Columbus, MUW take center stage as theater festival comes to town

January 5, 2013 8:31:37 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


On stages from Mississippi's coast to Oxford, a vast network of theater lovers is diligently at work. Their dog-eared scripts, peppered with margin notes and highlighted passages, go with them everywhere. Rehearsals are serious business. Time is growing short. 


They are some of the almost 600 community theater, high school and college students and teachers who will descend on Columbus Jan. 17-20, when Mississippi University for Women hosts the annual Mississippi Theatre Association (MTA) Festival and Convention for the first time. 


"How fitting that Columbus, birthplace of Tennessee Williams, will soon be home to some of the state's best and brightest theatrical talent," said MTA Executive Director Stephen Cunetto of Starkville.  


Under the leadership of William "Peppy" Biddy, MUW's Department of Theatre is taking the lead role in preparing for nine high schools and six community theater companies from across Mississippi that have advanced to this state competition. The Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, Joe Cook Fine Arts Magnet School and Columbus Arts Council are also helping stage events throughout the weekend. 




Special guest 


As well as performing one-act productions for judges, festival entrants will attend workshops and social events, and converge in Whitfield Hall's Rent Auditorium Jan. 18 for a keynote address by special guest Billy Brasfield. The general public is invited, too. 


Best known as "Billy B," the Aberdeen native has become one of the most sought-after celebrity makeup artists in the world. He's worked with entertainment icons from Mariah Carey and Beyonce to Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga. His artistry is seen on high-profile red carpets including the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and Tonys. 


"We want to show that somebody from Mississippi can go anywhere and do anything," Biddy remarked. "One of the things I tell students all the time is that there are lots of people from Mississippi working all over the world; it just takes hard work and getting out there and doing it." 


Billy B. is scheduled to speak at 9:15 p.m. Jan 18, following the evening block of shows. A charge may apply. 




See the plays 


The public can also attend plays performed in Whitfield Hall (Rent Auditorium) during the festival. Each entry will be vying to advance to the Southeastern Theatre Conference to be held in March in Louisville, Ky. Admission at the door is $5 per block of shows (morning, afternoon, evening), $15 for the day, or $25 for the entire weekend of plays.  


In addition, the MTA Theatre for Youth Festival held at Joe Cook Fine Arts Elementary Magnet School Jan. 18 is open free of charge to the public. Seven 30-minute plays suited to children will be presented from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the school's auditorium.  


Starkville Community Theatre and Starkville High School will represent the Golden Triangle at the festival. 


"I look forward to sharing our work with other theaters from around the state at MTA," said Kris Lee of Starkville, who directs Starkville Community Theatre's MTA entry, "Dinner With Friends," by Donald Marguiles.  


Of the play itself, he remarked, "It's been challenging ... putting relationships under such scrutiny, as the playwright does in this script, is never a simple task ... It's difficult to portray that kind of quiet intimacy through a medium as large as a stage, but this cast has risen to the challenge." 


For high school students, MTA can lead to exposure to college theater departments and even scholarships. 


"It looks really good on a college resumé, especially if they go on to study the arts in college," said Jessica Taylor, drama teacher at Starkville High School. Her students will perform "The Insanity of Mary Girard," by Lanie Robertson, in the morning block Jan. 18. 


"As soon as I got this job I was looking for a script and a good show they could do," she continued. "Every single one of them is enthusiastic about going."  




It takes a village 


The logistics of hosting almost 600 visitors on campus -- and in town -- requires intensive planning. 


"This is a real team effort," said Biddy. "We've gotten cooperation across the board -- the CVB, the Columbus Arts Council and the people on campus, not just in our department." 


At MUW alone, nine venues are being used for the festival. Everything from facilities management to food service arrangements are being fine tuned.  


The majority of visitors will stay two to three nights in hotels and motels, dine in Columbus' restaurants and buy gas locally. Social events will be hosted at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as the S.D. Lee Home. It's an opportunity for everyone in Columbus to be prepared to play the role of ambassador. 


"We're really fortunate the association chose, for so many reasons, Columbus to host the festival," said Nancy Carpenter, executive director of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, a co-sponsor of the event. "Last year it was in Gulfport. I know the coast really rolled out the red carpet for them, and that's what we're doing for them, too. This gives us an opportunity to showcase so many areas of Columbus through the fine arts." 




The shows 


Community theaters performing at the festival include Starkville Community Theatre ("Dinner With Friends"), Just Over the Rainbow Theatre of Hattiesburg ("Alter Boyz"), Company of Angels of Meridian ("The Boys in Autumn"), WINGS of Gulfport ("Cyrano de Bergerac"), and Tupelo Community Theatre ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"). 


High Schools competing include Starkville High School ("The Insanity of Mary Girard"), Hancock High School ("Suessical Jr."), Oxford High School ("The Outsiders"), Pearl River Central High School ("Validation"), Ocean Springs High School ("The Love for Three Oranges"), Corinth High School ("Seven Reversals"), Oak Grove High School ("In A Grove: Three Japanese Ghost Stories"), Union County Schools ("South Pacific"), and Picayune Memorial High School ("Elephant's Graveyard"). 


Additional entrants will participate in the Theatre for Youth Festival at Joe Cook. 


The festival also offers individual events including Monologue, Duet Acting, Scenic Design and Costume Design Execution, and solo, duet and group musical among others. 


"This is a real opportunity for students who want to pursue theater in college to be exposed to 10 or 12 schools all at one time," said Biddy. 


For a complete schedule and performance times, visit For additional information, contact the MUW Department of Communications, 662-329-7354.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.