Tag Archives: theater camps

Once upon a playwright

Family is a common theme in works by Dwayne Hartford, pictured here (upper right) with his great-grandfather Luther (middle center) and other family members in Smithfield, Maine (Photo courtesy of Childsplay)

Once upon a time, while working in the mental health field, I came upon a rare play tackling themes related to youth suicide. It was Dwayne Hartford’s “Eric and Elliot,” one of many works performed by Childsplay in Tempe, where Hartford is both associate artist and playwright-in-residence.

I was asked to spend some time talking with cast members about mental health disorders in children and teens, something I’d experienced in both personal and professional mode — and was struck by their genuine interest in touching the lives of youth who’d be seeing the play in school and community settings.

Luther Hartford (here with wife Mable) built the family farmhouse in Maine

Though “Eric and Elliot” feels most personal to me, it’s “The Color of Stars” — being performed through May 20 at Tempe Center for the Arts — that feels most personal to Hartford. Though the work is fictional, Hartford recently shared that it was inspired by a story his father told him several years ago about loggers who boarded at his great-grandfather’s farmhouse while harvesting giant red oak trees for the war effort.

Though vastly different in topic and tone, themes in “The Color of Stars” mirror those of “Rock the Presidents” — a musical that made its world premiere at Childsplay before starting a nationwide tour I’m hoping will someday lead to the White House. It features book and lyrics by Hartford, and music by Sarah Roberts — and its common thread with “Stars” is the duty of every citizen to serve his or her country and community.

Hartford’s plays have been developed through Childsplay’s Whiteman New Plays Program. They’ve earned several awards, and often tour the country after premiering here in the Valley. “Eric and Elliot” received a distinguished play award from the American Alliance for Theatre & Education in 2005, and “The Imaginators” was produced and aired by our local PBS affiliate.

Hartford’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of love and redemption during the French Revolution, was developed through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and chosen for further development through NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences program — proof that the Arizona/NYC bridge gets traveled in both directions.

The family farmhouse in Smithfield, Maine where Hartford spent time as a child

Other works by Hartford, who holds a BFA in musical theatre from Boston Conservatory and began writing plays in 2000, include “A Little Bit of Water” and “The Bully Pulpit” (published as part of “The Bully Plays“). Nowadays he’s actor, director and playwright — plus theater educator. He’s teaching “On Stage: Play Production” (for ages 8-14) with Childsplay associate artist Katie McFadzen during this summer’s Childsplay Academy.

Folks eager to learn more about Hartford’s plays can find him on Facebook or hit his www.dwaynehartford.com website. Learn more about Childsplay — including their production of “The Color of Stars,” their “35th Birthday Party” happening tonight (April 27) and their summer academy classes by clicking here.

— Lynn

Note: Supporters of women playwrights should mark their calendars for this year’s Pandora Festival of New Works, coming to Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts May 18-20. Artists/students can click here to learn about the Hormel New Works Festival Art Contest, which is accepting submissions through June 1.

Coming up: Students sing Sondheim, Musings on music education, More playwright profiles — including James Garcia, Ben Tyler, Jim Gradillas and many more

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I am what I am

Christopher Sieber as Zaza and George Hamilton as Georges in the touring production of "La Cage Aux Folles" coming to ASU Gammage in May (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Actor Christopher Sieber has done funny proud in plenty of Broadway musicals, from “Shrek” to “Spamalot.” Seems he was already rocking the comedy vibe during second grade. “I took being the class clown and turned it into a career,” quipped Sieber when we spoke by phone Friday morning.

He was happy to be in Dallas, the latest stop on the national tour of “La Cage Aux Folles” that hits ASU Gammage in Tempe next month. It’s a classic Broadway musical featuring music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, plus book by Harvey Fierstein — best known to some for songs like “I Am What I Am.”

Sieber knew early on that he was “the fat kid with the thick neck and thick glasses,” but he also knew how to work a crowd. “I had no fear,” he says — though Sieber’s parents hardly shared his delight. At first, he used “typical third grade material” like this little gem: What the difference between pea soup and roast beef?Anyone can roast beef!

Parents, take heart. The annoying imps of today may blossom into actors whose idiocyncracies make them masters of the art. Sometimes with weird twists of fate along the way. Seems Sieber’s first foray into musical theater performance was landing the “Stanley” gig as a 10th grader in a community theater production of “Hello Dolly” in the tiny town of Wyoming, Minnesota. “Hello Dolly” also features lyrics and music by Jerry Herman.

