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BWW Blog: Spotlight on Southeastern Summer Theatre Institute

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In the heart of the South Carolina Lowcountry each summer, there exists a place of creativity, growth, and passion. This place is called the Southeastern Summer Theatre Institute, or SSTI for short-it's a summer program for high school students interested in pursuing Musical Theatre and Technical Production for Theatre. It is here that I created memories to last a lifetime, as well as genuine friendships, and gained the knowledge and training that has helped shaped the performer that I am today. I spent two summers there as a student, where I performed in Big Fish (2015), and was Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes (2017). Most recently, I was the Choreographer/Associate Director for the SSTI Essentials program last summer. All of these opportunities would not be possible without the man behind it all Ben Wolfe. Placing the spotlight on SSTI, here is an interview with Ben on the growth of SSTI, their mission, and just what makes the program so special.

A person wearing a dressDescription automatically generated
Kris Saucedo (PSU MT'23) as Billy Crocker and Cassie Maurer (CCM MT'22) as Hope Harcourt in SSTI's 2017 production of Anything Goes.

Let's get started! First things first, could you describe SSTI and your mission?

"Yeah! So, SSTI's mission is shaping professionals on stage and off. Diving into that further-that's the tagline mission statement-we wanted to create a regional theatre experience for high school students. For the Musical Theatre kids, it's a program where they audition online for not only the program, but to be cast in a professional show that is seen by a season subscription-based audience. For our Tech students, it's an opportunity for them to work side-by-side with professional technicians. That's the on-stage portion. The off-stage portion is where we're really training these kids to be ready for their next phase in life-to not only be good theatre professionals, but also outstanding humans. We're talking about mental health and healthy living. We're even managing household budgets for the grocery store-everything about life that they'll need to know once they step foot outside of their parents' house for the very first time."

So, you are the founder and Artistic Director of SSTI. How exactly did the program get started?

"So, very, very humble beginnings to where we are now. I was working part-time at a private school in Savannah while I was in college, and a group of the parents suggested that I start a summer camp. I was 20 years old. A church let us use their abandoned social hall, and I built a 16'x24' platform stage in a 10-foot ceiling room, and we did Fiddler On The Roof with the audience in metal folding chairs, and we had one set piece. The only job I didn't do that year was costumes, and music direct, even the choreography and I'm not a dancer, as you know. I did all the jobs that I was unqualified to do, and the only reason SSTI has become successful is because I have managed to replace myself. In every job, I've been replaced by someone so superbly talented and qualified that it's just ridiculous; it's a huge honor."

I know even since my time there, SSTI has expanded significantly, and welcomed notable directors from New York and teachers from renowned Musical Theatre programs across the country. Looking at SSTI now, how has it grown?

"Obviously, the production values, as far as the shows, are just absurd. I mean, it's really just mind-boggling what our students are able to work on. As far as the program's physical size, 2020 was to be our year expanding to a second campus. Our directors for this year were, for the large part, all heads of programs from major Musical Theatre universities. I mean, all of our kids are going on from college to do this, so it's a huge plus for them to get to work actually on a three-week production process like they would do. And it's the head of the program. They may not actually work with the head of the program on a musical until maybe their senior year in college, so they're actually getting three weeks of rehearsal time on a fully-fledged, fully-produced musical with a head of a BFA Music Theatre program, which is rare, if not doesn't exist, in any other summer program."

What do you think sets SSTI apart from other Musical Theatre summer intensives?

"We have the hybrid ability to both run a production that I think is truly unrivaled in any other summer program, and I say that humbly. Even down to casting the students beforehand, and they all arrive off-book-it sets up a unique family environment. Everyone arrives, you know, they have a job to do, and we jump into this incredible production process. And then, once the show is open, we bring in faculty from the top colleges in the United States, and they coach and work individually with each of the students to prepare them for their college auditions. So, they're really getting the best of both worlds in terms of a production summer program, and also a program that's bringing them in direct contact and working one-on-one with college professors on their auditions or their interviews for the Tech kids."

Obviously, COVID-19 presented a lot of unexpected challenges, but I know you came up with a creative solution for this summer, so could you elaborate on that and how COVID-19 affected SSTI this year?

"Yeah, so, in March, we started making all of our Plan-B preparations for what it would look like. We had four shows this summer-two at each campus. In April, we cancelled the first two shows-one at each campus-so, we basically were starting our programming in July. Behind the scenes, we bought all kinds of [Personal Protective Equipment,] but we also bought the [electrostatic] sprayers that Delta uses to clean the planes. We even had an order for 200 rapid test kits and a nurse who was going to test everybody on-site when they arrived. Effectively, we were gonna create a bubble around SSTI, and we were gonna work with our licensing to try to eliminate intermissions, so our audiences, once they were in their socially distanced seat, they stayed in their seat. So, we had a bunch of plans in place, but at the end of the day, it just didn't feel responsible to move forward [with] the fact that: a). We have an audience coming in, and b). our students are travelling from all over the country to get here. There were just too many questions and not enough answers. So, we switched to SSTI Online. As the one who created the program, I'm very protective of quality, so initially, I was ready just to [not do] anything online because I was not sure we could provide something that was as exceptional as what we do in-person. But our college professors who work for us really kind of rallied and were like, 'Ben, this is what we've been doing for the last two months. We've gotten pretty good at it, and we're confident that we can deliver a different, but equally as exceptional a program online." Over a couple of weeks, they were able to convince me that that is the case, so we switched to SSTI Online. It's a different program. These kids are getting a lot of private instruction. They're getting monologues assigned and coached, they're getting private voice lessons, they're getting small group dance classes-again, all with program heads or department heads at BFA programs. I wasn't as concerned about [the Tech program] moving online because so much of what they do is computer-based, so I was definitely confident in the tech program. We [initially] offered a session of Music Theatre and a session of Tech, and within four days, we were up to three sessions of Music Theatre and two sessions of Tech, so the response has been awesome. 90% of our kids have switched into the online program, and it's been great. My goal is that we over-deliver. I want it to be more than anyone thinks an online program can be."

As SSTI's personal visionary, what would you say the future looks like for the program?

"This was a giant year for: 'What does the future look like?' because we were expanding to a second campus. So, I think that curiosity about what that's going to involve just has to wait for another year, which is so frustrating because I was so interested. Even just personally for me trying to figure out how to be in two places at one time; I was interested as to how that was gonna work. [So,] for the cross-campus folks, it was going to be interesting and a fun puzzle, so I'm excited to see where that goes. After that, the sky's the limit!"

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Ben Wolfe leading young Musical Theatre students
at SSTI Essentials last summer.

I'm sure theatre-lovers in the Lowcountry will be missing SSTI's spectacular productions this year. Is there a way that they, and other supporters of arts education around the country can support SSTI during this summer off the stage?

"Yes! Go to our website, and there's a 'Support' tab. We have a scholarship fund for students who want to attend the program, and there's an audition process for that during the year. So, they can donate to our scholarship fund there on our website, and they can also set their Amazon Smile to reflect that as well whenever they make purchases on Amazon. I think we have six kids who were coming to SSTI, who are now coming to SSTI Online, as a result of those grants."

To donate and for more information on SSTI, feel free to visit their website at

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