Eight students, ages 17 to 41, huddled around the table in the costume shop at St. Petersburg College to rehearse a play.
Just minutes into their reading of Stones From God, Scott Cooper, the director of SPC's theater program, stopped them. This section of the play is not about the words, he said, but the senses.
"All of these things they give you, really feel them, really smell them, really touch them," Cooper said Thursday.
The Acting Repertory class is one of several classes Cooper teaches in the college's theater program, recently revived after a nine-year hiatus. The revamped program has about 50 students.
Some, like 27-year-old Army veteran Daniel Williams, would love to parlay the experience at SPC into a professional acting career.
Others, like Kenneth City police Officer Kevin Daniels, said the program offers a fulfilling diversion.
"This is great because it allows me to blow off steam," said Daniels, 41, who also performs in Renaissance festivals and teaches stage combat elsewhere.
And Nicole Bredeson, who has taken classes at SPC for several years, says her involvement in the theater program helped her discover another passion.
"I just realized I want to teach drama," said Bredeson, 28, of Largo.
Both she and Daniels said they've learned much from Cooper beyond performing.
"I loved more so watching him teach, watching him guide people and watching people grow," Bredeson said.
During the two-hour class, Cooper offered dozens of bits of direction. He suggested the students experiment with which words they emphasize. He told them to really think about the meaning behind the words. And he made them repeat their lines until they rang true.
SPC's revived theater program officially launched last fall. The general plan is to produce one performance each semester. But this semester there will be two: Stones From God, which will only be performed at a Greek language and culture conference, and the musical Godspell, which will be performed for the public from March 28 through April 1 on campus.
This summer, the program will also produce The Laramie Project, about the town where Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student, was killed.
SPC now offers about a dozen theater courses, including stagecraft, stage management and costume design.
Many of the students "know what it takes to do theater, but they don't realize how many specialties you need," said Cooper, 47.
Some of Cooper's students, including a couple of senior citizens, consider theater a hobby. Others hope to transfer to university theater programs or build a foundation for a career, he said.
"I always tell them this is sort of a jumping-off point," Cooper said. "Hopefully, if they're in the right place at the right time, they may go and work professionally."
Cooper was the full-time instructor when the college ended its theater program in 2002. A set designer by trade, Cooper has also worked in Chicago theaters and has designed scenery for various theaters in the Tampa Bay area, including American Stage and Jaeb Theater at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. He was teaching at the University of South Florida when his present job at SPC became available.
SPC's theater program blossomed from a club that started when the college opened and it became an official program in the 1960s. SPC placed the theater program on the Clearwater campus after it moved from St. Petersburg's Gibbs campus in 1998. But within a few years, the department fell victim to budget cuts.
Recently, however, officials on campus said it was time to revive the program. They prepared their case for college president Bill Law.
"His response was, 'Let's go ahead and do it,' " said Stan Vittetoe, campus provost and vice president for workforce and continuing education.
"It's a part of a general education curriculum," Vittetoe said. "It just needs to be there."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.