Valarie Mares is tapping into childish fantasy at summer drama camps.
"Everybody likes to pretend to be somebody else at some time," said the drama coach and teacher. "I am just helping the children expand on that."
As if on cue, young children paraded in masks, staged mock sword fights and donned various costumes in the gym at Piney Ridge Elementary.
"I am a puppet," said Bridget Pickett, 7, who wrapped herself in a blanket and wore a turban on her head.
The children were taking a brief break from a "tough" rehearsal schedule for several puppet shows and releasing preperformance jitters with a little playacting.
"The process is the most important part of the theater," Ms. Mares said. "They are learning how to act but also are gaining knowledge that they have creativity and can do something with it."
Ms. Mares has organized the Creative Dramatics camps for three age groups through the Freedom Recreation Council. Last week, 15 of the youngest pretenders, children in kindergarten through third grade, tested their stage skills in the first of the three camps.
"This is my first workshop for children this young," she said. "They are using all their own stuff and finding out they can create."
For five days, the children made puppet characters, improvised scripts and rehearsed.
"I came so I could learn different things about drama," said Eric Hamper, 9. "I make movies at home with the camcorder, and I would like to be a movie star one day."
All of the activity culminated in bravos from their families during a performance Friday.
"This is a no-pressure situation and is completely up to the kids," Ms. Mares said. "I want them to experience what theater is about. Most of them only know television and the movies."
Each child created at least one puppet and helped write a story for the character.
Meaghan Boyle, 8, patiently glued finishing touches to her "cat" named Nala -- a tinsel-trimmed gold sock, with facial features from felt tip pens. She demonstrated how her fingers worked Nala's "mouth."
Meaghan had joined the school's Drama Club, which met twice a month with Ms. Mares during the school year, and wanted to polish her acting skills during summer vacation.
Nala played the lead in "Lost Cats." The script "changes all the time because we keep adding more characters," Meaghan said. The cats fear they will land in the pound and never have kibbles again, until a fairy princess comes to their rescue.
Magic figures heavily in the plots. In "Space on Earth," another fairy princess makes the bad guy disappear.
The producers of "Save Antarctica" developed an environmentally aware theme in which Rock Man retrieves trash tossed into the ocean and saves the white seal.
Characters, mostly sock or stick puppets, dealt well with the spatial limitations of their stage -- a painted and star-studded cardboard box, which had enough room for no more than three operators at a time.
"My arms are getting tired," said Amy Stickel, 7, who moved two puppets while "Everybody's Dancing" played from a boom box.
Her brown dog upstaged a rock concert during "Rock and Roll Friends."
"The dog just wants to dance, but the guards make him leave the show," Amy said.
Samantha Powell, 7, has one puppet who plays both a dog and a reindeer.
"All I do is add antlers at the holes in his head," she said.
Kristen Hannon, 7, served as executive set designer and production assistant.
"I have a little stage fright," Kristen said. She overcame her shyness and was master of ceremonies for the show.
During rehearsals, Ms. Mares told the operators to make sure their puppets faced the audience and to speak in a loud, clear voice.
"Keep your story moving," she said to one group, during a long pause on stage.
"I can't because this guy's arm and nose fell off," said the puppet operator.
A quick dab of glue took care of the loose parts.
Creative Dramatics for children in grades four to seven will begin July 11. Classes for high school students start July 18. Information: 795-3562.