"La Cage Aux Folles" cast members inside a birdcage that looks about the size of Sieber's first NYC apartment (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Sieber first saw the bright lights of New York City when he up and moved there on Oct. 3, 1988. He was 18 years old, and recalls making the flight alone after “working all summer at a car wash” to save money for the “little closet of an apartment” located on Broadway near 73rd Street — inside the Ansonia Building, a renowned “grand hotel” in early 20th century Manhattan. While there, Sieber put himself through school — where I suspect he shared more sophisticated material with fellow theater students.

His “first professional gig” was performing in a Hilton Head, South Carolina production of “Singin’ in the Rain.” It paid $200 a week. Sieber shared that originating roles has been a particular passion through the years. “I love to create new things with people.” When summers find him back in NYC, Sieber enjoys sharing pearls with young performers through “Camp Broadway,” Broadway Artists Alliance classes and such. His advice for up and coming actors? “Be yourself.”

One night just a year or so ago Sieber got the call that landed “La Cage Aux Folles” in his lap. Turns out the invitation to see a performance of “La Cage Aux Folles” starring Harvey Fierstein was much more. A friend took Sieber backstage to meet Fierstein after the show — telling him that “Harvey would love to say hi.” But Fierstein had something else in mind.

Sieber recalls that a quick round of the usual “How are you?” type banter was soon followed by Fierstein asking “Are you gonna do it? Are you gonna do the show?” Seven days later, Sieber was in the show he describes as “a brand new production that’s more intimate and more focused on the two families.”

“It’s kind of a play,” reflects Sieber. “You get to know these people, you really care about them and it’s so fulfilling in the end.” The musical recounts the adventures of a gay couple at a time when folks were far from accepting such things. Sieber notes that even the most “conservative” audience members warm up to the musical, and its message — usually during the show’s second act.

“It doesn’t matter who you love,” says Sieber– whose marriage last Thanksgiving to longtime partner Kevin Burrows was made possible by NYC legislation granting marriage equality to gay citizens. “A family is a family,” adds Sieber. “You can’t legislate love or family.”

"La Cage Aux Folles" runs May 15-20 at ASU Gammage in Tempe

Though the “you’ll love us once you get to know us” thread is still there, Sieber says “the gay stuff is almost passé” in “La Cage Aux Folles.” Times have changed, though not enough, since the musical — directed by Arthur Laurents — opened on Broadway in 1983. Sieber notes that even the men who created the now famous “I Am What I Am” musical “took female dates to opening night” because they were “still afraid.”

The original Broadway production earned six Tony Awards, including best musical, score and book. Both the 2004 and 2010 Broadway revivials of “La Cage Aux Folles” earned the Tony Award for best musical revival. The touring production coming to ASU Gammage May 15, which stars George Hamilton as Georges and Sieber as Albin, is based on the latest revival.

Sieber clearly adores the musical’s finesse with farce, and its bevy of brilliant showtunes. The class clown has grown up. Sort of. I suspect there’s still plenty of boy inside the man — making him the perfect embodiment of “I Am What I Am.”

— Lynn

Note: When last I heard, there were just ten slots left for this summer’s “Camp Broadway” at ASU Gammage — you can click here to learn more. Before “La Cage Aux Folles,” ASU Gammage presents “Green Day’s American Idiot,” which opens April 24. Click here for details on their 2012/13 season. Also, watch for the May 1 announcement of 2012 Tony Award nominees here.

Coming up: Life happens, “Red” rules, The sound of success

Theater works

Happy campers participating in Youth Works Academy through Theater Works in Peoria, which hosts a free Summer Camp Expo this Saturday

Theater works in all sorts of ways. Think jobs, creative outlets for artists, shared experiences for citizens, positive experiences for youth and more.

Theater Works in Peoria is introducing folks to its summer camp options for children and teens this Saturday via their 2nd annual Theater Works Summer Camp Expo, which features drama-related activities for children and the opportunity to talk with Theater Works youth program staff about summer camp options for preschoolers through teens.

More fun with Youth Works Academy

The Sat, March 31 event takes place from 11am-1pm. Admission is free, and lunch (think hot dogs) is included. Sometimes theater works for tummies too. Folks who attend can enter for the chance to win a pair of silver passes to Castles N’ Coasters. If you’re game, just RSVP by March 30 to Athena Hunting at 623.815.1791 ext. 107. Theater Works, by the way, is located at 8355 W. Peoria Ave.

Theater works as well in forming community collaborations, like the Theater Works partnership with Ro Ho En (the Japanese Friendship Garden) in Phoenix to present “Sakura no Ne” (“Root of the Cherry Tree”) April 13-22. Also in helping us reflect on historical events and their meaning for our lives. Hence the April 13-May 13 Theater Works production of “All Through the Night,” a play inspired by stories of German gentile women during and after the Third Reich.

