Kenan intern conquers several firsts at Spoleto Festival USA

Language proved to be the biggest barrier for Paula Escobar after her family moved to North Carolina from Colombia, South America, when she was a child. As fate would have it, auditioning for a role in an elementary school play would help her overcome it.

“That’s why I got into theatre — in fourth grade we were doing a play about North Carolina and you had to audition. You had to read the script and know how to say it well,” recalled Escobar, now a rising senior in the School of Design and Production at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

“Everybody said I couldn’t be in it because I couldn’t speak good English. I went home and worked really hard. I would keep pronouncing the words over and over again and try to remember them and learn from that.”

That hard work paid off: Escobar won the role of chipmunk in the school play and discovered a passion that later would inspire her to pursue a career in theatre production.

These days she prefers working in the wings. “My theatre teacher in high school told me, ‘You have the personality to be a stage manager.’ I didn’t know what that was, so I just googled what a stage manager is and decided to give it a try,” she said with a chuckle.

Escobar recently wrapped up a five-week stint as a Kenan Intern at Spoleto Festival USA, one of the premier performing arts festivals in the country. As part of its Career Pathways Initiative to broaden opportunities for sustainable careers in the arts, the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts provides several of the internships each summer for emerging artists from UNCSA seeking practical experience in design and production.

During the 17-day festival in historic Charleston, South Carolina, Kenan interns work alongside some of the most experienced production crew members in the country. In addition to learning valuable skills, they make important connections with professionals in the industry.

The opportunity to work as assistant stage manager on a variety of productions is what interested Escobar in the internship. She encountered several firsts at Spoleto, including working on the U.S. premiere of Vivaldi’s “Farnace,” a mythical Roman war drama and her first professional opera experience.

I was really nervous going in, because I just didn't know if I paid enough attention in my music reading class last semester. It turned out I knew way more than I thought I did and that really helped.

 Paula Escobar

"The difference is you are following a score instead of a script," she explained. "I was really nervous going in, because I just didn't know if I paid enough attention in my music reading class last semester. It turned out I knew way more than I thought I did and that really helped."

Escobar also took charge of the only child in the production, a 9-year-old boy. “Every day I would have to go over his blocking to make sure he remembered what to do,” she said, adding that she received a thank-you note from the young man on closing night.

“It said, ‘Dear Miss Paula’ — that was totally adorable to begin with. ‘I had a really fun time. I know this is what I want to do. Thank you for helping me get there.’ It was really sweet.”

Another first for Escobar was working on an outdoor concert featuring Grammy winner and Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater. “I’ve never done outdoor anything before. You have to have a plan for if it rains. And a lot of bug spray. In Charleston, you need that bug spray all the time.”

Jamie Call Blankinship, a Stage Management instructor at UNCSA who helps facilitate the Kenan internships at Spoleto, said the wide range and depth of training interns receive at the festival is important for emerging artists like Escobar.

It’s an opportunity to develop relationships with significant artists internationally, from all aspects of the performing arts — music, opera, drama, dance. The fact that you have all of those different experiences within that short period of time is extraordinary.

 Jamie Call Blankinship

“It’s an opportunity to develop relationships with significant artists internationally, from all aspects of the performing arts — music, opera, drama, dance. The fact that you have all of those different experiences within that short period of time is extraordinary.”

Students like Escobar usually are well-prepared for the high pressure, rigorous atmosphere at the festival.

“Spoleto tends to go with students who they know will deliver,” she said. “Our students are trained to be adaptive and flexible. They are meeting the expectations and skill levels required by Spoleto. They are delivering.”

Indeed, a Spoleto administrator told Blankinship during her recent visit to the festival that the level of skills displayed by Kenan interns from UNCSA consistently surpasses that of students from other arts programs.

“That is a real feather in our cap,” she said. “That is one of the big strengths of our programs — the depth of our training is in a lot of different venues with a lot of different types of performing and with a lot of different kinds of people.”

Blankinship’s own connection with Spoleto runs deep — she got her start at the festival as an intern years ago when she attended UNCSA.

“Spoleto is very well-known in the business, and it is very competitive to get jobs there,” she said. “It is one of only a few festivals where our students can gain experience on such a large scale.”

Escobar hopes to put her newly acquired skills to good use when she finishes her degree in Stage Management at UNCSA.

“After graduation I really want to go on tour nationally,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to tour my whole life, but for the first couple of years I would love to be able to travel to different places and see different things and do the job I love doing at the same time.”

July 24, 2017