Starkville Community Theater takes center stage at annual theater festival

Ben Christmas and Gabe Smith act in SCT’s fall production of “Moonlight and Magnolias.

During this year's annual Mississippi Theatre Association Festival and Convention hosted at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Starkville Community Theatre won multiple awards as well as advanced to the regional competition with their traveling production of "A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney" by Lucas Hnath.

SCT took home many awards: Special Award for Excellence in Wig Design, Jansen Fair; Best Costume Design, Abby Jovanovic; Best Directing, Gabe Smith; Best Supporting Actor, Ben Christmas; and Best Actor, Paul Ruff. SCT also won Best Production, which was shared with Tupelo Community Theatre's production of “Night, Mother.”

SCT’s production, a dark comedy/drama, is about legendary filmmaker Walt Disney, close to death and with axes to grind, writing a screenplay about his own life. The play stars Disney himself as the narrator; Disney’s business partner and loyal brother Roy; Disney’s daughter who is referred to only as "Daughter" in Walt's script; and Disney’s son-in-law Ron, an ex-football player enthusiastic about working under Disney and easily manipulated to fulfill his wishes for the company after Disney is gone. 

Mississippi State University senior Ben Christmas, a theatre major from Star, Mississippi, was one of the cast members for the production. Christmas gave some insight into what it was like playing Roy Disney, Walt Disney's older brother.

“It doesn't matter what crazy idea that Walt has, Roy will do anything to make him happy, even to the point where they end up getting in trouble for making Lemming jump off of a cliff for a film. So, basically, he is a humble servant and happens to care a lot for his brother."

Christmas said he has auditioned twice in the past for competition production and was very excited to be a part of this project. 

Mayor Lynn Spruill of Starkville has served as the president of the SCT officers for two years now. Before becoming president, Spruill was a member of the SCT Board of Directors. Spruill said she is exceptionally proud of SCT.

"They are good," Spruill said. "We have an enormous amount of talent in Starkville. We have a lot of diversity but the massive amount of talent of people who are proud of what they do and take it very seriously and at the same time, who have fun and enjoy it. It has been a vibrant piece of our downtown and our theatre and arts community for a very long time. It has been very successful. We have won awards before, and this is just a continuation of building on the things they have done in the past."

Gabe Smith, the chief administrative officer of SCT, was one of the many to win an award at MTA. Smith began his journey with SCT at the beginning of 2001 as a performer and volunteer. Since the summer of 2015, Smith has been in charge of day-to-day operations at the theater. He also chose the competition piece for this year.

"I picked this competition piece," Smith said. "I am a real nerd for Disney theme park stuff. When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to go a few times with my parents, and it stuck with me. Now that I am an adult, my love for Disney has not diminished but has grown. I still remember the Disney specials on TV and the parades, and I am a big fan of the Disney mythos and mythology about Walt and I am a theatre guy. I came across the title of the play, and I thought I would read it because it sounds fascinating. Based on the interest, I picked it up and read it and thought ‘I would love a chance to work with this someday.’"

Smith said he is very excited about advancing to the regional competition and the achievements the cast has made.

"Every once in a while in theatre, you work hard to do your best, and sometimes you do feel like you are a part of something that is a special mix of things," Smith said. "Every little thing matters and every piece of the production comes together to create something bigger than an individual piece."

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