"They're voracious," director Jimi Kinstle says of the young people working with him in a summer theater camp for teens. "They eat it up."
A doubly appropriate response, given that the show these kids have been preparing with Kinstle at the Theatre Project is Little Shop of Horrors, the 1982 rock musical based on the campy 1960 film about an insatiable plant that consumes humans.
The production showcases the efforts of 14 young people from six schools in the Baltimore region who paid $1,000 each for this new four-week Summer Teen Musical Theater Intensive. Kinstle takes the "intensive" part of the title seriously. This isn't a let's-put-on-a-show lark.
"Some summer programs are more camp than theater," he says. "I believe in challenging kids. If you raise the bar for children, they often respond. We do sessions on movement, voice, character development. We do improvisation games. They learn theater technology, so they won't be a newbie when they get to their first acting class in college."
The theater campers, ages 11 to 16, have been at work from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., five days a week, for four weeks. Whether involved in performing or producing sets and costumes, the participants have been pushed equally hard.
"We make our actors do some tech stuff and our techies [act] some scenes," Kinstle says, "so everyone has a greater appreciation of both sides of the table."
The program appears to have produced happy campers.
"It's a challenge, but Jimi's made it a lot of fun," says Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel, a 15-year-old Baltimore School for the Arts student who plays Seymour.
Part of the fun no doubt comes from the choice of musical. "They all like the idea of doing something edgier than what they get to do in school," Kinstle says.
Little Shop of Horrors even gives them the chance to say the occasional off-color word. Adds Anne Fulwiler, producing director of Theatre Project: "We're letting people know this is a slightly PG-13 show."
One object of the camp, made possible by a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation, is audience development, "to engage younger and family audiences," says Kinstle, recently hired as artistic director of Baltimore's long-established children's troupe, Pumpkin Theater.
Sakamoto-Wengel has had some experience with youthful musicals, such as Snoopy and Seussical.
"They're pretty easy to do," he says. "This is the first time I've been really challenged. There's a lot of dialogue and more songs than I ever did in a show. I can't read music very well, so I've had to learn to come in on the right beats. One of my problems is rushing. I have a baritone, and most of the music is high for me. I had to learn breath-expansion, to breathe from the stomach."
Gillian Waldo, a 13-year-old from Roland Park Middle School, has faced a similar issue in the role of Audrey, Seymour's love interest. "The music is high for my range," she says. "That has been difficult for me. It's kind of a confidence issue. I had to open my mouth."
For the first several days, musical director Mark Hanson-Williams worked in depth on each song, each harmony ("I believe everyone has a new respect for doo-wop music," Kinstle says). Then came exposure to a long-ago world - the '60s.
To help the cast appreciate the era that produced the Little Shop film that inspired the musical, Kinstle had everyone start with some vintage TV.
"We watched the Dick Van Dyke Show to see how people talked and acted around each other," Sakamoto-Wengel says. "I'm trying to get down with the style."
Another group viewing was devoted to Plan 9 From Outer Space, the notoriously bad film from 1959, for a sense of sci-fi of the period, and, Kinstle adds, to give the kids a taste of camp style. "Watching them watching the movie was better than watching the movie," he says.
Once they dug into the roles, the young actors soon discovered areas that needed attention and improvement.
"The hardest part was the physicality of my character," Waldo says. "At first, I walked hunched over, and that came across as elderly. I had to learn to move differently. I lead with my head; Audrey leads with her pelvis. Audrey seemed shallow to me, but she's strong deep down. If you want to be a good actor you have to understand the character. I feel [I'm] almost there."
For Sakamoto-Wengel, physicality was an issue, too.
"I'm tall, and I was considered too intimidating for the part," he says. "Seymour's a weakling. I had to make myself smaller."
Chances are, the teens will leave a large imprint onstage, having been energized and fine-tuned by the program. "I want them," Kinstle says, "to be able to produce something that's comparable to what's going on in local community theater."
If you go
Little Shop of Horrors will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; also, 7 p.m. July 30 and 31, 3 and 7 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Theatre Project 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $8 to $12. Call 410-752-8558 or go to theatreproject.org.