Children’s Theater Summer Camp explores growing-up themes

A couple of students captivated by the theater want to spread the excitement of the stage with Hermann area youth. Recent Hermann High School (HHS) graduate Brenna Jones said she and friend, Anna Borgerding, wanted to involve the kids in the community in theater, so they put together a summer camp and Brenna wrote a one-act treatment of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to serve as the creative vehicle to get started. The two-week camp for kids of all ages involved auditions, final casting, show production and a performance at the Showboat Theatre.

“This year, we modified our plans and took kids [from the] fourth-grade through the eighth-grade,” explained Brenna. “I wrote a full two-act play and brought in HHS drama student Kambell Hemeyer to direct.”

She said they also created a children’s theater troupe called the Half Act Theatre Company that will serve as the brand identity for the camp going forward. Brenna added the troupe is a way to prepare kids for high school drama club endeavors when they come of age. They have gotten inquiries from kids all over the area asking to be involved in the camp.

“Kids are reaching out to us and that’s really cool, because we want to get them involved,” she said. “Theater is so versatile and so important to me—you can learn a lot about yourself by acting.”

Brenna says acting is a hard craft to master because you are building up an entire person, along with a whole production.

“That’s why it’s important to get them early and start teaching them the basics,” she said. “As an actor on stage, you’re thinking about several different things all at once.”

She explained the process, saying actors have to be aware what they are doing, what other actors on stage are doing, and they have to be aware of the space they’re working in and the path they’re taking (and have taken) across the stage to create pictures.

“In character, you have to be thinking about how that character reacts to certain situations,” she adds.

She says every little movement made on stage is visible to the audience, so if the actor moves a particular way, they need to make sure the movement expresses the result the actor wants.

“What we’re doing with these kids is to make them aware of themselves and to make them confident and comfortable enough on stage to break past the initial hesitation, to get right into character work,” says Brenna.

The troupe has different activities to help kids get into their characters; but also serve to keep them relaxed and having fun. “Pass the hello” is an ice-breaker to get kids into character.

“You have to say a version of “Hello!” where the next person repeats it and you keep it going, across the circle,” Brenna explains. “Then you get more challenging with movement activities or improvisation games.”

She explains one activity called “Impulses Through Viewpoints,” that gets kids focused on their body movements while walking around various areas on the stage—natural pacing, tempo and the path taken on stage.

“We do all kinds of things off the stage to help them be ready on the stage,” she says.

The interesting thing is what these young acting teachers learn in the process of teaching.

“It’s a learning curve for us as well—trying to get across what we need from them,” shares Brenna. “When we tell them to do something, we have to figure out how to individually reach that person and help them.”

She says this is why individual character work is so important.

“Throughout the week, we had them watch a certain character and pick a character they identified with, and when we split off from the group, we worked individually with that person with drills and acting exercises,” she explained. “Then we came back together and did a run with the show and characterization improved 100 percent. With these kids, it just clicked really well because they had the individual attention and expertise of all of our staff members.”

The troupe enlisted the help of Mrs. Melanie Behrens, theater arts teacher at Hermann High School, to serve in the role of production advisor. Brenna appreciates and trusts her seasoned experience to add bits and pieces and to offer suggestions.

The young actors have been rehearsing for several weeks at the Showboat for this debut of “Bottled Up!” Brenna said she wanted to write a play where her primarily middle school-aged kids could relate to the characters and interests of that group.

It’s a coming of age story set in the Middle School years, when kids are trying to figure themselves out, trying to become their own person.

For interest, Brenna included a magical element in the form of a genie, to help the main character (named “Margo Heavensby,” played by Lillian Wozniak) discover her attributes and her place in the world, revolving around a popular boyfriend and other things, middle schoolers deem important.

In the end, she realizes she doesn’t need those things brought about by the genie to serve as positive affirmation that she’s her own person and that self-acceptance and good friends who serve as a support group is what’s most important at this stage in life. That heavy theme is balanced with humor, according to Brenna.

“I try to make my shows funny—I don’t know that I succeed at that, but I try,” she adds.

Brenna spent quite a bit of time with character development for this play, taking stereotypic personalities and “flipping them on their heads.”

“Margo dreams of being popular and liked, but she’s also super calm and quirky,” she said.

She added she did this to show that there all different types of kids in middle school. A sub-theme to the show is empathy—putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

“It’s about putting your needs aside for a moment to think about what other people are feeling,” she said. “That’s so important in society, in general, as tensions rise nowadays. It’s thinking about [the overlooked, but obvious] fact we are all human and have the same wants and needs.”

Brenna says theater-goers can expect elaborate sets, lights and sound.

“We have to convey magic and we’re doing that as wildly as we can,” she says. Brenna’s brother Colin and Ryan Lee will be handling those support rolls that add drama, excitement and pacing to the show.

Bottled Up! premiers Saturday, June 8, at the Showboat Theatre, with two shows. A matinee show will be at 2 p.m., followed by an evening show at 5 p.m.

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