Whitaker Gannon has plenty of experience on stage. She's been acting since first grade.
The Hilton Head Preparatory School sophomore was recently in its production of "Legally Blonde." She had a small speaking role in the new movie "Killing Winston Jones," starring Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Masterson and Danny Glover. And she has participated in the summer drama program at South Carolina Governor's School the past two years.
Now Whitaker is using her acting skills for more than taking on roles in plays and movies. She's using them to share the art of poetry.
Whitaker is one of nine finalists in the 2012-13 Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest. The contest is put on by the South Carolina Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.
"I think her theater background certainly helps her in Poetry Out Loud," Hilton Head Prep English teacher Dr. Michael Bassett said. "You combine the fact that she's a good literature student, got a good mind for analyzing literature, with the fact that she's used to using her voice and body to express things. And that gives her a good edge up. ... She really has a good stage presence."
Whitaker and eight other students from South Carolina will compete Saturday in the state finals at the Columbia Museum of Art.
The state champion will receive $200, a $500 stipend to buy poetry books for his or her school library and a free trip to the national finals. Nationals will be held April 29 and 30 in Washington, D.C. The national winner will receive a $20,000 scholarship.
To prepare for the state level, Whitaker practices her poetry a little bit each night at home. She also has been spending time at school getting ready for the competition. She works with Bassett and the school's performing arts director Ben Wolfe.
Whitaker will present three poems at the state finals -- "Ego" by Denise Duhamel, "It was not death, for I stood up," by Emily Dickinson and "Sweetness" by Stephen Dunn.
"It's a really fun experience," Whitaker said. "You get to see a lot of different works of poetry and get to see them come to life, and getting to witness other people's interpretation of certain work, which is really intriguing and inspiring. ... It's just a fun way to share a passion for the performing arts, as well as a love for poetry."
Follow Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy .