TNCS Summer Theatre Camp 2016: A Week of Wonder

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Wonder, a book about what happens when people treat each other with kindness.

Theatre Camp at The New Century School is always a smash hit, thanks to the wonderful Alex Hewett, instructor, counselor, actor, and all-around arteest. For several years running, Ms. Hewett has shared her enormous talents with TNCS and students from all around Baltimore City during the summer. (To read more about Ms. Hewett’s contributions and background, read Summertime Theatrics: Drama Camp at TNCS and TNCS Drama Camp Brings Out Kids’ Inner Artists.)

This year’s concept sprang from R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, a book about a 10-year-old boy named Auggie who suffers an unnamed facial deformity. Auggie’s painful story unfolds to reveal the wonder of human relationships when kindness is the lodestar guiding them. Because Auggie’s appearance invites stares and unpleasant reactions from strangers, his parents homeschool until 5th grade, when they decide it’s time for Auggie to face (literally) the world and his place in it.

“The story resonated with her students,” says Ms. Hewett, “because although none of them have a deformity like Auggie’s, they all know what it’s like to confront and overcome obstacles.” Even during camp, situations arose that required students to think about how their words and actions were affecting others and choose a better, kinder way. Ms. Hewett’s camp has three precepts: One, be kind. Two, be kind. Three, be kind.

Besides the theme of this year’s camp, other aspects are different from past theatre camps as well. This time, much of the dramatizing is spontaneous, improvised from listening to Ms. Hewett read passages of the book aloud. “I like that because it means the students are helping with how we are structuring everything,” she explained. This approach allows for a little more “chaos” than a scripted approach would, but it also demands that students truly internalize the message to reproduce it. With a script, explained Ms. Hewett, students are learning to memorize their lines without necessarily grappling with the ideas contained within those lines. “Creativity shouldn’t be organized.”

To further deepen their understanding, they also integrated visual art as well as song and dance (“Wonder” by Natalie Merchant). The results were pretty amazing. Students really “got it,” so it’s no stretch to imagine that they will apply the lessons they have learned in their future daily interactions.

In addition to acting, students also practiced the practical side of stagecraft. They were asked to “strike” and re-set the stage, as they performed scenes from Wonder in multiple settings—such as a school lunchroom and a forest. One of the most ingenious facets of Ms. Hewett’s theatre camp is how she uses what she has, something every good actor understands—they must be able to roll with it to keep a scene afloat. The show must go on. Another important point is that every role is critical to the show’s success. “Even if you’re in charge of turning on the lights or building sets or you’re the Lead Technical Artist, your contribution is essential to the performance” said Ms. Hewett.

Thus, Ms. Hewett, with only 5 days to create, learn, rehearse, and outfit a play, used the TNCS Imagination Playground for props. Note how a cafeteria table becomes a tree in the forest.

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The 2016 TNCS Theatre Troupe

Ms. Hewett says the students “blew [her] away.” To be a part of this collaboration, they had to be comfortable with some initial disarray. “Being creative can be frustrating,” she said, “and you have disasters and things break. But then things come together, and I think that’s how you learn.”

As always, theatre camp at TNCS is a wonder-ful thing.

TNCS Drama Camp Brings Out Kids’ Inner Artists

Drama Camp instructor, therapist, actress, and mom, the illustrious Alex Hewett!

Drama Camp instructor, therapist, actress, and mom, the illustrious Alex Hewett!

“Things are great,” said Alex Hewett, The New Century School‘s Drama Camp Instructor on the last day of her 3-week stint. “This is my third year here, and it’s funny because my first year here, I taught for 1 week; the second year, 2 weeks, and now this time I had 3 weeks!” That’s because it became increasingly apparent that she’s terrific—inspirational, committed, and lovely both inside and out! Her 3 weeks were one with pre-K and K–aged kids for a half-day camp, the next week was elementary for a full day, and this last week was with kids entering K or 1st- or 2nd-grade.

The Artist’s Way

“I know I’m billed as a drama teacher,” she explains, “but I prefer to call it ‘theatre’ instead because we laugh mostly—it’s not so dramatic. [Beat] But there is drama with this age.” (We laugh.) “It’s intense fun. I had such a great group of kids.” Her approach is really very effective. She is trying to instill in her theatre students much more than an ability to project their voices, although such  skills necessary for braving the footlights are certainly touched on. What she is modeling is something akin to life skills, a way of being that allows full expression of oneself while respecting and leaving plenty of space for everyone else around to also be and express themselves.

This technique is fundamentally about good communication and confidence-building: “Really communicating with your eyes to show that you’re connected is one example,” says Ms. Hewett. “If you are going to go on to become an actor, you need to have life in you to tell a story, and a lot of that comes from your eyes and from your voice. Some of the skills that we work on translate into the real world, such as being a person who feels good about himself or herself and who can communicate with others. Those are really basic social interaction skills that I think can be enhanced, because if you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s going to be hard for people to believe in you, if you don’t believe in you.” Parents, even if your kids are not planning to tread the boards one day, they are certainly going to walk away from drama camp with some important new skills and increased self-confidence.

All About Balance

In joining acting skills with life skills, Ms. Hewett reveals her yin-and-yang instructional style, and that wholeness is evident in all aspects of the camp, including the overall structure: “One of the things I encourage in theatre is using your own mind and being creative without following rules, but yet we still have to incorporate rules in order to keep everyone safe, so it’s a delicate balance,” she said. “The balance of what I’m trying to achieve is having some structure and getting the kids to listen but also getting a little silly and being creative.” So there is freedom within certain limits, hard work relieved by playtime. It’s quite Montessori-esque, not to mention oh-so TNCS!