Jay meets giggling girls during Youth Works Academy

Theater Works recently unveiled their 2012/13 season, which opens with “Doubt” and wraps up with “Accomplice.” In between, there’s everything from “The Music Man” and “A Christmas Carol” to “Burning in the Night: A Hobo’s Song” and “Musical of Musicals.” This season’s “A Little Night Music” opens tomorrow night — Wed, March 28.

When you hit this Saturday’s Theater Works Summer Camp Expo, be sure and ask about other ways they’re making theater work for youth — from theater workshops and classes to puppet shows and special programs for homeschool students.

When theater works, we’re all better for it.

— Lynn

Note: Theater Works is seeking designers for the 2012/13 season — and Robyn Allen is accepting resumes at rallen@theaterworks.org. Also, a friendly reminder — The Arizona Governor’s Arts Awards take place tonight, March 27, at the Herberger Theater Center. Click here for details.

Coming up: Fun with freckles!

From Shakespeare to slam

Childsplay meets The Hunger Games July 9-20

I returned home from NYC to a modest stack of mail that included a piece I anticipate reading each spring — the Childsplay Summer Academy schedule. I’m amazed each year by the collection of offerings they put together, and know firsthand that these puppies can fill up fast before dawdling parents decide on summer camp options with their children. So here’s a roundup of a few selections I found especially fanciful…

First, two options in mixed age classes — weeklong “Musical Theatre Marathon” classes for ages 8-15 and one-day “Midsummer Days” classes for ages 7-12. Musical theater themes include Footloose, Aladdin, Wizard of Oz, Sound of Music, Glee Club, Mary Poppins, Lion King and Alice in Wonderland.

I’m especially delighted with that last one given a recent blurb in The New York Times noting a Variety report that Broadway director and choreographer Rob Ashford was recently tapped for a staged musical adaptation of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” film.

Four “On Stage Classes” including voice, choreographed movement and character work culminate with a performance at the Tempe Performing Arts Center. And there are two special “Middle School/High School” options, including “Deconstruction Zone: To Kill a Mockingbird” and
“Exploring Literature: The Hunger Games.”

Childsplay meets Fancy Nancy in June

Childsplay also offers eight classes in each of four age groups. Options for ages 4-6 include “Story Journeys” a la Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious. Kids ages 5-7 can enjoy “Step into Spanish,” “Fractured Fairytales” and more. Classes for ages 6-9 include “Story Journeys: Magic Tree House” and “Poetry in Motion,” and choices for ages 8-12 include “Shakespeare’s Tempest,” “Poetry Slam” and “Story Drama: Harry Potter.”

Like many of the works performed by Childsplay for young audiences, several of their camps are literature-based and feature literacy-related themes. Think fairy tales, young adult novels, classic children’s series and more. (The Childsplay production of “Tomás and the Library Lady” opens with an April 7 preview at Tempe Center for the Performing Arts.)

They’ve got “Music Makers” for kids who dig music — plus options tailored to children who love pirates, dinosaurs, superheros and other sorts of adventure tales. Favorites are already filling up, so now’s the time to do your parent homework on the subject of summer camps.

You can jump online to see a full range of options, or call to request their nifty brochure that breaks everything down by age, theme and dates — and shares fun details about everything from extended care options to performances for family and friends.

Childsplay meets Shakespeare's Tempest in June

Camps are offered at two locations — the Campus for Imagination and Wonder and the Tempe Performing Arts Center (home to Childsplay before their move to a new Tempe campus at Mitchell Park named for Sybil B. Harrington).

There’s little sincerity when the orphans in “Annie” chime “We love you Miss Hannigan,” but I’m genuinely grateful for generous donations by Harrington and others that make theater experiences possible for our children and teens.

In a world where developing intellect, creativity, problem solving and social skills is so critical to learning, working, loving and being an active, engaged citizen, theater companies and other arts organizations serving youth are a necessity, not a luxury.

— Lynn

Note: Raising Arizona Kids subscribers receive our summer camp issue each year, and additional information about summer camp options is available at www.raisingarizonakids.com.

Coming up: Tears for two daughters, Women’s art goes global

If shows were freckles

Headshot for Bobb Cooper of VYT

If shows were freckles, Bobb Cooper would have 105 of them. That’s the number of shows he’s produced at the helm of Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix. “Freckleface Strawberry: The Musical,” being performed by VYT April 6-22, will be #106. It’ll be the 67th show he’s directed for the company, where he serves as producing artistic director.

