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Kids Acting Out 

Summer programs offer children a chance to get to know the theater

What now?

The kids have been sprung from the hallowed halls of their institutions of learning, released into the wide-open spaces of summer vacation. Sure, it's time to take advantage of some of those lazy summer days. But it's also a time to explore some fun things that the jam-packed days of the school year just won't allow.

Numerous groups promise adventures that help develop important skills while having that summer fun. Several theaters in town offer programs that give kids great opportunities to play while becoming genuine players in the world of making plays. This is focused fun.

Various organizations citywide offer summer theater camps; this is by no means a comprehensive discussion about what's available out there. Rather, we have chosen to focus on the programs offered by three well-established theaters that sponsor summer programs for kids. Some include all ages; some direct sessions to specific ages; and one in particular—Arizona Theatre Company's Summer on Stage—gives older kids and teens an intensive five-week exposure to a variety of theater professionals, and together, they produce two complete productions onstage at the Temple of Music and Art.

While the specifics (including costs and scholarship possibilities) of each program vary, they all offer classes that expose kids to what it takes to create a piece of theater. And they all offer an experience that benefits kids in ways that go far beyond dressing up in costumes and performing for Mom and Dad.

"We really teach creative thinking," says Michael Martinez of Live Theatre Workshop's summer-camp series. "Creative thinking is not just essential to developing the next generation of artists, but also great innovators in every field. It's a skill, and like all skills, you have to learn it and practice it, and participating in drama and theater is a great avenue for that."

LTW's camps consist of eight one-week sessions. Some weeks are crafted to kids of a specific age; others offer the chance for kids ranging in age from 8 to 18 to work together. All sessions end with a 45-minute production that the kids develop during the week, supported by classes designed to help build skills through play.

A play in a week?

"It is a lot of work, but the shows are really amazing," Martinez says. "Besides, the process establishes the idea of goal-setting. They have a specific task to accomplish. They are totally committed to the project and to each other, and they work like crazy. They grow as individuals. They bond and become a team. And it's really sort of a side benefit that they create this really awesome show."

Professional actor and educator Robert Encila has been working with kids for 23 years in various settings. A decade ago, Encila founded Studio Connections, which offers arts classes year-round. Over the years, as his students grew in skills and enthusiasm, it seemed like a natural step to establish an actual performing group, which he called the da Vinci Players. That group evolved into a theater that produces plays for and with adults.

But it got to be too much, Encila says. "It distracted me from my work with young people. The theater took all my energy." So last year, Studio Connections put all productions on hold for a while—and Encila is focusing on working with kids again.

"Our summer musical theater camp has been around for a while. It's a three-week, intensive program where 7-to-18-year-olds get training in singing, auditioning and improvisation, all the while preparing for the big production. This year, it's The Wizard of Oz.

"But really, it's about the joy of the process," Encila says. "Sure, we want them to have a quality experience and to prepare for future opportunities, but it's a place to discover the humanity made manifest in the theater process. As they work on their characters, they start understanding and empathizing with them. They learn about relationships and what makes people tick. They participate in a process that lends itself to developing so many different kinds of skills. And it really helps kids who maybe have trouble fitting into some settings. This offers a different channel for their energy. "

For students who are perhaps more than merely stage-struck, ATC provides a five-week-long immersion into "a journey of discovery," says ATC associate artistic director Stephen Wrentmore, who is also the artistic director for Summer on Stage. "We really make them work hard. It's a serious commitment. The mornings involve classes where they study music, voice, acting and other associated theater skills, and the afternoons are spent in rehearsals for the two shows. But it's also a fabulously fun, social and training-based experience that culminates in the production of two extraordinary pieces of theater. They walk out feeling they have a better hold on who they are as young people."

Summer on Stage instructors come from within ATC or "within our orbit," Wrentmore says, "so throughout, (students) have the relationship, support and friendship" of professional theater artists as they develop the shows, which always include a musical and a more-serious play. This year, the shows are Legally Blonde and Machinal, the latter an expressionistic, heavyweight piece.

"We should raise the bar. We should challenge them, and it should be an experience of growth and discovery," Wrentmore says. "This should be a journey which changes them in some way, which teaches them how to navigate choices ... all while having extraordinary fun. As one student said last year, 'This is the only time of year I hate weekends.'"

For parents who need direction in how to choose a program for their kids, Martinez recommends taking a good look at the teachers. "How invested are they? And ask friends about experiences they've had."

Wrentmore suggests looking at the quality of the experience offered. "The students should feel refreshed and energized and wanting more."

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