Acting out

Summer theater plays many roles for kids

For kids interested in creative drama, or even some who don't think that they are, a summer theater program can be the perfect way to gain confidence, learn persverance, see what it's like to perform in front of an audience - and have fun. The area's summer theater programs also offer opportunities for children to sharpen their acting skills, and learn other aspects of stagecraft. With those as common denominators, still, all offer a slightly different spin on the performing arts.

"Most kids choose the summer program for more than the love of the theater," says Kjerstie Johanson, artistic director for Madison's MadCAP School of the Arts. "They have a love of performing, they're ready to make a commitment to learning and they want to extend themselves outside of the realm of comfort," says Johanson.

Students take a survey, which is used as a planning tool by teachers to figure out what the kids want to learn and what they consider their biggest challenges. While typical challenges mentioned include learning lines and music, the most undervalued fear, Johanson believes, is whether or not they will fit in with the group. "That's really scary, especially for teens," she says.

The kids at MadCAP learn to be supportive of each other. "Every year it's been the highlight of her summer and the one thing she expects us to arrange any vacation plans or other activities around," says Sue Babcock, whose daughter has taken summer classes at MadCAP for the past seven years. "She's learned confidence, responsibility and professionalism. She also has made great friends with kids from other schools and with the adults at MadCAP, and that has significantly broadened her perspective. She talks about her 'MadCAP friends' year-round."

Monica Lyons, Education Coordinator at CTM Madison, says its summer program too has both kids who are theater-focused - "they live and breathe acting and know they want to be professional actors" - along with kids who are "painfully shy, who are trying to build self-confidence." If a child who has never done theater before is scared of being singled out, CTM is supportive and makes sure that every child has something to do in the show. "It's a group effort - everyone is an important part of the process. We're all in this together, and we make sure the kids feel supported and part of a family," says Lyons.

When kids return for multiple summers, they retain knowledge from previous classes and know their peers, so they come to feel they're performing in a safe atmosphere. Lyons says it's a thrill to see their confidence get a boost and to know they feel good about having accomplished a goal. The faculty at CTM hope to give the kids skills they can take away and use in all sorts of situations, not just acting in plays.

At First Act Children's Theatre, children are encouraged to work together regardless of age, and are involved in every aspect of theater, including set design, production and stagecraft. "This is truly a theater for children, by children," says director Susan Nanning-Sorenson. "Children feel really good about themselves, there is a good sense of well-being. I've seen a lot of introverted or shy children step up to the plate and discover things about themselves they didn't know, hidden talents if you will."

Nanning-Sorenson says that even if a child isn't interested in performing, he might enjoy making props, sets or costumes or other behind-the-scenes work. The goal is to make sure the kids feel good at what they're doing and to promote the development of the whole child. The greatest outcome of the program is the growth of self-esteem. "Rarely do I not see a child have that growth." says Nanning-Sorenson. "If there's a good performance, that's the icing on the cake."

The Lamppost Players is a community-based group that offers a summer program geared specifically at performing The Chronicles of Narnia.

"The main objective for the kids is to be proud of what they can accomplish and that they can enjoy it," says Sharon Redinger, director of Lamppost Players. "We purposely do Chronicles of Narnia because there's a lot in the material to learn from and enjoy. It's multigenerational."

Lampost expects kids to stay on task and put on a good performance, but there is little pressure. Parents help out by sewing costumes and designing sets. Redinger will typically start new kids in nonspeaking roles until she can get a feel for what they can do. The biggest goal is to show the kids they can stretch beyond their limits.

"I want them to feel the success, joy and completion of putting on something for an audience to clap and applaud and cheer them on for," says Kathy Hiteman, drama director for the Middleton Recreation Department. "Kids learn how to be in a play as well as the joy of being in a play."

Everyone experiences some stage fright, explains Hiteman, although they may show it in different ways. Even though the kids worry about memorizing lines, they do learn their lines - and everyone else's - in time for the performance, because they do so much practicing. Ultimately, doing something not even their parents might be brave enough to do - go on stage and act in front of others - is a confidence-builder.

Likewise, Madison's New Stages Summer Drama Camp, through Madison School & Community Recreation, exists to help kids feel comfortable onstage, form close friendships and experience something new, all at a low price-point. "We're usually a feeder program to the other programs in town as kids figure out if they like it or not," says Cristine Reid, arts specialist for MSCR.

Auditions are part of the New Stages program, but everyone is cast in a role. "Someone who has acted before realizes they don't know it all. A shy child may speak up and figure out it's okay to be on stage. Or he may just want to be a tree in the background. Every kid is a little different," says Reid.

Other programs put more emphasis on theater skills.

Coleen Kehl, executive and artistic director for Stage Works Inc., believes her program provides a well-rounded exposure to theatrical production. Serious-minded students can learn character development, scene study, diction and stage production.

Although Kehl feels in a short session, "you're merely scratching the surface," it is a wonderful introduction to the theater for new students and a chance for the more experienced to hone their craft and learn audition techniques.

"Summer is a great chance to test the waters," says Kehl. "Someone watching a performance might think they can't do that, but the summer program provides a vehicle for them to do so. Seeing how much fun someone else is having with role play tends to let children step out of their comfort zone."

Amanda Poulson of Four Seasons Youth Theatre says its program strives to provide opportunities for young artists to study, create, refine, and perform high-quality musical theater works from a variety of cultures and periods. Everyone can perform in the summer show, because it's tailored to the students in the program. "We don't take a show and fit the kids around it, we build the show around the kids we have at the time," says Poulson.

Jan Breidel, whose son has attended Four Seasons over the summer, describes the atmosphere as both challenging and supportive. "He gets to work together with other young people doing his favorite thing in the world. That's the best way to spend summer that I can imagine."

One of the biggest challenges for kids comes on the first day, when they have to sing a solo. Some are apprehensive about this; however, they find that the more they practice, the easier performing becomes.

Andrea Shaw, who will be participating in her second summer at Four Seasons, stresses how important the experience has been for her training as an actor. "They've provided me with professional training that has really helped me shape and mold my craft. A theater program like this really allows students to work with the best of the best kids around the city, and the experience is really rewarding."

It may sound ambitious, but the Young Shakespeare Players makes Shakespeare accessible, always performing the plays they choose uncut and in the original language. "The program shows young actors that these plays are not dull or above them. Furthermore, actors perform with complete understanding thanks to the unique instructional materials that explain every line that the actor performs," says YSP's Monica Messina.

The kids in YSP take part in every phase of the program, from directing their counterparts by watching and listening and commenting constructively on each others' work.

"Most of society assumes that we cannot expect children to take on a serious task that is already considered a challenge for adults: understanding and memorizing the works of Shakespeare! It's our belief that when these young people succeed in bringing to life one of these masterpieces, they'll know and remember that they have the ability within them to do what others say is impossible," says Messina.

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