If you go to the end of the hallway in Windsor Hill Arts Infused Elementary School you will come across a door that is always open. It is not hard to find as you will hear it long before you get there.
When children take their seats, the Boom-Shaka-Laka song echoes through the hall, accompanied by a chorus of giggling ambient sound. Teachers will poke their heads in to say hello and are answered with a theatrical greeting in the tune of Rhett Butler.
“My classroom is loud,” laughed WHAIES drama teacher Kathy Summer. “I can be loud, but I have a big imagination and I love getting into characters.”
A former speech pathologist at Flowertown Elementary School of 13 years, Summer tied drama into her lesson plans at the encouragement of the man who hired her, then Principal – and now superintendent – Joe Pye.
“I was giving them speech drills and just teaching how I was taught,” she said. “Mr. Pye told me that I didn’t have to teach like that, that I could work theatre into it.”
The students performed plays, read speeches and recited poetry. Summer would also give drama lessons after school. One of her students, Allison Zobel, is currently a theatre teacher at Ashley Ridge High School.
“(Summer) encouraged me to audition at Rollings,” Zobel said. “When I got there I decided I wanted to be a theatre teacher. She had a lot of impact on me and was probably the biggest influence in that part of my life.”
Summer was on the founding committee when Rollings Middle School of the Arts was being built. She was so excited by the direction of the school that she inquired about becoming a drama teacher at RMSA. Initially denied due to her lack of student teaching in the area, she was eventually hired after Pye mentioned that the afterschool acting classes should compensate for the lack of student teaching.
After six years at RMSA and teaching both of her sons, Dylan and Jesse, Summer became the drama teacher at WHAIES in 2006. The transition between the schools was easy, unfortunately the first play did not run as smoothly.
“One of the kids pulled down the big curtain, we had kids running around, I thought I was going to hyperventilate,” she said. “That one was disastrous but ever since then we’ve had teachers coming up and saying it gets better every year.”
Summer writes the majority of the plays and works it around the curriculum and the PTA’s wishes.
“If the PTA says the theme is anti-bullying month, we’ll try to incorporate that. We have a play every month.”
The acting bug found Summer at an early age when she began acting out her favorite Disney movies with friends. She teared up when mentioning her inspiration, her drama teacher at Sumter High School, Jimmie-Ann Carnes.
“She brought out the best in all of us,” a teary Summer said. “She taught us to be in control, to be dedicated, to be someone a director can work with and to follow our dreams.”
After high school she attended Winthrop where she earned a performing arts degree. During the summers she auditioned for jobs at the South Carolina Teachers Convention, performing a monologue from Dr. Vanilla’s Short Tall Tales. Each year she gained interest from casting directors and had her pick of plays to choose from. Her string of successful auditions encouraged her to pursue her dreams in New York City.
After six months as an understudy at the Riverwest Theatre, she moved back to the South at the persuasion of her future husband and promise of warmer weather. She went back to Winthrop where she earned her master’s degree in speech pathology.
In addition to writing plays, she still performs as a professional actress.
She was nominated at the Theatre Charleston Awards for Best Actress for her role as a nun in The Divine Sister. Summer typically performs in two plays per year and has even given her students opportunities to act professionally.
“I have friends who are casting directors and they ask me for kids to put in the movies. We had 40 kids in The Notebook, 40 in New Daughter and 20 in Radio. One student even became a major character on the show ‘Army Wives.’”
Acting benefits students through all parts of life according to Summer. When she was hired at FES, Pye told her that her history in theatre stood out to him. Years later the same held true for her son Dylan when he was hired at Georgia Tech.
“The arts help you with teamwork, confidence, dependability and relying on others,” she said. “I tell the kids all the time that whether they go into a career in acting or not, all of this will help them.”
She cited the success of her former students as one of her proudest achievements in teaching.
“I have students who are in Los Angeles, New York and even two who are in the same play as I am now. It’s all come full-circle pretty much.”
Summer will portray Yente at the end of October and beginning of November in the Threshold Theatre’s performance of Fiddler on the Roof.