? Acting camp at Sooner Theatre goes beyond spotlight

By David Weiss

pop writer

Outside the Sooner Theatre it's a sultry 95 degrees, the sun is shining and barely a cloud mars the blue sky. But within its historic walls, Jennifer Heavner-Baker and 30-plus teenagers determinedly toil to dance up a storm.

Daily rehearsals for the summer production of "Footloose" began July 11 and already the group has begun to move and work as one. The teens sing, step and spin in unison as Heavner-Baker counts out the beat to one of their many musical numbers.

For this production, Heavner-Baker isn't the only person in charge. This time, the kids also get to call the shots.

For the first year ever, Sooner Theatre offers a summer program aimed specifically at teenagers, aptly dubbed The Young Producers. Participants in the camp not only get to sing, dance and act on-stage but also get responsibilities involving stage managing, props and sets, marketing, choreography, costuming and directing scenes.

"These high schoolers are just on another level, and so I wanted to challenge them and offer them some hands-on insight into the real world," Heavner-Baker said. "I researched a lot of camps and talked to a lot of colleagues in order to come up with an idea that gives the kids a chance to do more than just get up and do a show. Now, they're getting to do it all."

Brianna Yort plays Ethel McCormack and helps market the show. She appreciates the new program.

"It's more mature and kind of based on what a high school production would be like, but we also get to do so much more on top of that. For instance," she pauses to reach into a folder and beamingly pull out a piece of paper, "I just designed a publicity poster last night."

Kirk Fortham performs as the Rev. Shaw Moore in addition to directing. He agrees that the new camp offers prospects high school shows do not.

"Even if you're on the tech team in a high school production, you don't really get to do everything," Fortham said. "The adults in charge will often come in and redo things. Those productions don't really offer all of these different opportunities, and that's not the way it is in the real world."

"This camp really helps you understand all the other aspects of theater," Lauren Rieger, who plays the character Ariel Moore and manages costumes, said, "not just singing and acting, but all of the responsibilities that have to be met in order for theater to function. It's also an excellent opportunity to get more experience and to be surrounded by really supportive people before diving into college theater."

Heavner-Baker feels the variety of responsibilities required by The Young Producers will do much to prepare Rieger and any other young thespians who plan to go into professional theater.

"There are so many jobs out there that let you stay involved in the fine arts, and it's important for kids to know that and to get some experience in those other options early on," Heavener-Baker said.

"After all," Fortham said, "how many people are really talented, the top of their class, and then they go into the profession and just get knocked to pieces? So many of them don't have other skills to fall back on."

However, the program is not just intended for veteran performers planning on going professional. It is also an effective way for inexperienced teens to get a feel for the craft. Kassie Carroll plays Vi Moore and also directs several scenes. She feels the camp's laid-back environment is one of its strongest qualities.

"It helps make theater feel a lot less threatening for many newcomers," Stephen Ibach, who plays Ren McCormack and helps choreograph dance numbers, said. He feels the camp's ability to appeal to experienced actors and amateurs is important because theater has something to offer everyone.

"Being on-stage gives you a chance both to become someone else and, at the same time, to learn more about who you are as a person," Ibach said. "It lets you attempt things that you didn't think you could do. In general, I think being in theater helps you become a stronger, more confident person."

Heavner-Baker agrees, adding one of the best parts of working in theater is getting to "watch how people grow and evolve."

"There is a hunger for theater in this town," she said, "and if the Sooner can feed even a small group, then I'll be happy to keep on doing this every summer."

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