In 1992, when Saluda Camp was a student at Dreher High School in Columbia, she wrote a term paper about a literary and cultural hero, "Gone with the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell.
That same year, playwright and Atlanta resident Melita Easters completed her one-woman play, "Mrs. John Marsh: The World Knew Her as Margaret Mitchell."
And tomorrow, Camp will begin her 13-performance run of the play at Theatre 220 in the College of Charleston's Simons Center, 54 St. Philip St.
It's a homecoming for Camp, who graduated from the College in 1998 after growing up in Mount Pleasant and Columbia. The production is part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which left an early mark on the fledgling actress accustomed to marsh views east of the Cooper.
"Piccolo Spoleto was when I was first introduced to the professional arts," Camp said. "Spoleto was my doorway to all that."
"All that" consists today of steadily accumulating stage and classroom experiences that have gained Camp a reputation in New York (where she lives) and elsewhere as an excellent teacher and theater actor.
It began in South Carolina, and especially at the College of Charleston, where Camp studied with Franklin Ashley and Evan Perry among others, and developed an affinity for Shakespeare and a flexibility that allowed her to play a wide range of roles.
Determined to pursue acting, Camp enrolled in the Academy for Theatre Arts, a drama conservatory in London, and found some work at the famous Globe Theatre. A year later, she was in New York City where she got lucky, she said, landing a spot right away in a national touring company for "Le Bourgeois gentilhomme" ("The Would-Be Gentleman") by Moliere. Good thing she could speak a little French. Not long after, she played Juliette in "Romeo and Juliette" and Lady Roxane in "Cyrano de Bergerac."
Meanwhile, her younger sister, Anna Camp, pursued her own career in theater, movies and television. She made a mark as Jill Mason in the 2008 Broadway revival of "Equus," and has since then landed roles in "True Blood," "The Good Wife," "The Help" and "Pitch Perfect," among other productions.
The sisters, seven years apart in age, are supportive of one another.
"Growing up, my sister and I were always encouraged to follow our dreams," Anna Camp wrote in an email. "I remember my mom and dad waiting in the car on countless evenings to pick us up from either a rehearsal or an acting class at Workshop Theatre in Columbia."
They watched lots of classic movies as kids, including "Gone with the Wind," "Wuthering Heights" and "Casablanca," and knew what they wanted to do from an early age, according to Anna Camp.
"I'm so proud of my sister for working so hard and for always being involved in some sort of amazing play in New York City. I miss theater so much and hope to return to New York one day for a show. There's nothing like the energy of a live audience."
Mary Jeffcoat was the girls' first acting teacher and mentor. Jeffcoat ran the Workshop Theater, an after-school acting class. Both of the Camp sisters showed extraordinary talent, Jeffcoat said.
"Sudi was really remarkable. ... She was one of the hardest workers I've ever come across."
The teacher held the bar high for her students.
"You'd think the kids would show up, do exercises and go home. But I was asking them to do work that was really beyond their years," she said. Saluda Camp performed Portia's speech from "Romeo and Juliette." For another assignment, she researched Fanny Brice, then wrote and performed a monologue.
"She was very calm and focused. That was really unusual for a high school student. She used every minute in class and a lot of time out of class (to prepare). ... She was so good and so precise and so focused, I often asked her to coach some of my younger kids."
A few years ago, Jeffcoat went to see Anna in "Equus." Saluda was there, too. After the show, the three women gathered at Saluda Camp's apartment, and the hostess pulled out her old Workshop Theater notebooks.
"They were incredibly meticulous, not just random notes," Jeffcoat recalled. "She could have taught a class from those notebooks, and she also included photographs."
Fast forward to now, and look at the "Mrs. John Marsh" script Camp is using. Single spaced. Notes written all over the place. Highlights and underlines and circles generously employed to guide her eyes and adjust her thinking.
Saluda Camp is interested in coincidences: shared birthdays or ancestry, for example. Her great-grandmother was a Mitchell. Related to Margaret? Perhaps, but no definitive link has been established yet.
One of her great-great-great-great-grandfathers was imprisoned in New York and walked to South Carolina, just like Ashley in "Gone With the Wind."
A cousin traced the family back to William the Conquerer. And Richard III. No wonder Saluda likes Shakespeare. She's a descendent of the Duke of York, and once played a character (Queen Margaret in "Henry VI Part 3" who killed him. Camp's got Windsor and Tudor blood coursing through her veins, which tickles her. "It all seems so magical," she said.
In 2010, the Margaret Mitchell magic flared. That's when Camp read the part for the first time, with playwright Melita Easters present.
"I feel like I don't have to act for this piece, I just open my mouth and channel her," Camp said.
The play mostly uses Mitchell's own words, but Easters created a narrative and chronological arc that helps forge a distinct connection between Mitchell's life and her literary imagination, Camp said.
Mitchell is a character that appeals enormously to Camp. A tomboy growing up, Mitchell was comfortable in her skin, always had beaus around her and was unafraid for her reputation. She was a journalist for years before writing the book that would make her world-famous.
Easters wrote her play 25 years ago, but it wasn't until 2011 that it was performed, in Atlanta and New York City, starring Saluda Camp. The play went through several revisions, Easters said.
The playwright, like Mitchell, was a reporter who was compelled by the idea of creating a one-woman show about an interesting role model.
"She flaunted convention in a number of ways," Easters said. "When she made her debut in the 1920s, she and her fellow debutantes challenged the old guard of Atlanta about how the money would be spent. The older ladies were so unamused that Margaret Mitchell was not invited to join the Junior League."
Years later, when the Junior League threw a big party for the premiere of "Gone With the Wind," Mitchell stayed home, Easters said.
The play has 10 scenes and eight costume changes that will keep Camp busy. It begins with a radio interview Mitchell gave after the publication of "Gone With the Wind," then flashes back in time to the writer's student days at Smith College, proceeding forward from there.
The success of the book made it an icon of Atlanta and the South, and it made Mitchell into a larger-than-life personality.
"You see how the book influenced her life, and how life influenced the book," Easters said of her play.
Camp arrived in Charleston on Sunday raring to go. Almost all her lines were memorized and her character developed. Visibly excited to be back home, Camp said she will perform in the theater where it all started for her.
When she was a student at the College of Charleston, she appeared in a production of Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa." It earned her her first review (in The Post and Courier), and it fanned the flames that propelled her to New York and back.
She is here again, among the fragrant jasmine and the bustle of an arts festival that opened her eyes all those years before.?
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.