Kids give camp rave reviews

On summer stage, acting is serious but fun


Every summer for three years now, Natasha Scott, 11, has participated in the Actors' Institute at Howard Community College. "It's the best camp ever," she said while sitting in the college's Smith Theatre on Thursday, waiting to begin dress rehearsals.

This year, the pupil at Martin Luther King Middle School in Beltsville will share the role of the Cheshire Cat with fellow camper Betsy Burnett in a production of Alice in Wonderland. She likes the acting camp because she learns so much about being on stage, she said.

"They focus on character, voices and movements," she said. "They really stress that you need to project your voice."

The camp, for kids ages 9 to 18, is run by the college's professional theater company, Rep Stage, and it does more than stick kids on stage and urge them to express themselves. The camp is run by real theater buffs, who take the young actors through the sometimes tedious stages of putting on a play, from auditions to rehearsals to walk-throughs that focus on such technical aspects of being on stage as blocking and lighting.

"We're definitely trying to give the experience of working on a show in a professional way," said Bill Largess, director of the teens in the program. Though the technical rehearsals are "very painstaking," the experience is valuable, he said. "We're trying to give them a little taste of how it works."

The kids don't seem to mind the attention to detail. "We're doing a dress rehearsal with lights and the revolve and everything," enthused Betsy, the Cheshire Cat, explaining that the revolve is a rotating centerpiece in the floor that moves actors and scenery as it turns.

Kayleigh Fagan, 9, a rising fifth-grader at Running Brook Elementary, said she has been in other acting camps, but particularly likes the one at HCC. "This is a really fun one," she said. In the production, she will play several roles, which means she will become an expert in costume changes. "I am a bird, I am a cook, and what else am I? I think I'm the five of clubs," she said.

All the adults involved in the camp have stage experience. Stage manager Candace Cooper, 21, and her sister, sound director Ashanti Cooper, 23, both attended the camp when they were younger and are now involved in drama at the college. Ashanti Cooper, a drama major, has appeared as Mrs. Gibbs in a student alumni production of Our Town, and Candace Cooper has stage-managed other productions for the college.

There are no auditions to get into the camp, but kids do try out for specific roles, said Janelle Broderick, who coordinates the camp with Sue Kramer.

In past years, the institute held several shorter, one-week and two-week camps as well as the three-week session. During those sessions, kids would learn monologues or short scenes that they would perform at the end of the week, Largess said.

This year, for the first time, two three-week sessions are being held. The first session, which ends today, did Alice in Wonderland. The second session, which begins tomorrow and runs through Aug. 4, is producing Peter Pan.

Campers are divided into two groups - preteens (ages 9 through 13) and teens (ages 14 through 18). Both put on the same play. That's so they can share sets and, to a certain extent, costumes, Largess said. "Despite that, the two shows always end up being incredibly different," he said.

The preteens were scheduled to perform Thursday and Friday evening, the teens Saturday and Sunday evening.

On Thursday, the preteens were getting ready for their final dress rehearsal in the college's Smith Theatre. Twenty-six preteens and 13 teens had signed up for the camp. Though the times of the two camps overlap, the programs are kept separate.

Director Grace Anastasiadis, who is working with Julia Tokarcik with the preteen group, teaches at the college and works for Rep Stage on a part-time basis year-round, she said. She likes the age group because the kids are not too self-conscious about being on stage. "They're very willing to work because the coolness factor hasn't set in yet," she said.

Largess, who works with the older kids, is an actor and director in the Baltimore-Washington area, and has appeared in works at Everyman Theater and Center Stage, he said. This is his eighth year working with the summer camp, he said.

Working with teens, he said, is "wonderful in its way - it's very different from working with professionals, of course." He said the preteens are very enthusiastic, while the teenagers, though more serious about their craft, are sometimes hard to goad out of their reserve.

Three weeks seems like a lot of time, but it's not, Largess said. "They have a wonderful time, but it's focused," he said.

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