General Non-Fiction posted April 13, 2019 Chapters:  ...1 2 -3- 4... 

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It's not considered a Drama Camp for no reason!

A chapter in the book Lessons in the Key of Life

Summer Performing Arts Camp

by Rachelle Allen

I have made a career as a teacher in the creative and performing arts. This book is about the lessons I learned from the lessons I taught.

In 1992, a summer performing arts camp was a groundbreaking idea. So, of course, my friend and role model, dynamo Rose Melnik, would be the one to conceive and institute one at the JCC.

I was flattered and very excited when she asked if I’d work with her again, and had many memorable experiences throughout the five years I worked there.

                                                         Far Too Many Legs In The Dance Studio

In the middle of morning dance class with the nine-year-olds, I suddenly noticed that someone had positioned a big, fat rubber spider right in the middle of the floor. I gave the class a look of amused omniscience, and they all smiled mischievously back as I headed over to pick it up before we began our floor work . I decided to embellish on the fun they'd already provided for us by doing chaine' turns over to our interloper. Arriving at my destination, I extended one leg behind myself and, like a seesaw, elevated it higher and higher as I lowered my torso and arms closer to the prop. My audience was doubled over with amusement. At the last moment, for added drama, I leaped away, then, en pointe, returned to it and gave it the most delicate of touches with my slippered feet.

It was then that we  realized it was not really a rubber spider, after all. It exploded on contact into hundreds of thousands of teeny baby spiders that shot out in every direction, like fireworks, as they tried to find their now-deflated mommy, who was scurrying to a safe hiding spot somewhere beneath the nearest baseboard.

There was a moment of deathly silent incredulity from everyone, and then pandemonium erupted. It was the strangest vision of teeny spiders and young, screaming campers both doing pretty much the same choreography of frenzied spirals and spastic turns.

I dashed from the room to get a jumble of wet paper towels and perform an act of arachnicide; but, unfortunately, in my fervor to regain order and control, I neglected to mention this mission to my seventeen-year-old assistant, who imagined she was suddenly a solo act at the worst possible moment in history.

Oh, how relief sprang forth from every one of her facial features as I returned with the munitions, handed her half, and, together, we sopped up the pinprick-sized invaders.

We spent the remainder of our class time in the lobby, each of us taking turns recounting our own personal rendition of our collective nightmare, while the custodial staff mopped down the entire dance studio, sprayed it with insecticide, and then mopped it again a second tiem - and then a third.

Lesson: The most creative choreography one ever creates can be inspired by the rawest of animal instincts.

                                                                   Keeping Abreast of Current Events

During the same summer as our camp spider adventure, our City government humiliated itself by caving in to the PC-minded zealots, who insisted men and women are so completely equal that law should mandate everyone who so chose could walk around shirtless.The spokesmodels who had lobbied for the law became known as The Top-Free Ten.

Our mid-day routine at camp was to take our bag lunches to the area known as the Picnic Pavilion and relax for forty-five minutes. It was located behind the building and backed up to the bike and jogging path that ran the length of the canal that graces our region. As I sat with Rose and two other faculty one particularly warm day, the drama teacher looked down the path, squinted, and said, "Whoa! That almost looks like...oh my lord, it IS! There’s a woman jogging this way with no top on!"

One of the campers had spied her, too. In record time, all seventy-six of them, ages eight to eighteen, including the Assistants and Assistants-in-Training, were lined up with their tippy toes grazing the blacktop, fingers pointing flagrantly, as they laughed the raucous, unbridled belly laughs for which children are famous.

"Should I make them stop?" gasped Rose.

"Absolutely not!" said I. "Why should she get to be the only who makes a statement?"

And with that, the woman jogged by, her lily white coke bottles step-ball-changing with each stride.

Lunch ended really early that day. No one seemed to have much of an appetite.

Lesson: You can learn every bit as much from a bad example as you can a good one.

                                                                     The Show Must Go On

Tech Week, the five days before a show opens, is always nerve-wracking. Stress and worry and fears about what could happen when the curtain goes up are so pervasive, they’re practically palpable.

One year, at our performing arts camp, these feelings were made even worse by the fact that the campers had been slacking the entire summer. Even by the final Dress Rehearsal, they still didn’t know their lines or their entrances. We, the faculty, were at our wits’ end. The Drama Director never lost his sense of humor about it, at least. At lunch, after the morning’s frightfully bad Full Dress Run-Through, as the Music Director and I sat there, looking haunted and lobotomized, the Drama Director chided, "It’s easier for you two. You’re still young yet. You can leave town, change your names." We returned to the salt mines at 1:00 and tried one final time to salvage the show.

