Campers journey along theatrical path at AoA

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Jo-Ellen Aspinwall (left) teaches Arykah Moore, Caden Albert and Jackson Donahue the roles in the play Tales of the Arabian Nights, during a children's acting camp in the Maguire Theatre at Arts of the Albemarle, Wednesday. The week-long camp is part of Arts of the Albemarle's Summer Intensives camp series.

072718 AoA arts

By Kesha D. Williams

Friday, July 27, 2018

Summer camp is an artistic adventure at Arts of the Albemarle.

Jo Ellen Aspinwall, director of Art of the Albemarle’s School of Arts, is directing nine area youths in a one-act version of “Tales of the Arabian Nights.” The play, performed Aug. 3 at Maguire Theatre for family members, is the culmination of AoA’s intensive summer camp where youths, grades three through six, explore the world of theater.

Campers are guided through the steps of developing a character from a well-known play. They are challenged to work as an ensemble much like those functioning at renown theaters around the nation. For some of these students, the performance stage is familiar. Others are learning for the first time what is necessary to produce a play.

Aspinwall noted the enthusiasm her summer camp students have displayed. She is a former high school teacher who changed careers after earning a master of fine arts in directing. Her resume reveals the trail of an instructor, designer and a director of plays in Charleston, South Carolina.

She designed over two dozen theatrical productions before co-founding the Storytree Children’s Theatre. After serving as artistic director and production designer for four seasons, she relocated to Elizabeth City for her current job. When the time came to set an agenda for the summer camp she turned to a familiar story.

“Everyone knows Aladdin but he is only one story out of a whole collection which Tales of Arabians Night, our production, is based on, she said. “I knew that we wanted to put together a play for the camp but didn’t know how many (children) we would have or what theater experience they would have.”

Aspinwall returned to familiar territory when she extracted a script she used in the past. Years ago, it was written by one of her former high school students. He consulted the original story and created a script that has proven handy for a brief camp experience.

“This is the third time I have used this script for a camp. It is flexible. I can change parts around. Whether you are working with boys or girls either can play these roles,” Aspinwall said.

“It works well for this age group. It’s a little silly. They get to make silly jokes, but it’s balanced. Everybody gets experience. Everybody gets to try their hand at acting and designing the costumes, making stage props,” Aspinwall said.

Aspinwall emphasized to campers that theater is not a solo activity. A host of talented people work behind the scenes before the cast of characters appears on stage. Many people who began working in community or university theaters now cherish rewarding careers that resulted from their extraordinary skills as artists, seamstresses, stage mangers, musicians, audio and lighting technicians, electricians and photographers.

Currently, they are learning the essential lessons of theater. Budget is a term she doesn’t avoid. Costumes began with simple items, such as black t-shirts stored home in the closet, then decorated with accessories. Costumes should be sketched to determine how best to flatter the characters, she advised.

Until their set is fully designed and constructed, her summer students have learned to use objects as simple as a chair on stage to represent what might later be a tree on the set.

Now comes the physical labor, repeated attempts to interact on stage. The youths have been generous enough to encourage each other, she noted, to nurture someone who might not feel confident in their portrayal of a character. Rehearsals must be completed or no quality show will appear on stage, Aspinwall reminds them.

“They have to work as a team, support other people’s ideas, and build something together. Anytime you work in the arts, any time children do theater, they learn personal skills” Aspinwall said. “They learn confidence, learn to trust their own judgment, learn to speak clearly.

“They get to engage their imaginations and create characters that are inside of them. Yes, theater kids do create characters as many adults may recall role playing as children playing in the yard.”

The students spend a good amount of time playing theater games that teach them basic acting and performance skills. Their daily routine of lessons, designing scenes and acting keeps them busy from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. To Aspinwall’s delight, they are memorizing lines well, a task that can prove difficult for many adults. Some adults she noted have difficulty memorizing an entire play in less than a month.

Aspinwall hopes this camp is an outstanding reflection of summer 2018 for these kids. They have met students who attend different schools and have had different experiences such as acting. This camp challenges them to build their confidence, take on the risks of performing before a live audience.

“Theater gives them something active and creative to do. I want them to be proud of the show, and to have a good time. I want them to walk away thinking theater is awesome. Theater is a wonderful activity that can bring the entire family downtown, and there’s a lot going on down here,” Aspinwall said.