual ‘in-person’ audition. They don’t have to worry about the accompanist; they can do multiple takes and don’t have to worry about what the people will say on the other side of the table.” It is the ultimate opportunity to present your best audition. Yet, it is challenging as well. Potential cast members have to share an introduction about themselves, before officially getting into character and performing a 16-32 bar ballad and one 16-32 up tempo number, to be performed with piano accompaniment or accompaniment tracks. (No sing-alongs.) Finally, the audition should end with a soliloquy (my words, not theirs) on the most meaningful theatre experience of the applicant’s life, so it all comes full circle.

Once selected, cast members begin like any professional contract (see, definitely not a summer camp), with a cast meet and greet and read-through to be followed with their first day of music rehearsals. Cast members have to arrive prepared, meaning knowing all of their lines. For the three weeks that follow, the cast will rehearse daily to prepare a professional production of their session’s musical. Not only will the cast be fiercely rehearsing, they’ll be filming promotional videos, doing photoshoots and even interviews with local media to promote their performance and fine work.

During the fourth and final week of SSTI, students will spend each day in master classes with professionals from both regional theatre and Broadway. In the evenings, they will continue to perform their production for the passionate audiences of both Savannah and Hilton Head.

Why is SSTI the experience for the budding actor? The staff of 26 primarily (as in more than 70 percent) hails from New York City, home to a little theatre district itself. (I think they call it Broadway.) Imagine receiving that phone call from a 20-something-year-old “kid” from Sandersville, Georgia, asking you to work at his summer theatre program. Wolfe must be a heck of a salesman, because they come back year after year.

“We have been very fortunate to have an outstanding list of teachers, directors and actors on our staff in recent years. We’ve had Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) as well as Tony winners Shuler Hensley and Roger Bart. This year, Daniel Wallace, the author of Big Fish will be on staff,” Wolfe said proudly. And, this level of instruction and technical support certainly pays off for the participants too. “We have 100 percent acceptance for students who have gone through our program and then applied to musical theatre colleges. They’re at the top musical theatre schools across the nation right now training for a life on Broadway and beyond.”

Wolfe, who graduated with a degree in theatre himself, was faced with the “what are you going to do now” question upon graduation. Fair to say, he showed them. He spends the fall and winter in New York City, working on new musicals and networking for SSTI to ensure that the quality of people is just as stellar as the experience. In fact, one may argue those people make the experience. 

Go see it!
Based on the celebrated novel by Daniel Wallace and the acclaimed Columbia Pictures film directed by Tim Burton, BIG FISH centers on Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who lives life to its fullest… and then some! Edward’s incredible, larger-than-life stories thrill everyone around him, most of all, his devoted wife Sandra. But their son Will, about to have a child of his own, is determined to find the truth behind his father’s epic tales.

Overflowing with heart, humor and spectacular stagecraft, BIG FISH is an extraordinary new Broadway musical that reminds us why we love going to the theatre—for an experience that’s richer, funnier and BIGGER than life itself.

You may remember Wolfe as the 2011 CH2 Bachelor of the Year. Well, you heard it here first. He has girlfriend, ladies—an actress who is touring the country this summer in a production of Pippen. “I’ve seen it 10 times,” Wolfe said. I think that means he is officially off the market.

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