It’s Summer Camp Time and the Living is Easy

By Anna Kritikos, Marketing intern.

After learning about stage combat, students line up at the door, ready for thier next class.

I spent last Tuesday at the Five-Week Summer Shakespeare Conservatory, wandering around and observing the multitude of activities; it made me realize how much I miss summer camps. I had a bast just moseying around the conservatory. In addition to appreciating the fun atmosphere that was ever-present at the camp, I was really impressed by the sophistication and the higher standard to which the teaching staff held the campers, while still maintaining that fun summer camp atmosphere.

The teaching staff at the conservatories—currently there are two sessions running, Five-Week at Bentley Upper School and Two-Week  at Holy Names—is composed of working professionals assisted by interns from the Professional Immersion Program and the Teaching Artist Fellowship. I met all of the Bentley staff and observed them at work, and their passion and energy was unyielding. It was absolutely wonderful to watch such excellent teachers.

I really appreciated the structure of the conservatory as well. It was like a theater kid’s heaven. I wish I could enroll in the conservatory simply to attend all the classes the teaching staff provides the kids. In the morning, all of the campers attend classes: one-hour sessions in stage combat, improv, Shakespeare history, movement, or text/voice. That’s what was on the agenda the day I attended, but other days include storytelling, a master class on hip-hop Shakespeare, and so on. Before listening in on a Shakespeare history class I thought it would be a bit of an uphill battle—trying to get kids to listen to history during the summer months seemed to me to be a very tough mountain to climb—but with the skills and larger-than-life personalities of the faculty, it was not at all the losing battle I had predicted. It was actually fun.

The second half of the day, after lunch, is rehearsal time, with the five different groups all retreating to separate classrooms to rehearse the plays they were working on. I was impressed by the young kids tackling Shakespearean language with tenacity, laughing and joking and having a blast. The interns and TAFS got to teach and exercise their directorial skills by working with small groups within the casts—simultaneously providing one-on-one attention for the campers and hands-on experience for the TAFs and PIPS who are pursuing careers in theater education.

“You really pick up a different part of your craft when you are able to articulate it, rather than just do it,” Teaching Artist Fellow Vince Rodriguez said. “And so not only do I teach the kids, they also teach me. Also, to be able to see how one goes about teaching abstract concepts like movement  to such young kids is wonderful, and I’m learning a lot.”

Students play an improv game in Heidi's class.

Heidi Abbott ran a wonderful improv class that all of the kids (myself included!) loved. She didn’t play down to the kids, no matter how young they were, which in turn helped spur the kids to play on a level higher than perhaps they usually would do.

It was fascinating to watch the movement classes as well. Susannah Martin really challenged the kids to just plunge into the exploration of movement—to enter a “private laboratory” where you just experiment with the space. Susannah asked her students to feel the space with their muscles, feel the space with their skin, as a fluid, and so on. She was asking them to completely abandon the ever present fear of looking foolish, and the students (the Queen’s Own group, grades  10-12) rose easily to the challenge. They moved across the auditorium with complete abandon, focusing solely on their movements, how their bodies felt, not on the other kids around them. This summer camp obviously pushes kids to step outside of their comfort zones, and in the very safe and fun environment that is present, the kids are willing and even eager to do so.

It was very cool also to talk to the PIPs and the TAFs about their seemingly endless passion for theater education.

Actress and Cal Shakes Associate Artist Catherine Castellanos discusses the script of TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA with her students.

“I’m going to sound completely cliché, but when you are teaching theater you are not just teaching ‘ok this is upstage and downstage.’ You aren’t just putting on a play, you are teaching these kids skills,” said Teaching Artist Fellow Jenna Goodman. “You are building confidence; they are learning how to be an individual as well as to be part of something greater. The kids are being challenged to make bold choices, and to sort of stretch and grow. There is something about it, there is a kind of freedom that comes with teaching theater that you don’t really see anywhere else.”


“Dad asked YOU to marry HIM when you were only FOURTEEN!”

Before I started working here, we had this Associate Artistic Director named Sean Daniels. I never met him, but from all reports, he was a nice guy. And he taught an adult improv class for Cal Shakes, which, to me, is very exciting. Because, though, I’ve only done improv once or twice in my life, I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants in everyday situations for as long as I can remember.

