Dramatic debut for young minds


The atmosphere at the Tree of Life drama camp buzzes with the excitement of the giddy young aspiring actors - an energy that director Tony Cimino hopes to tap into for an upcoming performance of Cinderella.

For the moment, he needs them to settle down. He's afraid they'll miss a crucial instruction as he tries to walk them through the play - scene by scene, gesture by gesture.

Every nuance of each scene counts here, and it will count when the curtain goes up on the camp's closing production Friday.

He commands their attention with a gentle but firm tone.

"Remember, we are a cast of one," Cimino says from his spot on stage, which for now is the bare floor on the lower level of the Freedom Optimist Community Hall in Sykesville. "Everybody needs to know what's going on onstage - everybody needs to focus and pay attention."

It seems to work.

His charges snap back into position, grab partners and prepare to practice the waltz for the king's ball.

"It's pretty chaotic right now," Grace Vogelsang, 11, acknowledges with a giggle.

The Sykesville Middle seventh-grader, who has been cast as the Fairy Godmother, joined the two-week camp because she wants to become an actress.

While some of the camp's 17 participants have never been in a play, most of them have some experience with local theater productions. Many of them have been cast or worked backstage with the Tree of Life Theatre Troupe, a community-based organization in Eldersburg.

Tree of Life usually presents two plays a year, involving families in all the facets of a stage production, including set and costume design, makeup and lighting.

The camp, which is in its first year, teaches children ages 7 to 17 the various tasks that go into putting on a play.

"This was something we've been wanting to do for a long time," said Greta Stetson, 16, a junior who is homeschooled. She is one of the camp's three assistant directors. "We didn't have a director who was willing to do it during the summer, but then [Cimino] spoke up and offered to do it."

Cimino, 20, is a junior at McDaniel College with a double major in psychology and theater. He has been a member of Tree of Life since seventh grade. He plans to pursue a master's degree in education administration with the hope of using drama as a form of therapy to help kids deal with problems.

The camp is an extension of those goals, he said.

"This is a very hands-on summer camp, and we're all learning as a group," he said. "It's important because a lot of students love theater, but don't know how to get involved or are afraid."

With attention to seemingly every detail, he coaches the children on how to stand and how to project their voices.

On a recent day, he explained the terms upstage and downstage, which he had been using with great frequency. He told them that the terms originate from a time when the rear portion of the stage was tilted slightly higher than the front to enable the standing audience in the front rows to see all the action.

For the students who are drawn to the theater, Cimino said, "I want to help them go a little bit deeper with their acting and learn more about how a production is produced."

Cimino hopes to offer two sessions of the camp next summer.

For this summer's production, all of the campers have a role, including Cimino and his assistant directors. Some characters have been renamed, while others have been consolidated for lack of actors.

For instance, instead of six mice, this production has three - all have been renamed. The king's assistant has a new name, too, because instead of a boy in the role - males are in short supply - a precocious and petite Anne Harshbarger, 7, has the part of Snella.

"I'm in this really funny part," she whispers to a visitor.

Stetson said she has been impressed with the campers, who had to improvise their auditions on the first day of camp.

"That takes talent," she said.

The camp will perform Cinderella at 7 p.m. Friday at the Freedom Optimist Community Hall in Sykesville, just south of the intersection of routes 26 and 32. Admission is $2.

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