Seems there’s a bit of a statistician in the VYT fold, who recently shared with me that production #100 was last season’s “Alexander & the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Nobody wants to have 1oo of those. If Cooper continues his average of directing four shows per season, he’ll reach the 100 milestone in VYT directing credits come 2020.

Bobb Cooper, 2008

I first met Cooper when my daughters auditioned for the 1998/99 VYT production of “The Sound of Music” back in their “Tower Plaza” days. I’ll have to ask my “math meets musical theater” friend which number to assign that baby. They weren’t cast but I took some still-treasured photos of the girls in braided pigtails that day, and we went on to enjoy plenty of VYT shows together.

They’ve been through more than a few hairstyles during the decade or so since, which left me wondering how Cooper’s coiffure might have morphed during the same span of time. Anyone who’s ever looked back at an old grade school photo knows how hairstyles change over time, so I felt compelled to ask VYT for pictures of both shows — and Cooper — through the years.

Cooper does The Wiz for a VYTal event

Those of you digging “The Wiz” vibe will be delighted to learn that VYT will close its 2011/12 season by performing “The Wiz” June 8-24 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. Folks who missed VYT’s production of “Annie” at the Herberger Theater Center last season missed a rare opportunity to see Cooper rocking the bald vibe as Daddy Warbucks.

I’m eagerly awaiting news of VYT’s 2012/13 season for all sorts of reasons. I’m not ashamed to admit that another year of amazing hairdos, mostly the onstage variety, is one of them. Stay tuned at www.vyt.com.

— Lynn

Note: Click here for information on VYT spring break and summer camps, here to purchase “Freckleface Strawberry” tickets and here to buy tix for “The Wiz” (on sale next month) via the Herberger Theater Center box office. Looks like “The Sound of Music” was the 13th show directed and 20th show produced by Cooper for VYT.

Coming up: Art ala keychain?, Skateboard musings, More fun with freckles

Once upon a theater camp

Aaron Zweiback performs in Green Eggs & Ham with The Phoenix Symphony on St. Patrick's Day

I was reminded while reading Mala Blomquist’s post this morning that spring break camps will soon be upon us, and was busy trolling for camps with an arts and culture twist when interrupted by a call from 12-year-old actor and ASA student Aaron Zweiback, whose theater teachers include Xanthia Walker.

I first met Zweiback last summer when my daughter Lizabeth, who now studies acting in NYC, was a teacher assistant with Childsplay Academy in Tempe. She’d invited me to see the final performance of a summer workshop with a “Hairspray” theme. Zweiback was one of several campers performing snippets of the musical for family and friends — and his Edna a la bathrobe was a hoot. He’s also done theater camps with Phoenix Theatre.

I ran into Zweiback after a recent Valley Youth Theatre performance of “Charlotte’s Web” — during which he rocked the rat role — and put fist to ear with the typical “call me” sign after chatting with his dad. In a rather spooky coincidence, I’d been wondering earlier this morning whether he’d ever have time to actually pick up a phone.

Today was the day, and the call couldn’t have been better timed. Turns out Zweiback is performing in several shows I’ll be seeing in coming days and weeks. I learned yesterday that I’ll need a little snip to a torn part of my left knee, but decided to postpone all things arthroscopy for another two weeks in order to keep my review calendar mostly intact.

Aaron Zweiback recently performed in Charlotte's Web at Valley Youth Theatre

So life looks like this for me and my knee: See Zweiback and others perform in “Gypsy” at Phoenix Theatre this weekend, limp my way through a trip to visit Lizabeth over spring break, then catch a returning flight in the wee hours that gets me home just in time to hit another Zweiback gig — The Phoenix Symphony performing “Green Eggs and Ham.” Then squeeze in the surgery thing (with a doc who took his kids to see a friend from the Valley perform in “Grease” on Broadway a few years ago). I’m told the wait won’t worsen what ails me.

Turns out “Green Eggs and Ham” includes all sorts of amazing folks from Valley stages. ASA teacher and renowned Valley actor Toby Yatso, with whom both Lizabeth and Zweiback have studied voice, is narrating the story. Zweiback does his “boy soprano” thing as “Sam I Am” and shared that the theatrical piece of the concert is being blocked, choreographed and directed by Bobb Cooper, VYT’s producing artistic director.

There’s another Sam in Zweiback’s life as well — an actor named Sam Primack whose little mittens I once guarded with care as backstage mom for a Greasepaint Youtheatre production of “Oliver.” He and Zweiback were in “A Christmas Story” at Phoenix Theatre earlier this season, and both are cast in Childsplay’s world premiere production of Dwayne Hartford’s “The Color of Stars.”

