By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
June 29, 2013
They were sprawled on their backs all over the floor, holding their stomachs and emitting a chorus of deep wails and moans.
It could have been mistaken for a mass outbreak of food poisoning, but these kids were merely going through vocal exercises, learning the mechanics of proper breath intake and exhalation — part of the daily routine at Camp Hippodrome, held each summer at the historic Hippodrome Theatre.
The camp, now in its sixth year, is one of several educational projects sponsored by the Hippodrome Foundation Inc. The foundation makes use of the Hippodrome during the offseason months with one-day programs for special-needs students, a half-day session for seniors and various other activities.
But Camp Hippodrome is the biggest undertaking — three one-week camps, each providing nearly three dozen seventh- and eight-graders from Baltimore City and Baltimore County with free training in acting, dance and music.
Some participants arrive with show business in their blood.
"I've been performing since I was 2," said Echo Chapman, now all of 11. "Camp is fun. I like getting the extra experience in acting because I want to be on Broadway."
Kids with Camp Hippodrome diplomas in their scrapbooks don't have to become big stars someday to prove the value of the project. It's about providing an environment where young people can let creative sparks fly.
"Every year, I'm just astounded at how much they accomplish in one week," said foundation board member Jonathan Genn. "Even if they don't end up going into the performing arts, Camp Hippodrome teaches them life lessons, teaches them to step outside their comfort zones."
On a recent day, the kids sounded more than comfortable moaning and groaning in the vocal workshop led in a rehearsal hall by Becky Mossing, a musical theater teacher at Baltimore School for the Arts and director of the after-school TWIGS program.
After guiding the students through routines meant to illustrate the need for supporting the voice, Mossing had them singing wordless arpeggio chords, ascending the scale with each one, until heartily lunging at a high C.
Then it was on to speech training, via a long, consonant-flecked tongue-twister — "… a super-sheer seersucker rucksack sock … slipshod, drip drop, flip flop ... tip-top grip-top sock."
"On Broadway, you'd better articulate every single word, or you'll be fired," Mossing warned the kids, and they minded their p's and k's. Their homework assignment was to find an unsuspecting person at home that night and try out the recitation to test how many words could be clearly understood.
At an improv workshop later, it was food poisoning time again, in a way.
Camp co-director Caitlin Bell, who also teaches at the Baltimore School for the Arts and Patterson High School, divided the students into groups of three and gave them the same assignment. They had to improvise a short skit that included three characters — a noodle-maker, a noodle-eater and a doctor.
Not surprisingly, the resulting scenarios involved some sort of a restaurant, a server bringing out a noodle-based dish, a violent reaction to the food and hastily summoned medical attention. Some kids tried out different voices, including adding a convincing German accent to go with a portrayal of an old, slow-moving waiter.
Variations on chicken noodle soup were colorfully described in several of the scenes, reaching something of a peak with one that involved such ingredients as pigs' feet and dirty socks. That particular concoction quickly had the "customer" close to death on the floor, saying: "I see the light. Should I follow it?" The "waitress" replied: "Sign the check first."
There were other opportunities in the class for kids to display their imagination.
A quick what-are-you-doing exercise called for miming an activity while thinking of a different one to challenge the next player. In between the expected choices of eating and sports, off-the-wall ideas jumped out — recovering from a broken leg, painting toe nails, crawling out of an air vent and, this being a tween/early teen crowd, popping a pimple.
Each of the five camp days starts at 8:30 a.m. and goes to 4. Miss a day, and you're out. But that's a rare occurrence. Demand for admission is high every year (there is no audition requirement) and the camps fill up quickly, first-come, first-served. There's a waiting list this year.
"When I see the reports of all the shootings in the city, I wish we could have this camp every week," said Olive Waxter, director of Hippodrome Foundation. "You just want to reach out and keep all these kids safe here."
The middle school-age students are immersed in multiple aspects of the theatrical craft, including makeup. They get guidance not only from the pros who run the classes, but "camp counselors" — alumni of Camp Hippodrome who volunteer to come back and help out.
As the week progresses, the campers' energies are directed more and more toward the grand finale, a performance on the stage of the Hippodrome for family and friends. (Backstage equipment is run during one of the finales by high school students participating in a two-day Tech Camp.)
"If you're talented, the camp is going to bring that out and improve your chances of getting into the Baltimore School for the Arts," Waxter said. "If not, you're still going to learn how to work together and gain self-confidence."
Building confidence is a key message at Camp Hippodrome. It's difficult enough just being 12 or 13; being a kid who loves acting or singing or dancing can make things even tougher.
One of the two ensemble numbers for the campers in this year's stage presentation addresses that issue head-on — "Freak Flag" from the 2008 show "Shrek the Musical." Sample lyrics: "We spend our whole lives wishing we weren't so freakin' strange. They made us feel that way, but it's they who need to change ... Hey, world, I'm different, and here I am."
The group songs get energetic choreography, complete with the classic hands-upraised, all-smiles big finish.
In between those rousers, several students offer monologues from assorted plays. The topics can get pretty serious, dealing with death, broken homes, alienation and, of course, being different — "The ugliest word in the English language," as Cynthia Mercati's monologue "Makin' It" has it.
Delivering such lines alone on an empty stage makes a good test of a budding actor's skills.
"Yeah, it was tough," said Jordan Jackson, 12, after performing the Mercati monologue, "but I got through it."
That kind of determination is easy to find among the campers.
After performing in the finale to the first camp week, Kaiyana Spivey, 12, darted through the lobby with a broad smile and a simple declaration: "I will be a famous singer, actor and dancer."
Among the Week 2 participants was Mikaela Alderite, 11, who got the entertainment bug from her grandfather, a singer.
"I've kind of grown into the theater business," she said. "I want to learn more stuff. I'm looking forward to getting on the [Hippodrome] stage. It's really big. I'll have to grow into that."
Twelve-year-old Anthony Johnson, who enjoyed being in the audience for "Wicked" and "Beauty and the Beast" at the Hippodrome last season, is ready for the spotlight — the bright spotlight — sooner rather than later.
"I really love performing, but I've always loved engineering and science, too, and I don't want to forget that," he said. "But I'd like to be in a Broadway show — while I'm still a kid."
Camp Hippodrome continues July 8 to 12. There is a waiting list. For more information on future camps and other educational programs, call the Hippodrome Foundation, 410-727-7787 ex 104, or go to hippodromefoundation.org.
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