May 23, 2007

Summer Fun Guide: Theater camp — planting seeds to grow future audiences, artists and civic participation

When I was a schoolgirl at Mt. Tabor Elementary in New Albany back in the 1960s, I looked forward every Christmas to a visit from a local teenage theater group. I can almost hear them singing now as they paraded into the auditorium in medieval costumes, “Christmas is coming. The goose is getting fat. Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.” They performed “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which was my favorite. Although there was no nudity, we all imagined a naked king, the subject of ridicule. The experience ignited a life-long love of theater.A child’s mind is fertile ground waiting for the seeds to spark the imagination. Among those planting those seeds, Louisville’s Blue Apple Players are broadcasting them region wide as they travel throughout Kentucky and five neighboring states during the school year, bringing the lively art of theater to rural areas where theater is scarce or absent.This summer, the company is one of many holding summer theater camps for young people. And while the Blue Apple Players have been holding camps for the past five years, their efforts to bring quality theater to young people has a much longer history.While working in improvisational theater in Miami during the early 1970s, founders Geraldine Ann Snyder and Paul Lenzi discovered how much bad theater was out there for children. They felt compelled to envision how good children’s theater could be.Meanwhile, they moved to Louisville in the mid-’70s to take theater jobs. They had a show on WAVE-TV back when stations were required to provide local interest shows. After the Fairness Doctrine was gutted during the Reagan years and the show was canceled, Lenzi and Snyder started the Blue Apple Players.The name came about as a fanciful one that doesn’t talk down to kids. “An apple is a round soft shape, and represents education. Blue is for bluegrass, and is cool and comfortable,” says Heather Burns, the company’s education director. With that name came a mission: to provide shows that give kids something to think about and discuss.“Children should get the best theater,” Lenzi says. “If they have a bad experience as a child, it will color their adult opinion of theater. We’re developing an audience for the future.”Since founding Blue Apple Players 31 years ago, Snyder and Lenzi have written 36 children’s musicals. But they are not the “sticky sweet” kind. The company takes the bite out of the violence in folk tales and replaces it with humor. In “Red Riding Hood” Wolfie and Moley are vaudeville characters in Louisville’s Central Park. In the past, the company has performed more serious shows dealing with historical subjects and such topics as teen pregnancy and suicide. The company hopes to revive these serious shows later this year.The Blue Apple Players don’t just put on shows; their education department has designed a specific program called “Drama for Learning. Drama for Life,” presented at Jefferson County Public Schools. It uses drama and improvisational techniques to help students build social skills, bolster confidence and promote learning. In 2006, this program reached more than 5,000 students, most of them “at risk.”For example, through this program the company recently worked with the 21c Museum Hotel, where children selected a work of art and created a piece of drama based on it. In a recent workshop, one child developed a monologue about tulips after researching the artist and the flower. Burns points out how, metaphorically, Blue Apple had planted the bulb that became the tulip monologue. She adds that young people learn without knowing they’re learning. “It goes much deeper than they realize,” she says.The program’s techniques are applied in a nurturing, noncompetitive environment, where students learn to work as a team. That can be useful in schools with discipline problems. Instructors know how to gently refocus disruptive children, who may have to sit aside until they are calm enough to rejoin the group. While waiting, they watch the others having fun, which can motivate them to change behavior.The outcomes also include intangible measures of success: They smile more and participate in class to a greater extent. As a Farnsley Middle School student says, “If I hadn’t been in the Blue Apple youth theater, I would still be sitting in the back of the classroom with no one to be friends with or talk to.”Tangible measures, as with many monitored arts projects for youth, includes improved test scores. Additionally, results of a National Endowment for the Arts study published in November 2006 show that arts participation shapes more than just one child’s life in the classroom. “The Arts and Civic Engagement: Involved in Arts, Involved in Life” documented how arts participation nurtures citizens who contribute to the community throughout their lives.Oddly enough, there is meager financial support for these programs. Although countless studies show that students who have an arts-rich curriculum outperform in every measure those without, only 8 percent of all foundation grants nationwide are set aside for youth programs. The NEA also recognizes that the decline in arts education is having adverse consequences in society; NEA chairman Dana Gioia says, “Participation is falling among younger adults and with it most forms of civic and social engagement.”This should sound the call: We need to provide our children more opportunities in theater and other arts. Funding for these programs is vitally important, not only for the children but for all of us. Shirley Bryce-Heath, an anthropologist who contributed to “Champions of Change,” a 1999 study measuring the impact of arts on children, found that arts are essential to educational success. According to Ben Cameron, of the Doris Duke Foundation, high school students who have been in just a single play are 42 percent less likely to support racist behavior than those who have not. Participation in theater changes them.So, if you want to give a child a summer camp experience that will provide a lifelong value, consider supporting the Blue Apple Players’ summer theater workshops and those by other local groups. Contact the writer at sdeatrick@gmail.com