Sam Primack poses with a VYT fan after performing in Charlotte's Web

After Zweiback shared a bit about auditioning for all these shows, I invited him to write a guest blog with audition tips for young actors — and he graciously agreed. It takes a generous spirit to share one’s own “secrets to success” and Zweiback certainly has one. I fully expect to see him performing on Broadway stages one day, and hope he’ll also keep an eye out for opportunities to audition for roles in works by William Shakespeare where his intellect and gift for comedy would shine.

If the ticket fairies are working in my favor, I’ll be able to enjoy the work of another Valley-trained actor while in NYC next week. Nick Cartell, who has performed with VYT, Phoenix Theatre and other Arizona companies makes his Broadway debut this month in a revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Katie Czajkowksi and Aaron Zweiback after a Childsplay summer camp performance based on the musical Hairspray

I’m also looking forward to the Homestead Playhouse production of “Holes,” being performed at Copper Ridge School in Scottsdale March 28-30, because another young performer I met after the Childsplay “Hairspray” camp performance landed the warden role. Katie’s mom, Deb Czajkowski, recently got in touch to share the happy news — and her thoughts on the many benefits of theater for youth.

I hope those of you still wondering what your children or teens might enjoy doing over spring break will do a little theater camp legwork. One day, perhaps, you’ll get to turn to your child and share the old theater adage for good luck — “Break a leg!” Just try to keep your own body parts intact in the meantime…

— Lynn

Note: Click here to read Mala Blomquist’s post on spring break camps and here to learn about all sorts of summer camps. Find additional spring break camps at Voices Studio, Creative Stages Youth Theatre and Mesa Arts Center (if you’ve got one, send me the scoop at rakstagemom@gmail.com).

Coming up: Spring break NYC-style, Hometown boy makes Broadway debut

Charlotte’s Web

Young Arts Arizona worked with children and teens from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Scottsdale to create custom artwork you can enjoy when you see the show

Valley Youth Theatre opened its production of the play “Charlotte’s Web,” directed by Lauren Antioco, this weekend. It’s a Joseph Robinette adaptation of E.B. White’s classic book about friendship, loyalty and self-sacrifice. And it’s beautifully done.

Charlotte's Web cast members get ready to meet and greet fans

The set design by Dori Brown in striking, as is lighting design by D.J. Selmeyer. Costume design by Karol Cooper perfectly captures the small farmtown setting from head to toe. Sound design by Clearwing Production is also exceptional. Taken together, they make “Charlotte’s Web” one of the best designed pieces of youth theater I’ve seen to date.

Sam Primack (Wilbur) poses with two young fans after the show

The production was also exceptionally well cast. Lead roles went to Hannah Blaile of Arcadia High School (Charlotte), Sophia Drapeau of Veritas Preparatory Academy (Fern) and Sam Primack of Cherokee Elementary (Wilbur). Primack has plenty of acting experience, and it shows. Together, the show’s 29 cast members create a cohesive, capable ensemble.

Charlotte's Web cast members pose for photos after the show

I especially enjoyed performances by the actors noted above — plus Jamie Grossman of Ironwood High School (Edith Zuckerman), Audrey Nelson of Archway Classical Academy (Little Lamb) and Aaron Zweiback (Templeton) of Arizona School for the Arts. Also Erik Wilson (Avery), a medieval history buff who didn’t note a school in his program bio.

These young ladies came out to see Sophia perform the role of Fern

A mother I talked to during intermission shared that the production had just the right balance for her two young daughters — holding their interest without being too loud or busy. To producing artistic director Bobb Cooper’s credit, “Charlotte’s Web” is just simple, elegant storytelling that shows real respect for young viewers.

Future teacher Audrey Nelson (Little Lamb) signs autographs after the show

“Charlotte’s Web” is being performed at Valley Youth Theatre through Feb. 19. Next up is Julianne Moore’s “Freckleface Strawberry” and “The Wiz” (which’ll be performed at the Herberger Theater Center). When you go, stay after the show to enjoy meeting cast members, who love signing autographs and talking with young fans.

You'll enjoy both visual and performing arts at Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix

Also take time to enjoy “Charlotte’s Web” inspired artwork created by children and teens from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Scottsdale through Young Arts Arizona. Valley Youth Theatre is one of several venues that displays Young Arts Arizona works — and pictures currently exhibited at VYT feature pigs, geese, spiders and webs sporting words ala Charlotte herself.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about VYT shows, spring break camps, performing arts classes and more.

Coming up: Don’t mock the presidents!