Behind the Curtain with Miss Lakeside’s Directors

From soccer and basketball dribbling to jump-roping, skits, Stomp routines,

lifeguarding, and CPR demonstrations, the Miss Lakeside directors have seen a variety of untraditional onstage talents in over 20 years of experience in the production. “The directors all served as an amazing support system for me in Miss Lakeside…the production would be literally impossible without the help of those women,” said last year’s Miss Lakeside Jessica Thompson. Co-director Whitney Blackmore, lighting and sound director/ talent director Susan Weibel, formal presentation director Terracer Earnest, and emcee coordinator Tonya Roberts work together to organize Lakeside’s 51st annual scholarship competition of senior girls. The performance draws an audience of 1300 from the community and brings in the largest source of revenue for the PTSA.

A Variety of Roles

The volunteer directors create the design, theme, and script of the production. They also devote six hours each Sunday afternoon for two months to work with the senior contestants who prepare for a talent, formal presentation speech, and interview. “I love working with kids, that’s why I still do it. I was extremely shy as a high schooler [and] didn’t even hardly talk.” Weibel said. She has taken those experiences to help contestants come out of their shell. “I love girls who are in the program and don’t really have a lot of self-confidence, those are my favorites to work with,” said Weibel.

Lots of Laughs:

Director Blackmore and formal presentation coach Earnest enjoy the humor in many of the girls’ formal speeches. They stand at the edge of the stage to watch the girls and coach them in talking slowly and with enunciation in their speech delivery.

Photo by Hannah Reich

As talent director, Weibel primarily helps contestants come up with ideas for a talent and then present them onstage. “Mrs. Weibel is straight to the point. She’ll tell you if your walk is off, if you need to smile more, if you need to improve stage presence. But you know it’s constructive criticism and that you’re going to learn from it,” said senior contestant Tessa Whitaker. Earnest focuses on the formal presentation, utilizing her years of experience in working with contestants competing in Miss Alabama preliminaries. “Without Ms. Earnest all of us would look terrible on the runway presenting ourselves,” said senior contestant Amanda Ruth Slappey. Blackmore is the person to go to with forms and questions. “Ms. Blackmore is on top of deadlines and time management,” said senior contestant Andi Cunard.

Director…and escort stand-in:

Sometimes the directors take on unlikely jobs at rehearsals. Here director Whitney Blackmore escorts senior contestant Audrey Hewett across the stage as other contestants watch to see how to smile at the audience. They rely on their escort to be their eyes and guide them to the center of the stage for the formal speech. The actual escorts will begin practicing escorting the contestants in the weeks leading up to Miss Lakeside in late February.

Photo by Hannah Reich

Pageant to Scholarship Competition

Last year’s production celebrated 50 years of Miss Lakeside and a line of past Miss Lakesides going back to the first winner in 1967 took to the stage to celebrate the production’s history. Roberts recalled meeting the first winner of Miss Lakeside at last year’s production. “She came in in her boots and her fur, she was gorgeous.” Roberts said. The program has changed in both purpose and character since 1967 but retains much of its basic layout. Ten years ago the pageant aspect of the competition was removed, and five years ago the PTSA increased the winner’s scholarship award to $1000 and added awards of $500 and $250 to the first and second runners-up. Judges now score contestants in academic achievement, talent, interview skills, and formal speech, rather than beauty. Despite these changes, with little background knowledge of the production it is easy to think of it as an outdated beauty contest. “I didn’t know what to expect, I thought of it as this beauty pageant kind of thing and I was kind of turned off by it.” Blackmore said about her impressions before sitting in the audience for the first time.

The word “pageant” even turned off the county this year, as they outlined in the new Dekalb County 2017- 18 fundraising guidelines a prohibition of “beauty pageant[s] or other popularity contests” from fundraising. It raised some issue with the Miss Lakeside production but PTSA Co-President Laura Morse communicated with the county the deep tradition involved in the production and the scholarship awards and academic and talent importance to the “pageant.” “I’ve never looked at it as a beauty pageant ever,” said Weibel.

Evolution while Maintaining Tradition

In parallel with the change to a scholarship focus, the directors have seen the academic drive of the girls involved in Miss Lakeside increase over the years. “The kinds of things that our senior girls are involved in, leadership wise, the things that they’re doing to make a difference in the school, in the community, that part is what I’ve seen change,” said Earnest. Roberts stressed that although it has shifted to girls with stronger academic backgrounds, she wants to encourage anyone to participate. The directors have gotten to know a varied group of contestants each year, from mostly sports-involved groups to years with several dancers or musical theatre performers. This year’s talents involve not only dance and vocals but speed painting, magic, chemistry and karate. Past contestants have also come from varying cultural and economic backgrounds. One year a contestant had lived in her car for all of first semester and the directors did not know for a while. “You work with the whole child. I’m not just working with the academics I’m working with what’s going on in their house, their home. What colleges they’re going to. What bothered them in 9th grade. What they’d like to do,” said Roberts. “We’ve evolved into such a big expectation for the school and the community loves it,” said Weibel. In her first production in 1997, the directors ran sound and lighting from a small booth behind the stage. Now, the production owns a collection of hand held and head microphones, cables, amps, and stage lights. A full sound and lighting crew run spotlights and play the background music for the girls’ talents from a large booth at the back of the gym. “We’ve gone from next to nothing out on a gym stage to the biggest event there is at Lakeside,” said Weibel. Despite the changes, the spirit and tradition of the scholarship competition, continues. I asked Roberts what she thought has stayed the same, and she answered, “the love of it,” summing up the attitude of Weibel, Earnest, and Blackmore in the simplest way as they prepare for the production March second and third.

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