By Christian Leonard
A star actress. A famous singer. A leading inventor. A noted artist. An important scientist. An outstanding dancer.
Most would be ecstatic to become only one of these. But Molly Morris , 8, said it’s her dream to be all of them. She believes A Noise Within’s “Summer With Shakespeare” acting camp is helping her realize that dream.
“They combined everything I love into games and fun, so I really love this camp and it’s just right for me,” Molly said.
As a Pasadena-based classical theater, ANW draws in audiences from all over Southern California — its website boasts that it hosts more than 40,000 people each year. But as a nonprofit, the company also emphasizes education. Approximately 18,000 students a year participate in its student matinee program, according to ANW director of education Alicia Green, allowing classes to buy tickets at reduced prices and discuss theater with the actors. The summer camp puts children and teenagers even closer to the stage, allowing them to train in classical theater and even put on their own production.
The camp also hosts a class for preschool kids, who learn monologues, sciences, a dance and a song. The 3- to 5-year-olds, Green said, are able to acquire language through the plays because they “haven’t been taught to fear Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare should be for everyone because the stories are for everyone, and that includes 3-year-olds,” she added.
The camp has been in its current iteration for five years, with ANW having had a three-week program since the 1990s. Green oversaw that more abbreviated effort when she began working with the theater company six years ago and said she has seen the program grow every year since. This year’s camp is at capacity, with 150 students attending the classes. The program, which is divided by age group, runs for five weeks, but there are also offerings for one-week classes.
Jessica Windward, who teaches this summer’s course on the Bard’s “Romeo and Juliet,” works with classes of approximately 20 kids, ages 10-13. Ironically, though she attended a theater camp when she was a child, she said she never wanted to teach or act until she took an acting class in college. She then found a job touring with a company that taught acting and directing to children.
“That job cemented that what I love is creating art regardless, and when I get to do it with kids, it’s so pure,” Windward said. “I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s the best type of theater because it’s not edited. They don’t judge themselves like adults do. … It’s just about the creation and the storytelling.”
The camp doesn’t just teach “theater people,” Green believes. The children come from different backgrounds and have different passions. Some, like Molly, are set on making their dreams of working on stage a reality. Others just want to spend the summer doing something fun. Both, according to Green, can learn from the experience.
Molly’s classmate Daniel Baker-Garcia, 7, has a succinct description for what he wants to learn from the program.
“Magic,” he said. It’s his third year at “Summer With Shakespeare,” and he has been on stage as Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” at another time during the year, but though he’s learned movement, sword fighting and scene work, magic remains his unadulterated love. He generously explained the secrets behind a card trick he was working on.
The camp is more about teaching life skills than giving acting lessons, said Green — “process over product,” as she put it. Other camps, she believes, often make too much of an emphasis on giving a flashy production at the end of the summer. While “Summer” does teach improv, prop construction and text analysis, those aren’t the main things Green hopes the children take away from their summer.
“I don’t care if our students want to be actors or if they don’t want to be actors,” Green said. “For me, these are about human and life skills. … Learning empathy, learning public speaking, confidence, working together as an ensemble and learning how to compromise. For me, that is what I want the kids to get out of it. … They’re really learning how to be better humans by being here.”
Green’s “process over product” philosophy is a visible one. One of the sets was built not by professional designers, but by the young actors and actresses performing in “Julius Caesar.” It shows, Green admitted, looking at the prop wall, which bore misshapen hand-drawn windows, at the back of the stage. Even so, the students’ willingness to work at their craft shone through, a point emphasized as they stood in front of the set, practicing a few seconds of a scene at least a half-dozen times while their instructor gave directions to improve.
Sam Christian, 13, one of the actors playing Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” has been at the camp every other summer since he was 9. Though he said he understood only half of the play at first, the text analysis class, taught by Raphael Goldstein — an ANW summer camp alumnus and one of the company’s resident actors — helped him delve more deeply into the script.
But it’s not just the training that Sam enjoys. He also said the community the camp provides has allowed him to forge strong friendships.
“It’s fun. It’s just so much fun,” Sam said. “You make great friends. … I’m best friends with some people that I met years ago at this camp.”
The students, some of whom have learning disabilities, support each other at the camp, according to Green, who said there hasn’t been a problem with bullying in the six years she has worked with ANW.
“Theater is a support system,” Green explained. “Rather than being a type of person or having to be loud or whatever, it’s more about people who are willing to accept and engage with everybody.”
The camp has grown for the past several years, but even though Green would like to continue that, the limited space available means that further expansion is uncertain. But she said that the education department is also working to keep the camp accessible by providing scholarships for students and maintaining competitive prices.
The education department has also been involved in the community through other initiatives, such as providing professional development for teachers seeking to integrate theater into their classrooms and hosting “relaxed performances,” shows designed to provide a “sensory-friendly environment” to accommodate those with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder or other social communication difficulties.
“Arts education is just invaluable. The skills it teaches all students are going to and forever will be crucial and it’s just something that is just so lost in education today,” Green said.
Molly Morris seems to have embraced the value of what she’s learning. When Green suggested that Morris could one day have a red bandanna — indicating a student in an older age range — Molly went a few steps further.
“Till I’m a 100-year-old bandanna,” she declared.