On a Wednesday afternoon in early July, five teachers huddle in a cluttered second-floor office in the Hoogland Center for the Arts to plan the third and final session of summer theater camp. In a week, the Hoogland will be overrun by dozens of noisy fledging thespians, but on this day, as Jason Goodreau puts his team through their paces, all is quiet.
In addition to Goodreau, there’s writer/director Carrie Risdon, a Pleasant Plains junior-high English and drama teacher; musical director Matthew Vala, on loan for the summer from the University of North Texas; “kid wrangler” Jennifer Wellhauser, an English teacher from Jacksonville; longtime dance instructor Adam Miller, who has been attached to the camp since he was himself a little camper; and art director Bridget Palmatier.
Springfield Theatre Centre’s PAVE — Performing Arts and Visual Enrichment — summer camp is very much a structured educational program, but, Goodreau is quick to note, “We try to keep it feeling laid-back for the kids, as well as ourselves. It is our summer vacation, too.”
Over the last few years, earning a PAVE cast T-shirt has become a popular way for area young people to spend part of the summer, attracting students from Springfield charter and magnet schools, in addition to Chatham, Athens, Rochester, and Pleasant Plains. Session after session, PAVE’s grand-finale performances have played to packed houses.
Participation in PAVE does not come cheap. Registration costs $275 for the two-week session; that doesn’t include lunch, and there is no refund if your child is kicked out for misbehavior.
The goal is simple: push students to their limits to learn stagecraft, acting, musical production, and a little something about themselves in two short weeks.
Each camp has a similar routine — audition day, script day, movie-and-pool party, and a final cast dinner, also known as the “pig-out party.” But the most important date, of course, is the finale. Parents and cousins and friends will be there. Crowds will be cheering; flowers will be thrown.
Goodreau likes keeping the crowds pleased and the accolades flowing. At 30, he has already directed 37 productions, including STC’s productions of Holes and Robert Fulghum’s Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas; performed in dozens of roles; and worked every aspect of stagecraft in addition to operating his own theatrical-production company, ADHD Productions. He’s also among the paid acting staff at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. About eight years ago, Goodreau auditioned for the Muni and started making a name for himself right as STC was looking to revamp its youth-theater program.
About 20 minutes into the staff meeting, it becomes clear just how crazy the next two weeks will be.
As a regular production company, PAVE must pay to use the music its students perform. Six tunes will shape this session’s show, which has a theme focused on monsters: Each of four groups belts out its featured song and participates in two full-cast numbers. The youngest kids, the Blue Group, will chew through the bubblegum pop of Britney Spears’ “(You Drive Me) Crazy.” The next oldest kids, the Yellows, get the frenzied “This Joint Is Jumping” from the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’. The Reds (fifth- through seventh-graders) will perform the rollicking “Trashing the Camp” from the movie Tarzan. And the oldest, the Orange Group, will ham it up with the tough sounds of Pink’s “Get This Party Started.”
Next is a big shakefest to OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and a final ballad that will cap the show and, with any luck, touch all emotions. This year’s show-stopping ballad, “For Good,” comes from the popular Broadway musical Wicked.
Presenting the list of songs that have been licensed for this session, camp music director Vala gets so excited that he bursts into a song from the Broadway smash The Producers.
Soon the rest of the staff is cracking up, and it becomes obvious that it is about to become a very interesting camp.
The delighted squeals of children are audible in the lobby of the Hoogland, long before a visitor reaches the downstairs cafeteria, which is the staging area for the camp. Bustling in at the last second is Rhonda Burton, dropping off her 7-year-old daughter Delaney for the first time. Both are excited about Delaney’s prospects. “She likes all the arts. She’s such a very dramatic child,” Burton says, beaming.
Delaney barely has time to find a place in the ocean of scenery-chewing rugrats before Goodreau makes his way to the middle of the room, then lets out a whoop that rises into a steady wail, like an air-raid siren. The note goes on and on, and slowly the crowd quiets and gravitates to the man with the massive voice. Goodreau’s wail continues.
