Claiming their Independence

Imagine writing a show – every scene, every character, every song, every direction. Imagine doing all that at the age of eight or 14 or even 17. Sound tough? Well, it’s exactly what the kids in the Summerplay Theatre Project do every year here at USF. The project, sponsored through USF’s Educational Outreach, performed The Roots of Independence Saturday and Sunday at USF’s Theatre II. This summer’s show was the culmination of three weeks of work and classes in drama, dance and music-making.

This production, conceived by the participants, covers the different ways in which independence can be defined. Even the students have different opinions on the matter.

“Growing up and being able to live by yourself, that’s independence,” said Stephanie Halsted, 15, and a seven-year veteran of the Summerplay program.

“I think it’s a whole bunch of different things,” said 14-year-old Kim Blanck, who is participating for her third year. “This show’s all about learning and relating.”

And the show does teach the audience how to relate to all kinds of different people and how they relate to each other. Through a series of skits, monologues, dance and music scenes, approximately 50 participants told the stories of intolerance, fear, comfort and free thinking.

Starting with a monologue by 11-year-old Alex Edelman, the show began on a serious tone related to “thinking outside the box.” Edelman had a hard time being heard in the theater and could have used some projection help, but his message came through. None of history’s great ideas would have come to pass if philosophers and inventors had stayed “within” the box. Edelman also lent his musical talent to the show, playing the piano in a few scenes.

“This is definitely different than my school play,” he said afterwards. The entire show flowed well, although certain parts stood out more than others.

Several of the stronger skits of the show starred Kim Blanck as Bethany and Zak Dorn as Trevor. The two characters begin as kids, discussing their parents’, and therefore their own, different views on God and creation. Trevor’s mother taught him that humans evolved from apes, while Bethany’s family is devoutly religious. The two characters and their relationships grow through adolescence and their teen-age years.

When they are finally old enough to think for themselves, the two have a falling out and don’t speak to each other for years. The final scene involving these characters is Trevor’s funeral at which Bethany speaks, wondering when exactly it was that the two of them became “blind to acceptance.”

Zak Dorn as Trevor is at once child-like and rightly indignant as his beliefs are challenged. Blanck does an excellent job of transitioning from a young child to a teen-ager to an adult, and the chemistry between the two was comfortable and the most convincing of any in the show.

The most biting and relevant scene in the show was the political satire starring Halsted and eight other members of the ensemble. McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and Ford, along with the Olsen twins, were the butt of the jokes. The skit also took a poke at the overabundance of patriotism that has invaded the country since Sept. 11. For older audience members, this was one of the most enjoyable and sarcastic skits of the production.

Overall, the show was an amazing success for three weeks’ worth of work and the creativity and improvisation of the children involved.

Matthew Kish, a five-year veteran of the program said, “You don’t think about it until you’re actually doing it, but it takes a lot to write a show and figure out what the main scenes are going to be.”

The hard work was evident and it paid off. While the show did have some shining stars, all the kids should be proud of the hard work they have done and what they managed to accomplish in just three weeks.

But, perhaps the greatest success of the show is that it allows the program participants to practice what they preach. Very few summer camp programs allow the participants such control when planning its final outcome. Thanks to Jean Calandra, coordinator for the Summerplay Theatre Project and all the other creative people who work with her, the kids got to not only espouse free thinking and independence, they got to live it.