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Theater camp challenges young actors

MIDDLEBURY — The Town Hall Theater’s “Young Company” is back for its third season and for the first time ever is capping its three-week acting and ensemble-building camp with not one, but two plays of a very different nature. The group on Monday, Aug. 19, will stage “Aladdin,” a Disney musical, and Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of “Antigone,” a classical Greek drama whose eponymous heroine is the incestuous lovechild of Oedipus and his mother.
THT Education Director Lindsay Pontius decided to lead the young actors company “in repertory” as a way to challenge them to delve into multiple texts and to promote both arms of the Town Hall Theater’s programming: musicals and the classics.
“I want to challenge them and I think they’re ready for it,” Pontius said. “They know they love musicals because that’s what they do in high school. They look forward to those, they have to work on it and hone those skills, because they’re going to have to use them there over the years. I feel that part of our job at Town Hall Theater is to work with music and work with dance, but I also come from a classical background. And I feel that it’s important to continue to train in the classical theater as well.”
The Young Company is open to all ages and this year has around two dozen youths ranging from 13 to 18.
“We’re doing really, really tricky plays,” Pontius said. “My idea was to just provide a boot camp of challenge and see them rise to it — and they are.”
The company-building process has been the bulk of the theater camp’s focus this summer. In the early days of camp, the young actors participated in a lot of group exercises, including improvisation and “trust falls” (where an actor closes his or her eyes and falls back into the waiting arms of their colleagues).
“We get really close, more and more throughout the weeks,” said  cast member Ethan Allred, 15.
As the short camp moved further into the rehearsal process, the company’s directors encouraged their young charges to bring emotional honesty and creativity to their roles.
“During the beginning of the process, especially for ‘Antigone,’ we talked a lot about the characters and what was going on with them and what they were getting at,” said Gianna Kiehl, 16, of Charlotte. She described a development process that is used by professional actors but occasionally forsaken at the community theater level, where learning lines and cues often can take the bulk of the director and actors’ focus.
Kiehl, who plays Antigone and minor characters in “Aladdin,” had been doing theater camps and classes since she was a child. During the past several years she has moved to community theater. She said she was impressed by the intensity of the Young Company experience.
“We’re focusing so much on building a company,” Kiehl said. “Building off each other and listening to each other and learning from each other, which is really different, but I think it’s perfect for this age group to do. I always think that the immersive experience seems to also have had a positive impact on the actors’ ability to flesh out the productions fully.
“I feel like I trust everyone here a lot, and it makes the kind of stumbling through dance numbers (in “Aladdin”) a lot of fun,” Kiehl said. “And in ‘Antigone,’ it’s crucial that you trust everyone you’re working with in these really dark scenes.”
Pontius hopes to reunite many of the Young Company’s members throughout the year, in various productions.
“They will continue to build,” she said.
Part of the fun, and the challenge, has been finding the parallels between the two plays, which are on the face of things so different from one another.
“It’s so spooky because I don’t think we realized (the similarities) when we picked these two particular plays,” said co-director Kendra Gratton. “Now, the company is finding new connections every day.”
And naysayers who question whether or not a group of teenagers can successfully pull off two back-to-back shows will simply have to come see them in action. They will stage “Aladdin” at 7 p.m. on Monday, followed by an intermission and then “Antigone.”
“I think that anyone can act, that a (company of teenagers) can first of all function,” Allred said. “Because the best actors are the ones being part of a show, not just trying to act, it’s just being part of a situation, and how you are in your presence and your presence of being. I find that a teenager can actually act better than an adult.
“It’s all a matter of the way you are, and your presence on the stage. How it affects you, and how you’re going to let it affect you.”
Kiehl echoed his sentiment.
“Teenagers bring a very specific kind of sincerity both to theater and to acting,” she said. “Once you’ve overcome the self-conscious thing we all have when we’re in our adolescent phase, at least speaking from my experience it’s a very healing experience … And for teenagers, this is like a really weird time in our lives, so for people to be doing theater at this time I think is brilliant.”

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