The kids stare, dumbfounded; the teachers and aides crack up. Finally Goodreau stops and catches his breath: “Welcome to the craziness that is PAVE 2005.”
As he rolls through the rules and schedule for the camp, Goodreau keeps the crowd laughing with quick-witted asides and freeform physical comedy. “The rules for the camp are very basic,” Goodreau says. “Keep positive; take care of your own stuff and your own messes; don’t run; hands to yourself — but the most important rule is ‘Try everything.’” Goodreau deadpans: “Kids say, ‘Oh no, it’s summer. You don’t expect us to learn, do you?’ And I say, ‘Oh yes I do.’ Now, let’s get started.”
Quickly the campers are split into groups on the basis of age and sent to their respective classes: drama, art, music, dance, and recreation. The Blue Group campers, third-grade-age and younger, are accompanied by an extra counselor in training, who keeps them from getting lost in the labyrinthine building as they trek to their classes. Ten minutes later, on the darkened stage of the Hoogland’s massive multistory Levi, Ray & Shoup Theatre, 20 third- through fifth-graders are sitting in a circle, complimenting each other. Carrie Risdon eyes each as he or she takes a turn: “My name is Delaney, and I like your hair.” “My name is Ariel, and I like the blue flowers on your sweater.”
The exercise, called “circle of friends,” is one of two acting exercises Risdon leads her campers through on day one. It’s a prelude to the “hot seat.” A single chair, the hot seat, stands center stage; one by one, the campers take the hot seat. Risdon sits four rows back, holding a clipboard bearing the names of the campers in each group: “You have one minute. Tell us your name and something about yourself, especially if you have any special, weird, or disgusting talents.”
A boy takes the seat. “My name is James,” he says. Eager but self-conscious, 11-year-old James Bundle tries not to squirm. “Have you ever heard of this one movie called Lord of the Rings? Well, I like to do the Sméagol voice. Here I’ll show you.” Now emboldened, Bundle bends over into a semblance of the crippled Gollum and emotes furiously: “Ah, my precious, come to me, cough-cough. Ah, Precious, cough-cough.”
The campers have mixed reactions: Some are awed, but others politely grin behind their fists. Risdon smiles broadly and takes down some notes. “I think I have an idea for the show,” she whispers, encourages Bundle to continue, giggling and gesturing grandly: “Go on, go on!” and scribbles furiously.
Three floors up, Vala is shaking his groove thang. In the Club Room, he stands before an upright piano and introduces the Reds to the concept of musical theater.
The bubbly Vala, with his frantic pacing and absolute theatricality, is like a younger, taller, fresh-scrubbed Nathan Lane. “The first thing I am going to teach you is the hardest thing you’re going to learn the whole camp,” he says. “This way, you’ll have two weeks to learn it.” Snapping his fingers like Frankie Avalon in search of a beach party, he tells the campers to repeat after him: “Shake it, shake, shake it!”
Just up the hall, in the antique Theater 3, Miller introduces the students to their dance routines. It is the first time some have ever danced in public. This is Miller’s third year as a member of the PAVE staff, and his sister was the dance instructor before him. Miller and his counselor in training, Emma Jo Schumacher, address the class. After Miller’s request for campers with prior dance experience and special talents, a pint-sized camper steps forward. “You can call me Pretzel!” says Megan Hart, then proceeds to tuck both feet behind her head.
“That could be useful,” Miller says, nodding approvingly. “Who’s next?”
Down in the basement, the Oranges are learning yoga, theater-camp-style.
Jennifer Wellhauser leads the class into a position known as “downward-facing dog,” renamed “a butt push-up” by the students. When they get into a circle at the end of the yoga lesson, Wellhauser calls on them to hold hands. The boys quickly clump together and look nervous. Exasperated, Lindsay Leach pushes her way into the clutch and grabs two struggling boys by the wrists. “You’ll have to stand next to a girl at some point in your life, and you might even like it,” Wellhauser notes. The boys look dubious.
