Vignettes of Artstrek

Artstrek is a theatre camp for teenagers, run through Theatre Alberta at Red Deer College every July.  Today I had the opportunity to observe part of an Artstrek day, and I came away even more impressed by the program and the team than I had been beforehand.

A group of students tumbles out of a vocal-improvising class for a short break before the next session.  Some of them leap onto a bench in the hallway and start creating another song together.

A first-year Super (Super is short for Supervisor, the camp-counsellor equivalents of Artstrek, former campers who lead activities and support the teens through their camp week) tells me that she’s learned so much through Artstrek that she is now studying to be a drama teacher, and the Artstrek leaders are her role models.

Glenda Stirling, Artstrek Curriculum Director, shows the visitors the curriculum chart in the instructors’ office, so all the teachers can see on one wall what every class covers each day, which parts of the play texts they will be focusing on and what kinds of activities they’ll be doing.  This helps them make connections between classes and keep in touch with what the students need each day.

A  movement teacher gives her class lively warmup activities “Show us your sassiest pose! Your Toddlers & Tiaras smile!  Now the Charleston!” and then quietly gestures them into respectful listening for exercises evocative of movement in trench warfare.  The students shift gears immediately and follow the exercises with commitment and compassion that brings tears to my eyes.

In a design class, groups of students are given a few minutes to arrange props, set, lighting, and sound for an assigned scene of the play.  Each group then acts as audience for the other group’s creation, and responds to instructor questions like “Where is the focus of this scene?  What is the mood?  What has been happening?” and “Why did the groups make different choices?”

After lunch, students bus their cafeteria dishes and rush outside to play organized games with the Supers.  Super-Super Sarah (the Super-Supers are the lead supervisors, also acting as extra administrative helpers for the program) challenges the teenagers to pick up three pieces of litter each, and the resulting whirlwind scours the courtyard in a few minutes.  Then there are a few rounds of lost-and-found, reminders of which groups are heading to which classes next, and attendance-taking in small groups.  Nobody has cell phones out at all.

Acting class takes place on the main stage in the beautiful arts centre auditorium.  Exercises include everything from text work on a monologue with a partner, to (optional) playing with simulated vomit.

In another class, the students are given a series of exercises to work towards creating original monologues in the world of the play.  An instructor reminds them to trust the step-by-step process given, with idea-clustering, sense descriptions, and other stepping stones coming first.  While the students are writing, he sketches stepping stones in a river which look a little like Pac-Man ghosts.

A design teacher asks students how it felt to have awkward prop, set, and costume elements to deal with while reading dialogue.  Students comment that it’s distracting, yet also helps them to understand what their characters would be feeling.  The instructor relates this to the limitations of realism as a design choice.  I have never quite understood this – and now I do.

Every summer, the Artstrek curriculum team chooses a “play of study” to focus on – not to perform, but to use as a starting point for exercises in every aspect of theatre that summer.  The play of study might be a musical, a classical work like a Shakespeare play, or a contemporary work. Each week of the camp, from Exploration 1 for 12-14 year olds to Exploration 3 for 17-18 year olds, covers the same play, with age-appropriate exercises.  A student or an instructor who returns to the program for multiple years will get all new experiences.  Today I watched groups who were part of Exploration 2, kids around 15 or 16 years old, some of them at Artstrek for the first time and some who had been coming every summer since they finished Grade 7.

This year, Vern Thiessen’s play Vimy, about Canadian soldiers and a nurse at the Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917), is the Artstrek play of study.  As a companion piece, Thiessen also contributed an additional short play, Bluebirds, about Canadian nurses in World War I, to add more diversity of women’s experiences along with the characters in Vimy.  He wrote this play specifically as a commission for Artstrek 2017.  My paternal grandfather was in the Canadian Expeditionary Force Signal Corps.  He did not talk about his wartime experiences, but we believe he was at Vimy Ridge.  And today I learned about the frightening isolating agonizing experience of that war from Artstrek exercises in an unfurnished studio classroom, in ways that I did not grasp when I toured the restored trenches and the tidy monuments and cemeteries of the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site.  That was another demonstration, for me, of how realism isn’t necessarily the best or only way of sharing emotional truth.

Trench entrance at Vimy Ridge

Restored trench entrance at Vimy Ridge National Historic Site, July 2003. Sign says “Canadian Front Line”.

Over three hundred teenagers experience Artstrek every summer.  Kids whose families cannot afford the registration fee can request scholarship assistance.  The scholarship budget of $15,000 is still in need of donations to support this year’s campers, and you can make a tax-deductible contribution through CanadaHelps.

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