It's like a gold mine for young performers. Every summer, the Savannah Summer Theatre Institute offers star-struck teens an opportunity to fully experience the life of a working actor.

Campers get the authentic theater experience, which includes hard knocks along with enthusiastic applause.

The community also benefits, because the institute concludes with the presentation of a fully produced musical. This year, "RENT" will be offered beginning July 19.

There are 18 actors in the cast, so only 18 campers were accepted.

"If we accepted everyone who applied, it would be great for the camp but we would not be teaching what we set out to do, which is replicate authentic theater," founder and director Benjamin Wolfe says.

"We choose our shows knowing as a camp, we don't accept everyone," he says. "We have to limit the cast to the number of parts in the show for an authentic theater experience.

"When you get to a number that small, you have to look at how many sopranos you need, how many tenors and it gets trickier," Wolfe says. "We're trying to get an authentic ensemble."

Founded by Wolfe in 2008, the annual summer theater program is located on the campus of Savannah Country Day School. Its purpose is to teach theater students the techniques required to be competitive in a professional theatrical environment.


What: Savannah Summer Theatre Institute presents "RENT"

When: 7:30 p.m. July 19, 20, 26 and 27; 2 p.m. July 21 and 28

Where: Jelks Auditorium, Savannah Country Day School, 824 Stillwood Drive

Cost: $15 adults, $10 students


That means auditions, rehearsals and performing a full musical theater production.

In 2011, the SSTI added a new technical theater intensive, in which students learn set design, lighting design and costume design, working alongside industry experts to design, model and build the set for the summer's musical.

Because three weeks of rehearsals are now standard in most professional theaters, students are given just three weeks to rehearse for each summer's musical.

Eighth-graders through recently graduated high school seniors are eligible to audition for the theater camp.

Some of this year's campers have participated in the past, including one who came all the way from London.

"We have 13 schools represented from nine states and two countries," Wolfe says.

Not all students are living in camp housing.

"Some are living in Savannah with relatives, which is something we haven't had before," Wolfe says. "The campers are finding ways to come."

Every year, the camp hosts a theater professional to work with the students, and this year's special guest is Will Chase, a Tony Award-nominated actor and singer, best known for his work in Broadway musicals.

"He was stoked to come down," Wolfe says. "He played 'Roger,' the male lead in 'RENT.'

"He was the last actor to play the part on Broadway. He's going to bring a wealth of 'RENT' knowledge."

In the past, the special guests weren't able to see the final production. Chase requested to come to Savannah over the weekend so he can see the show.

"On the Monday after, he's going to work with them on 'RENT' material and audition songs and monologues," Wolfe says. "The students who come here are very different from most high school students.

"This is a statement of intent that this is going to be their career," he says. "They are 100 percent focused and dedicated for this purpose and with the intention of going on to theater in college. They can't get enough."

In the past, the SSTI has presented "Hairspray," "Les Miserables," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Legally Blonde."

The students work seven to eight hours a day and get breaks just as union actors would. During the fourth week, master classes are presented by theater professionals, including choreographers, scenic designers and performers.

One challenge for this year's production has been explaining the depth of the musical's AIDS storyline.

"It is a heavy show for teenagers to grasp," Wolfe says.

"These kids have grown up in a world where HIV can be regulated with medicine and patients can live a full life," he says. "We have to take them back in history and say AIDS was once a death sentence.

"We've had to really work with them to grasp what they're singing about and who these Bohemian artists were," Wolfe says. "They've done a lot of character research."

One assignment was for the actors to write biographies for their characters.

"They have written pages of back stories for these characters," Wolfe says.

The students have been made aware of what happened to the show's creator, Jonathan Larson, who died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm the night before the show premiered. "RENT" went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and the production was a huge Broadway hit.

"So much of this is his life story," Wolfe says. "They feel such a connection to the material and an obligation and are compelled to do this for Jonathan."