In a back corner of the basement, behind the sleek modern commercial kitchen and through a forbidding set of double doors, sits an unfinished area that the PAVE campers call “the coldest classroom in the building,” the PAVE art class. Overhead, the huge ducts that cool the entire building compete for ceiling space with serpentine piping and the concrete reinforcements for the main floor. In the corners stand painted flats and prop doors, plus dozens of posts and supports. A workbench on wheels holds row upon row of coffee cans chockfull of props and paints. The floor is one large Jackson Pollock-type composition, spattered with paint of every color. Bridget Palmatier informs the Yellows that they have 10 class days to design and build all the sets, props, and costumes for the show.
At lunchtime, campers and counselors, totaling 85 people, assemble in the basement, and the noise level rises several decibel points past deafening. The Oranges reminisce about the shows they’ve seen and been in but mostly dream aloud of the shows they hope to be in someday. Sally Iocca tries to help the newbies feel at home. “Shyness is not to your advantage in a camp like this,” she says with a laugh. “You have to be insane to be good.”
Twelve-year-old Ian Sullivan, of Dawson, visits with Nathan Pierce, of Athens, and tries to learn the theatrical ropes. Pierce, also 12, is already a veteran thespian, having played Squid in the STC production of Holes. Eleven-year-old Davis Erickson, from Jacksonville, looks on in awe.
Mark Sprehe, 15, is new to PAVE, but has a strong musical background and has studied piano for eight years. Since taking part in a play at Pleasant Plains Junior High with Risdon, Sprehe would follow her anywhere. For Sprehe, who enters high school this fall, the opportunity to meet and work with so many like-minded souls is the best part of camp. “Sure, I love to work with the music and the drama stuff, but I just love the people and, of course, the chance to work once more with Ms. Risdon,” he says with a sheepish grin.
Twelve-year-old Megan “You can call me Pretzel” Hart had already been taking part in local theater when she worked with Goodreau last summer and he encouraged her mother to let her try PAVE this year. Hart’s grandmother had long thought that Megan would do well in theater. “She says I have a huge stage presence and am very dramatic,” Hart says modestly, “so I started auditioning for shows when I was so young I couldn’t even read the parts I was trying out for.”
Across the room, at the table for counselors in training, Schumacher clutches her lunch — a single plain tortilla — in both hands and nibbles like a chipmunk. Like many of the counselors in training, the 16-year-old dancer is a former camper.
Goodreau works the room, going from table to table, telling jokes, making funny faces, and generally attempting to campers to laugh so hard that they blow chunks out their noses.
After lunch, an Orange girl writhes in the hot seat, trying to come up with the coolest possible signifier for herself but finally gasps, “Oh, and I loved Wicked,” to uproarious applause and cheers. This week, the fashion accessory is a cast T-shirt from some show you’ve seen or participated in — and more than one kid is wearing Wicked.
When his turn comes, Pierce name-drops the show he was participating in when he first met Goodreau — STC’s Holes — and is wearing his cast shirt from the production. A girl in the audience in the audience squeals, “I saw that show!” Nathan Pierce is in.
Outside camp and three blocks away, Risdon sits at the Trout Lily Café, mulling over a day’s worth of fake accents, funny walks, and other minutiae that will be transformed into the witty asides and street wisecracks that occupy her script.
When she returns to the Hoogland with her laptop, she confidently confides that she’s gotten off to a good start. The show’s plot will have to do with a land of scary monsters who aren’t really so scary and are just trying to cover up their weaknesses. Like all her scripts so far, the adventures will be benign, allusive, and full of sass, with the requisite happy ending.
The tone of the camp changes with the dance auditions. As Miller and Schumacher silently twitch their way through the dance moves they’ll soon be teaching to the campers, Goodreau walks the kids through an introduction to the concept of a dance audition.
