Room 207’s Miss Nelson is kind and loving, the kind of teacher every kid wants. Miss Viola Swamp, her substitute, is the exact opposite — mean, a strict disciplinarian, and an assigner of more homework than any grade-schooler could ever get done.
Lauren Wilson, a teacher at the South Carolina Children’s Theatre, will play them both in the theater’s production of “Miss Nelson Is Missing,” opening at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre on Saturday.
“Miss Nelson Is Missing” is a musical based on the book of the same name written by Harry Allard. The book tells the story of the students in Room 207, the worst behaved in the entire school. Spitballs are stuck to the ceiling. Paper airplanes whiz through the air. And despite Miss Nelson’s best efforts, the students refuse to learn.
One morning, the class is told Miss Nelson isn’t coming to school and they will have a substitute. While the students rejoice, in walks yardstick-carrying Miss Viola Swamp.
“She’s about as close to that witchy vibe as you can get,” says Betsy Bisson, SCCT’s artistic and education director. Bisson is directing the production.
The students soon realize how good they had it with Miss Nelson and set out to find her, even enlisting the police to start a search. They recognize they’ve done Miss Nelson wrong and pledge to do better. At the end of the musical, it is revealed that Miss Viola Swamp is really Miss Nelson in disguise.
So, how does Wilson go about changing from Miss Nelson to Viola Swamp and back again?
“I try to pick an animal that represents each character,” she says.
Miss Nelson reminds her of a gentle bluebird, flitting back and forth. Viola Swamp, on the other hand, is an alligator. She moves purposely. She’s slow, wide, and heavy. Vocally, Miss Nelson has a high, nasally voice, while Viola Swamp is throaty and chesty.
The costumes chosen by Bisson also help.
Miss Nelson has a bleach-blonde wig, a hot pink and tangerine dress, and lime green socks. “It’s like Easter just threw up,” Bisson says.
Viola Swamp is dressed in black, from her flared shirt to her big sturdy shoes.
“A costume’s job is to augment and support what the actor’s doing,” Bisson says.
The costumes had to allow for quick changes, too. Glasses and a nose help Wilson change characters, as do some minor changes in make-up.
Wilson, who was a student in SCCT’s acting program when she was a teenager, also relies on her experience as a teacher. She’s the director of SCCT’s 3rd Stage, acts at Café and Then Some, and starred in the short film “The Wrong Girl.” She also played in the Warehouse Theatre’s recent production of “Urinetown.”
Being a teacher at SCCT puts a bit more pressure on Wilson to nail the roles.
“I know [my students] are watching me,” she said. “I’ve got to be on.”
Miss Nelson Is Missing
Peace Center Gunter Theatre