Last week, was the first week of the first session of Pier One’s long-standing theater camp. Perhaps as old as the theater itself, there are several second-generation campers in the line-up.
What is Pier One Youth Theatre? This is how it’s described on website: “a high-quality, dynamic theatre education that builds skills & confidence. We pride ourselves on our ability to teach theatre skills while providing a unique, unforgettable experience. Our camps offer kids a chance to be immersed in the world of theatre: a world of focus, experimentation and creative play. Led by Pier One Youth Theatre alumni, these camps are driven by students’ energy and ideads. Through hands-on, open-ended practice, students gain social skills and learn about responsibility, self-reliance, cooperation and empathy. Activities engage their bodies and minds as they stretch toward creative goals.”
Friday I watched a run through morning of camp for the 8-10 year old crew, a little smaller in participant number than usual for COVID safety, certainly driven by student energy but maintained, or perhaps I should say “directed” by Carolyn Norton, “Children! Leave the trees alone. Please put down the branches, we are guests here,” she says repeatedly, in various forms. I see children using branches as swords, daggers, hobo sticks, bows and arrows, unicorn protection, wands, whipping devices, cauldron spoons, and general distraction.
Today, May 28, young camp meets at the Pratt Museum trails to check out theater in the woods instead of the typical Pier One spit location. It’s a nice alternative to the Pier One spit location because the trees offer some wind protection for outdoor staging and play time. When I arrive, the crew is taking a small break from showing each other their most dramatic death scenes on a small stage in the woods, prearranged with little benches and stumps for audience seating. One student dies by juggling knives, another is swimming and consumed by sharks, someone is attacked by violent swans (or maybe geese), someone simply falls over.
After the dramatic deaths, Carolyn asks if anyone can think of stories with deaths in them and why we might hear about death in theater (or story). They talk about it informally, throwing out story names while sitting in a casual circle on the benches of the forest theater. “How does it change the story when there is a death in it,” Carolyn asks? The campers respond, they engage with comments like, “I feel sad when an animal dies.” Norton prompts with responses like, “what else?” or asks another camper to add his or her opinion. But, it’s not overwhelming, they move through the topic quickly with Norton briefly explaining, “a death moves the story” and sharing the basic plotline of Shakespeare’s Macbeth before the group is asked to stand in circle and play with a sound ball.
For this game, they catch and throw that gets its weight, size, shape by imagination and any sound that the holder of the ball wants to give it. It grows and shrinks as it’s passed within the group. Some campers imitate each other, some make their own noises, some are silent. There’s not any discouragement of choice as long as they’re being respectful and relatively undistracted. A little distraction might be inevitable in a forest of new spring greens, but the group is generally paying attention to each other and the tasks that they move through.
Even in their snack break, there’s time for some self-created improv, “what would you do to sustain yourself if you were lost in the wilderness? There’s discussion of coconuts, wolverine attacks, cannibalism and what age range might be most appropriate to consume (who are more important old people or young people, why?), plants, other wild animals, living the life of Tarzan and tree gymnastics. Or, perhaps, a tree as a character who might die also. “Please don’t actually kill the tree,” Norton reminds again.
Listening time includes a story, today’s is “The Fox Maiden” from Japan. Significant because after the story the students are asked to pick out the important pieces: characters, plot, dialogue and the setting to create their play for the day. They talk about it with prompts, decide who will get be what roles or if there are going to be multiple roles and then on to a couple rounds of rehearsal. “They just make up themselves how they're going to act it out and pretty much cast themselves. They're always interested in one character or another,” Norton says. And, a couple of these pieces will be performed for parents on the last day.
I briefly ask the group what their favorite part of camp is and just like the rest of the hour, they’re very straight forward: “getting to be with other people,” “finding to courage to talk in front of other people.” “having fun.”
This particular group has another week of camp session but there are more to come. The youngest group is called “Theatre Play” for ages 5-7, “Stories on the Stage” is for ages 8-10 and their next session will start June 7th and “Theatre Skills” is for ages 11 and older. For more information, go to the Pier One website.