But Sean Daniels has moved on, so there have been no silly games for Cal Shakes adults to play. Well, we hold other adult acting classes, but none as focused on The Silly as improvisation is. And if you’ve been reading this blog, you must know by now that mama likes The Silly. So imagine my excitement late last week when I was invited to “Not your average Brown Bag — Cal Shakes Sample Improv Extravaganza!” Now, usually, a “brown bag luncheon” is a nice way of saying, “Of course you can eat your lunch. But you have to do it while attending a meeting.” Of course, at a theater company, brown bags can actually be fun–we usually have one on the first day of rehearsals for each show, wherein the entire staff gets to take in presentation by the director and set and costume designers; then they kick us out so the cast can do its first read-through.
While it’s great to be able to see what the director’s vision for the show is at the very beginning, this brown bag involved me pretending to be the 15-year-old daughter of the Artistic Administrator (who is, in fact, about a decade my junior). So there.
The purpose of the meeting–during which, strangely, no actual lunch was actually consumed–was to “audition” a new adult improv teacher for our winter/spring classes, the very accommodating Laura Derry, who has been taking improv classes for 16 years, and teaching them for 14. She’s also an improv musician, and even goes down to the southerlands occasionally, to pitch and pilot improv-based television shows (a prospect which, right this very minute, seems to have a far greater chance of making the cut.) So, even if she doesn’t get the gig, at least we Bullpenners (and Upstairsers) were in good hand for the moment.
Laura started out by teaching us a noise to make when we felt silly–WOOHOO!–and an accompanying hand gesture, should we so desire. We then made some silly noises to get warmed up, and soon used those silly noises to play a game of “catch,” wherein we also caught the noises “thrown” at us along with an “invisible ball. I didn’t quite follow the instructions, instead making up my own noises whenever the ball was tossed to me. WOOHOO!
We then paired off an gave each other invisible gifts. During the first round, the giver would designate what they were giving–for instance, I gave box office manager Robin a litter of tiny puppies–and during the second round, the receiver decided what the gift was. For some reason, Robin and I kept getting presents you can buy at Home Depot, like rope and lumber.
These gifts ended up being quite fitting for the next game: “I Am a Tree.” Emily stood as a tree to start, and then one more person could join them as a related object: Beth was a bush and Tara was a koala. Emily then got to choose which object to take offstage with her; she took Tara, leaving Beth bent over as a bush. And so on. At one point, I ended up being a crumpled-up newspaper on a park bench, quite glad that no one decided to be a sleepy homeless guy.
Once that was done, four of us created random tableaux while teacher Laura narrated a slide show about her vacation in Bermuda; this was my least favorite exercise, since for some reason I really wanted to spell out letters with my arms during each “slide,” “YMCA” style. Once I recognized my tendency in this regard, I started doing things like shoving my hands in my pockets for the scenes. I’m a better improviser verbally, methinks. Other people fared better. For example, in the photo above, Elizabeth acts as Laura’s avatar, looking for adventure in Bermuda, while Robin cheerfully greets her daughter, Emily, just magically returned from a decade lost in the Bermuda Triangle.
Luckily for me, the next exercise featured Robin, Tara, and I sharing a brain and body, as a single guest on a talk show. She’d ask the question, and the three of us would say one word, one at a time, till we’d completed a sentence. Somehow we ended up as “Penelope Cruz, PhD,” an expert on earthworms. Apparently earthworms like to get romantic to heavy metal music. Who knew?
Finally, Daunielle and I played an alphabet game–this is the one I mentioned before, where she played my mother. The first sentence started with “A,” the second, “B,” et cetera. I think that the game opened up with an exchange like this:
Daunielle: “Are you kidding me? You cannot date boys–you’re only 15.”
Me: “But mom! Lorraine’s mom lets her date.”
Daunielle: “Could you give me a better reason?”
Me: “Dad asked YOU to marry HIM when you were only FOURTEEN.”
Daunielle: “Exactly. I should be a perfect example of why fourteen is too young to get married.”
Me: “Fifteen, mom. FIFTEEN over here.
It’s lucky for me that teenagers speak in single words and repeat themselves a lot. When they speak at all.
So, yeah, obviously I’m going to take this class if we end up offering it. And, all in all, this was a fine way to break up the oppressiveness that Mondays–even when the weather is unseasonably warm and and your job is unreasonably fun–can’t help but deliver.