“All the world’s a stage . . .” observed Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and The New Century School students are proving it so this summer in drama camp! First- and second-graders from several different city schools joined TNCS elementary kids to learn the art of theater July 8th through 12th from the lovely and talented Alex Hewett. Ms. Hewett also instructed pre-primary campers during the prior week. Though currently a Greater Baltimore resident, she grew up in New Jersey and started going to see Broadway plays at a very young age. She says she always knew she “wanted to be on the other side” and began her acting career at the tender age of 5. She now acts in plays, television shows, and commercials; writes; narrates digital books for the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped; is a licensed psychotherapist; does yoga daily; and is a mother of two boys. With such a busy schedule, sounds like TNCS was lucky to get her!
“Theater is fun,” she says, “I want the kids to have fun while teaching them how to be relaxed yet confident on stage.” Acting both requires and builds confidence, a skill that the kids will use in all areas of their lives. Safety, respect, and collaboration are also important, adds Ms. Hewett. So, drama camp students got to learn the fundamentals of acting and theater, starting with the many varieties of performances, including staged readings, improvisation, and more traditional plays.
After some free time on the playground, a typical morning’s exercises began with a staged reading of Shel Silverstein’s poem “Sick” (see below). Ms. Hewett sets the tone for the performance, explaining to her students that the character in the poem, Peggy Ann McKay, is exaggerating her imagined ailments to be able to stay home from school. “Everything seems bigger than it really is,” she says, “so Peggy can convince her parents. You have to be really convincing.” Creativity comes into play here as well; the kids are encouraged to find their own means of expression. One student read the poem on stage wrapped in a “blanket” for effect. “Think about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it,” coaxed Ms. Hewett.
“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox
And there’s one more–that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut–my eyes are blue–
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke–
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.
My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.
My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is–what?
What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is. . .Saturday?
G’bye, I’m going out to play!”
After the reading, Ms. Hewett provided a few pointers. “What does the director do after a performance?” she asked her class. “Gives notes!” they chorus in unison (this is a well-trained troupe). Next, drawing on that confidence and creativity that Ms. Hewett believes theater inspires and develops, another student performed an improvisational version of the poem and did a fantastic job of coming up with his funny ailments—such as mud in his eye—on the spot.
These exercises were warm-ups for the biggie—the students next acted out Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. They will perform it for the younger students in other camps on the last day of drama camp, using the Imagination Playground equipment for props in addition to some costumes and props of their own devising. By Thursday, they already knew their lines quite well, but Ms. Hewett as narrator is ready with prompts as needed. “What’s the narrator?” she asks her players. “Someone who tells the story,” they dutifully answer back. In this way, Ms. Hewett teaches them the vocabulary of the theater. By integrating these terms within their “playing,” she keeps camp fun yet informative.
She has them repeat and refine each scene a few times and says to them encouragingly, “it might seem boring to keep doing it over and over, but what are we doing?” “Rehearsing!” they proudly reply. They didn’t seem bored in the slightest—quite the contrary. They eagerly incorporated her suggestions for improvement and worked well together. Though work was undeniably being done, the atmosphere in class was fun.
In fact, another skill Ms. Hewett has is finding ways to use the kids’ high energy instead of suppressing it. High energy was one reason she chose The Cat in the Hat as their culminating performance. “There’s a lot going on in that story,” she says, “so I can channel the kids’ energy to convey it on the stage.” “It’s also a story that everybody knows, she continues, “and one that we could bring to life in a different way.” Getting 6- and going-on-8-years-olds to keep still in the background while another actor is center stage probably isn’t going to happen, so when the “Cat” was pirouetting around the stage waiting for her next line, Ms. Hewett praised her for staying in character (you may recall that the original book Cat was also prone to fidgeting, often with stacks of dishes balanced on his head, even). When another student hammed it up with a fake voice in her role as the Fish, Ms. Hewett’s gentle response was, “I like that you are using a different voice, just make sure each word is clear.” Still another student wandered off the stage altogether. “Where are you going? You have fallen into the orchestra pit,” Ms. Hewett teases.
Thus, with patience and good humor, she keeps them on task, and the play starts to look pretty good. The kids remember to face out because the audience won’t enjoy watching the backs of their heads, they remember to speak loudly and clearly, and they remember their stage directions—with a little help from some masking tape on the floor to show them their stage positions. They also learn how to exhibit their characters’ emotions quite convincingly. The Fish learns to convey fear by widening her eyes, for example, and Sally does disbelief with her mouth slightly agape. They even learned the concept of the “fourth wall,” that imaginary line between stage and audience.
After rehearsal, we chatted. When asked why they decided to take drama camp, they all said innocently that Mommy and Daddy had decided for them. “But I am a little bit of a drama queen,” said one girl, completely oblivious to her comedic charm. Next we talked about whether they wanted to be actors and actresses when they grow up. Only one student replied in the affirmative, but with the fundamentals of drama under their belts, these kids have a host of future career possibilities. “Saving tigers,” for instance, is one girl’s dream, so remembering to always face her audience will certainly come in handy in that particular job!