Rose wrote the plays each year for camp, and this one was particularly clever: What life would have been like if all the Biblical characters had carried cell phones. Very creative and entertaining.

There was a loft perched above the set where the camper who was playing "God," in a white robe, sat with his back to the audience for the entire performance. When we realized how many lines the campers were forgetting, it struck us what an especially perfect set-up this was. We simply gave God a script to hide on his lap and increased his role to "God And Prompter." His only disadvantage was that, since he couldn’t see the stage, he had no idea who was or wasn’t present and accounted for.

The best moments occurred in the scene where Biblical character Sarah, age eighty-plus, was supposed to call her husband, Jacob, age ninety-plus, with the news that she was pregnant. Unfortunately, too many campers were milling about in the wings on Stage Left and made it impossible for Sarah and her walker to get through in time for her entrance. Jacob had dawdled on Stage Right for her as long as he possibly could and finally accepted that he had no choice but to do the scene alone. He was going to have to ad lib.

Looking at his cell phone, then at the audience, he exclaimed, "Oh look! A text message from Sarah! It says we’re going to have a baby!"

The music started up for their love duet and dance and, thinking quickly, our creative thespian sang adoringly to his walker, instead, and then waltzed around the stage with it, in a loving embrace. It was too bad that Rose, in the interest of finding out what had happened to Sarah, had left her seat between the Drama Director and me because we were convinced she would have loved this hysterical theme-and-variation of her play.

With just a one-second blackout –no curtain– the scene was then supposed to switch to ten years later, with Sarah, in her kitchen, lamenting on the phone with God about what a handful Isaac had become. Isaac, in turn, was supposed to buzz around her and act as annoying as possible. The problem, once again, was that Sarah was still nowhere to be found. Worse, the camper playing Isaac was ten in Real Life, too, and only doing this gig because his family had missed the enrollment deadline for soccer camp, and his mother said he had to do something all day. Our camp had openings, so that was that. He was begrudgingly marking time with us each day and rarely got where he was supposed to be at the right moment.

God deduced something was amiss, having just sat through Jacob’s love duet solo and concluded –rightfully so– that it must now be his turn to ad lib.

"I think I’ll call Sarah," he said, completely off-script now, hoping, hoping the Musical Director would follow his lead and play the ringtone on the keyboard. He did. He stopped after three rings and God continued, "Hi, Sarah; God here. I know you’re not home right now, but I wanted to leave you a message." Jacob and his walker, also completely off-script, hustled on stage now to catch the phone.

"God? God?! It’s Jacob. Sarah’s out at the moment. I need to talk to you about Isaac."

Suddenly, from Stage Right, Isaac appeared, looking totally baffled. He knew this all seemed vaguely like the scene he was used to acting out every day, and yet, at the same time, it was also terribly different. He decided he’d carry on until someone yelled at him and/or explained what he was really supposed to be doing. He zoomed his little balsa wood plane around Jacob’s face, as he’d been accustomed to doing around Sarah’s. Jacob had never been on stage for this scene before and had no idea what the dialogue was supposed to be. Enter God And Prompter.

"I bet you want to say Isaac’s name," he told Jacob.

"Isaac!" shouted Jacob.

"I bet you want to tell him to stop bugging you," said God And Prompter.

"Stop bugging me, Isaac!" echoed Jacob.

"I bet you want to—"

"I’ll handle this, God," said Jacob, astute enough to realize the scene was looking less amusing and more irretrievably stupid by the minute. "Isaac, I’m on the phone with God. Please go to your room." He pointed the way, and Isaac, totally weirded out by it all anyway, was more than happy to oblige. But with a priceless final flourish of obliviousness, he exited in the opposite direction of Jacob’s extended arm.

After the curtain call, the campers gathered in the theater seats for one last critique. Opening Night was now just three hours away. Rose, who always lavished grandmotherly warmth and praise and kindness on all her beloved campers, was livid and read them the riot act for a good 15 minutes. Ditto for the Music Director, Drama Director and me. The children sat there motionless and ashen.

Then, somewhere in the next hours, a miracle occurred. The production was absolutely flawless from beginning to end! No missed cues, no dropped lines, no obstructed entrances. Absolutely unbelievable. And, to this day, we four faculty members shake our head at its memory.

Lesson: Even in retrospect, there is no comfort or enjoyment in a near-miss.

NEXT TIME: Finale', Act I - leaving the JCC and beginning the next phase of this wonderful gig I call my career: teaching private voice, flute, and piano lessons.


Special thanks to Cammy Cards for the cover photo.
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© Copyright 2019. Rachelle Allen All rights reserved.
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