“Of all the experiences we try to provide for the campers, this is the one that is probably the most important,” Goodreau bellows across the stately ballroom full of soon-to-be dancers. “When we held the auditions for Ragtime at the Muni, we had 250 kids try out for 20 parts. Less than one in 10 even had a chance. When you audition, the people doing the casting are watching everything you do, not just the part when you’re onstage.”
Before a hushed house, Miller breaks down the truth about the dance business: “In the theater, a dance audition is called a cattle call, and it can be pretty intimidating. It’s not very personal; you don’t get much chance to make your impression. You’re expected to learn the routine very quickly, and you don’t get much time to prove yourself. You’re given numbers and audition in groups, and they don’t even talk to you till after they’ve seen you dance.”
Miller and Schumacher demonstrate the jazz boxes, ball changes, and kick steps, then lead the kids. The theater shakes with the movement of so many feet. Before long, the lamentations have started. “Mr. Adam,” a sweaty boy pleads, arms flopping at his sides, “why did you choreograph it so hard?”
“Because dance auditions are hard,” Miller quips, never missing a beat.
“Can I sit down now?” the boy begs.
“Not unless you’re violently ill or display visible arterial bleeding.”
The dance goes on. Ariel Rhodes, 8, throws herself into the routine and tosses herself about the dance floor. Five minutes more, and some kids are looking for any spare blood vessels they might open to get out of dancing. One kid has wound down to the point that he is barely waving his hands. Suddenly, bouncing across the floor like a ball of Silly Putty comes Goodreau, who clowns until the child’s face brightens. Soon the boy is twirling, smiling and glad-handing with the best of them — or at least trying to — once more.
Twenty more minutes pass, and the campers are pushing through the pain — in fact, a large percentage are beginning to approximate the moves Miller and Schumacher glide through so effortlessly.
After a series of pushes, Risdon delivers a 16-page script, complete with lyrics, wisecracks, and a ready-made moral of tolerance for all. The play has a hip, irreverent feel and plenty of smart-aleckiness to go around for the more than 70 speaking parts.
The cast lists are ready as well. The two lead “girls in peril” roles go to Madison Kauffman, 13, the middle sister of a PAVE family of acting Kauffmans, and Megan Hart, the minuscule bundle of acting energy who already has a list of acting credits longer than her arm.
After discovering that the monsters living under their bed are upset about the shoddy conditions they’ve been forced to endure, the girls take a Dante-esque tour of the underworld led by a dementedly comical version of media monster Martha Stewart. Lindsey Leach lands the talky role of Stewart, the play’s comic lead. Beaming with perkiness, amped to the distortion level, this Martha is as likely to rattle off a delightful decorating idea as to burst into a dance routine. It’s the kind of showy, precocious role Leach has been training for her whole young life. Like her local-celebrity dad, WMAY (970 AM) talk-show host Jim Leach, Lindsey loves being a star.
Leach and daughter began their local theatrical careers the same year Leach lost 170 pounds. The father/daughter duo have appeared in three productions together, and Leach is happy about the time his daughter spends around the theater crowd: “They’re the kind of people you want your child to be exposed to — focused, driven, creative, open, intelligent.”
Lindsey attends all three summer sessions each year, but the total cost of nearly $900 doesn’t daunt her father. “If you look at it, it’s not that much more over a comparable period for child care,” he says, “and they’re getting so much more out of it. They’re learning something and being around so many great role models.”
On the final Friday morning of the session, Goodreau preaches to the assembled cast as they sit in the front of Theater 1, waiting to take the stage. He paces about, letting the tension build, then begins: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for Goodreau’s famous ‘Theatrical Speech No. 2.’ Repeat after me: ‘Microphones don’t create sound, they reproduce sounds.’” Eighty voices echo his call. He repeats it once, twice, and a third time for good measure, shouting at the top of his lungs and bringing on a wall of chanted response so loud that it feeds back through said microphones.
