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Summer theatre camps teach local youth stage magic, script writing

Young actors got to try their hand at some stagecraft this week as both the Powerhouse and the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts hosted theatre camps.

The Ford Center camp has been running for over 20 years, ever since the camp’s director, Ford Center Director Julia Aubrey, came to Oxford to teach voice and opera theatre at Ole Miss.

“This year we have 50 students in the younger kids camp, which made it really challenging,” Aubrey said.

Each year, Aubrey writes the show for the younger children, incorporating a line, a solo, or some other featured part for every camper. For this year’s camp, the group performed, “Indomitable Spirits: Orphans on Broadway,” which featured scenes from Broadway musicals “Matilda,” “Oliver” and “Annie,” as well as a closing scene with the song “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.”

“The kids helped me write some of the lines, and it’s really about just finding themes and songs that they can relate to,” Aubrey said.

A separate performance – an hour-long version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” -– was presented by an older group of campers.

Aided by a grant from Nancye Starnes and the Kite Foundation, the Ford Center camp places its focus on production value and giving the students from both age groups the full experience of performing in a musical.

“We have costumes, we have a set and professional actors and musicians who come in to help, and that’s all because of the grant,” Aubrey said. “We really give them a full production experience, and to be able to perform here in a professional theatre is really a big deal.”

Imagination station

At the Powerhouse, dragons, unicorns and some superheroes all converged during the final day of the Yoknapatawpha Art Council’s theatre camp.

“The kids wrote the scripts and the stage directions themselves,” Daniel Doyle, the camp director said. “They came up with it all.”

The camp featured lessons on everything from the different working parts of a theatre to costume design, acting improvisation and script writing, with various guests from the community providing additional instruction. Even Mississippi House of Representatives Minority Leader David Baria – who is currently campaigning for the Democratic nomination for Mississippi’s U.S. Senate race in November – made an appearance on Thursday while visiting the Powerhouse for a separate event.

“He talked to the kids about public speaking and how theatre could help with that,” Doyle said.

The performances featured three separate plays – each crafted by a different group of camp attendees. The show also included a tap dance number choreographed and taught to the campers by Blake Summers of the Hinge Dance Company.

The children also performed “Let it Go” from “Frozen,” which Oxford High School senior Evelyn Smith taught them, Doyle said.

“(The plays) are a little bit of everything,” Doyle said, “But it’s mostly to encourage these kids to just stand up in front of people, we have at least five or six kids that are really shy kids, and they’re up there singing and dancing. They’re doing it.”

For many of the children participating, the performance marked the first time to stand on a stage and perform in front of an audience.

“I’m a little bit nervous,” 8-year-old Sophia Doyle said before the show. “Partly because during our practice sometimes my team gets overwhelmed with giggles and we can’t stop laughing even though our play is supposed to be serious.”

For 10-year-old Emma Kate Booth, it was her second time on stage at the Powerhouse. She previously performed in “The Nutcracker.”

“I really like acting, and I’ve only been to acting class one other time, so I’m really glad I came here,” Booth said.

Finding confidence

With previous experience in teaching theatre at the high school level, Daniel utilized that experience to connect with the kids and teach them about the effect the skills they learn in the theatre can have on their lives.

“I have always loved theatre… It’s so much fun, especially the after-school drama club and putting on productions with kids,” Daniel said. “I was also an athlete (in high school) so seeing some kids put their minds to something that they don’t think they can do – whether it’s on a football field or on the stage – is great. You can see them getting over those fears and those insecurities, building confidence and surprising themselves in doing something that they are really proud of, whether it’s winning a game or putting on a production.”

It’s a sentiment that Aubrey echoes.

“(The kids) intelligence and their imagination, you just can’t take that for granted. They’re not grown-ups, but you have to treat them with respect, and you require things of them,” Aubrey said. “They learn to focus, and hopefully they’ll take these things with them into the rest of their lives, not just this moment. But (when the performance is complete) they really feel like they’ve accomplished something.”