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The Stage is a Battlefield: Camp Musical Teaches Children to Face Challenges with Song

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Excited conversations echoed and parents framed their perfect shots, some with smartphones and some with cameras, as the soon-to-perform children waved to familiar faces in the crowd. It was the final hour of the final day of the week-long Idaho Shakespeare Festival's summer Camp Musical at Boise Contemporary Theater. Education manager Veronica Von Tobel stepped out and addressed the audience.

"Every time we do this I put out more chairs, and it's never enough chairs," she said.

Over the course of a week, Camp Musical takes a group of 60 students, ages 9-18, and coaches them through performances of three Broadway and contemporary songs.

The children were split up into three groups based on age, each led by two instructors and an assistant teacher. Instructors chose the songs prior to camp and collaborated with students on how they wanted to approach the performance.

MARISA CASELLA
  • Marisa Casella

"They can kind of do whatever they're inspired by," Von Tobel said. "... If the kids want, you know, a couple lines, then they'll try to create a beginning, middle and end with these songs that maybe have nothing to do with each other, but they create a story out of them. There's not much you can do in a week, so our goal for that week is for them to just brush up on and to learn singing skills and dancing skills, and to really learn to get a passion for musical theater."

This year, the oldest section, comprising kids ages 14-18, made each song its own performance. Donning black tops, denim bottoms and an assortment of groovy accessories, they opened their performance singing "Aquarius" from Hair. They then abandoned their props for a moving performance of "You Will Be Found" from Dear Evan Hansen, reflecting on the struggles of loneliness through interpretive choreography. Finally, the group closed with Les Miserables' "One Day More," waving a red flag and stunning the audience with the powerful vocals of their Jean Valjean.

The two younger groups of campers decided to tie their three songs together using dialogue and underlying themes.

The youngest section, with kids ages 9-11, covered the topics of bullying and acceptance. Instructor Jennifer Stockwell said the students wanted to show that even bullies get bullied, and that the best thing was to always be kind.

While guiding collaboration on the lyrics, Stockwell said the biggest challenge she faced in the classroom was cohesiveness.

"I think that's a challenge for every class because you want these kids, in a short time, to feel like they are a team working together and that they are obtaining the same goals," Stockwell said. "I really just want them to have fun and that it's a positive experience. That is number one for me, and two, for them to feel like they made something that they are proud of."

MARISA CASELLA
  • Marisa Casella

Stockwell compared her students to kittens: energetic, curious and constantly swatting at the strings that dangled from the ceiling.

"It's like herding cats sometimes," she said, noting that patience is important when working with members of a young age group.

Despite the challenges, Stockwell's students put on their game faces on performance day. They were separated by color, with the children playing "new students" in pink and the "bullies" in blue. After an initial dispute between the two groups, they collectively sang "Waving Through a Window" from Dear Evan Hansen, which highlights the challenge of change and acceptance with the lines "on the outside, always looking in/ Will I ever be more than I've always been?" Their performance took a positive turn with "Get Back Up Again" from the movie Trolls and "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray.

Brian and Kerith Telestai, a husband-wife team, instructed the section of kids ages 12-13. With powerful songs like "Seize the Day" from Newsies, "Schuyler" from Hamilton and "Spitfire" from Prodigy, it's no surprise the message the kids came up with was just as powerful.

The Telestais explained that the class discussed the concept of battles, whether historical, interpersonal or internal.

"[It's] empowering students and recognizing they have a voice, and it's worth being heard," Brian said.

The students spoke of anxiety, depression and bullies. During their performance, the kids personified those battles, spewing the pessimistic thoughts they face before counteracting them with positive self-talk and reminders that they can overcome it all. They closed their performance by shouting in unison: "We can overcome the thing that pulls us down and we can stand victorious in battle!"

"I think it's just another form of expression. In musicals, why they sing is because they have so much emotion they can't put it into words. They have to sing it," Von Tobel said. " And I think that it's a great tool for kids to know that if they're feeling something, whether it's happy or sad or frustrated, singing or just dancing it out is a good way to release all of that in a healthy and creative way."