This is Goodreau’s call for enthusiasm. It is a speech he delivers at key moments in every session. As he moves into the second part, a section titled “The Audience Is Infinitely Stupid,” Goodreau’s voice grows even louder, even more excited. Every eye watches as he punctuates his sentences with vertical leaps, encouraging the campers to muster as much excitement as possible about the adventure they are on. “I may not be the best dancer in the world,” he shouts, “but one thing I can do is shake my booty with enthusiasm! Are you excited?”
“Yes!” they cry.
“Not loud enough. Are you excited?”
“Good. Now act that way!”
The morning’s second run-through is so much more exciting and energetic than the first that during lunch the cast debates whether the improvement in the show should be measured in factors of 10 or 100.
There’s just 30 minutes to showtime — and the sound system is down. “It’s the typical morning-of-the-performance disaster you encounter in live theater,” Goodreau says. He almost sounds reassuring as he sweats behind a pasted-on smile.
The actors hustle back to the dressing area for makeup and final costume touches. The boys’ dressing room is nearly deserted, but the girls’ is a hotbed of craziness as ghosts, ghouls, vampires, and third eyes crowd about. Today the PAVE campers get the precious privilege of using the sacred STC makeup kits. Larger than a tackle box and containing row upon row of intriguing pencils and creams, the kits are soon attracting kids like flies to a box of day-old doughnuts.
In the PAVE social hierarchy, the coolest kids are the ones who bring in their own makeup — for instance, two of the show’s featured vampires, Brittany Crim and Meggie Edwards, who’ve perfected their own means of attaining that delightfully undead look. Out in the hallway, parent volunteers such as Kirsten Farris are festooning the faces of the undead as the clot of actors begins to thicken.
Fifteen minutes before curtain, the adrenaline begins to saturate the corners of the room and the noise in the dressing room get markedly louder.
Ten minutes to curtain, Mark Sprehe gets a backstage hug and kiss from Carrie Risdon, his former teacher and now his director — an event that, though fleeting, will make his whole summer seem worthwhile.
Meanwhile, Risdon’s star performer has been laid low.
Felled by stomach pains, Megan Hart lies backstage in darkness, sprawled on chairs and calling for her mother. Co-star Madison Kauffman theatrically strokes Hart’s forehead with a prop towel.
The house is now packed; the only remaining space is in the nosebleed seats. Onstage, Goodreau launches into a note-perfect impassioned plea for the arts: “Please believe, when we say we want you to support the arts, we aren’t asking for your money; we’re actually asking for something more important. What we really want is you!” Next he introduces the staffers who have made the camp possible. Risdon and Schumacher win the squeal-o-meter competition, but, after a perfunctory beauty-queen wave, Risdon hastily ducks backstage to tend to the ailing Hart, who is still lying behind the curtain but soon rallies, because the show, you know, must go on.
In keeping with the fairy-tale moral of the play, the performance that caps the campers’ two-week journey has its own happy ending: All notes are sung, and most jokes get laughs.
By the time the lights have come up for the grand-finale “Monster’s Ball” scene and all 77 campers have filed into the front of the arena, the parents’ jaws have long since dropped.
By the time Goodreau makes his surprise appearance in cow costume as “the bovine menace” and, center stage, shakes his udders at the audience like a Polaroid picture, they are rolling in the aisles.
And by the time Hannah Kolkmeier and Laura Tisckos lead the chorus in a soaring descant of “For Good,” it’s clear the show is an over-the-top success. Parents laugh; they cry; they love it. Chorus lines have high-kicked, tumbles have been taken, prats have fallen, bows have been taken. Flowers have flown.
For Megan Hart, the show has gone on and her stomach is no worse for the wear.
After a full five-minute standing ovation, Risdon rushes onstage and hugs her little lead actress. During the dizzying postshow reception, featuring cookies and punch provided by parents, Hart hangs out with Schumacher, practices a magic trick she’s trying to learn, and scoffs at the suggestion that she can relax now because the whole thing is over:
“There’s nothing over for me. I’ve got Oliver starting next week in Jacksonville.”
But for now the petite starlet has refocused her attention on the trick: “There’s always something else to learn.”