Regarding the work/play balance, Ms. Hewett tailors the best fit to each particular group. With younger kids:

We are playing, basically. We do a lot of playing; it’s mostly fun. We do a lot of silly exercises, like The Laughing Chair. If someone walks into the room who is in a bad mood or is having a bad day, that energy can bring everybody else down. Or not paying attention or not following the rules—that disrupts everybody, so I like to try to reinforce the positive by saying, ‘even if you feel crummy, you can make someone else feel better’.

Even though “The Laughing Chair” is a way to let loose and have a little fun, it incorporates lots of other important skills. The exercise is really about connecting with each other,” says Ms. Hewett. The way it works is that someone sits in the designated chair, and somebody else tries to make him or her laugh. “You can’t touch them or tickle them or throw anything at them or push them out of the chair. But what can you do to make them laugh? Meanwhile, the sitter’s goal is to not laugh. If you laugh, you’re out.” Kids this age tend to use pratfalls and their whole bodies to make somebody laugh. But they learn to refine and particularize their comedy routines according to who is sitting in the chair. They start to learn to read facial and emotional cues, although some sitters are simply “unbreakable” as you can see below.

The audience eagerly awaits the performance of The BFG (Big, Friendly Giant).

The audience eagerly awaits the performance of The BFG (Big, Friendly Giant).

With older groups, Ms. Hewett is able to do more formal productions, but this requires a lot of focused effort from the kids. They are starstruck to learn that their camp instructor is a real, live actress and press her for details. “I do film, theatre, commercials, television, but the point isn’t to be famous; I want to do good work, and it’s hard work, not just a vehicle to becoming famous,” she says. And the kids learn about that hard work quickly—problem-solving and learning how to be patient and mindful. They also have to collaborate well. Her second-week group put on a scene from Roald Dahl’s The BFG (Big, Friendly Giant):

We worked really hard on this scene, and the timing of everything had to be perfect. Everybody had a part (everybody wants ‘THE’ part, but it all kind of worked out that everybody had enough to do and everybody was satisfied with their roles). We had to rehearse it over, and over, and over, and at times I heard, ‘this is boring,’ or, ‘I’m bored,’ and I said, ‘well, you know, if you really want to do something well, you have to repeat it,’ and in the end they were all happy. It was nice to watch them grow in that process.

Stretching, yoga, and breathing were other exercises they did regularly. The goal of the Week 3 camp was to get up to 15 minutes of quiet mindfulness. “We got up to 10. For some it was great; for others it was a real challenge to just listen to their breathing. But when you’re on stage, you have to be aware of yourself and of everything around you. So knowing how to focus and center yourself if you get nervous (because everyone gets nervous—I still do) is vital, and your breath is one of the things you have control of in this world,” said Ms. Hewett. TNCS students are already accustomed to this practice. “That makes a lot of sense. You don’t know what children are walking out of, even if it’s just the stress of trying to arrive at school on time and being too tired to start the day,” she said. It’s a great way to get them grounded and ready for the day.

Transformative Power of Theatre and Story-Telling

“One of my favorite things I was told when I first started out,” says Ms. Hewett, “is that when you walk into the theater, it’s a sacred space, and it’s a privilege to be here.” So, at theatre camp, the kids take their shoes off to symbolize that whatever troubles they may have been experiencing are left at the door. “We become immersed in an imaginative world. There’s something joyful about that. Stories are really powerful, and art can make a difference in people’s lives.” For instance, with the Week 2 older kids, who happened to be all girls and were obsessed with all things Frozen, Ms. Hewett helped them to see that women can have strong roles other than princesses. “You can be the king; you can be a dragon. Or, you can be something completely different form who you are—that’s the power of the theater.” They also read Amelia Earhart as another example of a person who triumphed over her obstacles and embraced her differences to become a role model for all women.

To introduce this concept of transformation to her younger actors, for whom some of the more conceptual aspects of theatre can be a bit more challenging, she talks about where stories come from. In another Dahl story, James and the Giant Peach, the protagonist’s parents get eaten, leaving him to be raised by two very nasty aunts. Dahl wrote this story during a particularly tough period in his own life, and, happily, both he and James Henry Trotter came through just fine. Says Ms. Hewett, “I had students tell a story about having felt some kind of pain in their lives to incorporate that aspect of the transformative power of stories and art to make the world better. I’m also a therapist. I work with nontraditional actors at Sheppard Pratt [hospital] doing creative therapy in which we use theater and improv and writing as a way to be a little bit more free from yourself, while still working problems out.”

Today I Will Fly! is from the popular Elephant and Piggie series.

Today I Will Fly! is from the popular Elephant and Piggie series.

Other stories they put on included Today I Will Fly!, by Mo Willems, which demonstrates the value of perseverance and a little creative problem-solving. “If someone tells you you can’t do something, don’t get discouraged, just keep trying harder.” Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about consequences. The characters who behaved badly and didn’t heed warnings met with very horrible (albeit funny) demises, whereas Charlie Bucket, who was the opposite of his demanding, impatient fellow golden-ticket winners, is the hero of the story.

“Being patient and kind always wins,” said Ms. Hewett. Fortunately, as drama camp shows, these can be learned traits. In essence, drama camp teaches nothing less than the art of being.

Summertime Theatrics: Drama Camp at TNCS

The lovely and talented drama camp instructor, Alex Hewett.

The lovely and talented drama camp instructor, Alex Hewett.

“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!