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Dramatic lessons: Duluth theater camp nurtures confidence in young actors

Alexis Franklin (left) and Sean Tucker, with Hillside Youth Theater, sing on Tuesday as they point to the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters star cluster, during a rehearsal for the group’s upcoming performance of “Constellation Revelation and the Big Space” at Myers-Wilkins Auditorium at East High School. The musical play blends mythology and science to teach about the stars. (Bob King / / 2
Drake Johnsrud (right), who plays an eye doctor, asks his patient, Zahra Cameron, how many Pleiades (a bright star cluster) she can see during rehearsal on Tuesday for “Constellation Revelation and the Big Space.” (Bob King / / 2

Samantha Laderman has been in two plays. She can’t remember the name of either.

But the confident, polished manner in which the 7-year-old (she turns

8 next month, she notes) talks about her experience in theater suggests that she has learned far more useful things during her time on stage.

“The arts seep into things that aren’t just

related to the theater space,” said Aliese Hoesel, production director for the Hillside Youth Theater Camp. “They’re getting confidence. It

carries with them.”

Hoesel is directing Samantha’s  latest project, “Constellation Revelation and the Big Space,” a musical comedy that

explores how various cultures in history have explained the significance of Ursa Major, the constellation that contains the Big Dipper.

“I’m Pluto,” Samantha  said of her role as the besmirched and formerly ninth planet from the sun. “I like the idea that I get to do a lot of actions and say a lot of lines.”

Samantha  is one of more than 50 East and Central Hillside students who have worked on the production Mondays through Thursdays since mid-June. The play opens to the public today with a 1 p.m. show inside the Myers-Wilkins Auditorium at Duluth East High School. There will be four additional performances later this week, including a 7 p.m. showing Thursday that seeks $15 donations to fund the continuation of the theater program.

Penned by Duluth playwright Jean Sramek, the show takes well-known songs like “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats and “Ring of Fire,” popularized by Johnny Cash, and injects them with space-themed lyrics.

“The songs she chooses to rewrite, they’re hilarious,” Hoesel said. “It’s fun. It’s a fun show.”

Sramek’s script follows a number of different cultures and focuses on how those groups attempted to explain what is sometimes called the “Larger Bear” in the night sky. In that same bear, people in Burma saw a crustacean. People in Finland saw a trap used to catch salmon. And people in South Korea saw a symbol for characters in a regional fable.

“There’s a lot of folklore and mythology from various cultures during various times,” Hoesel said. “We’re looking at this constellation that connects all of us, and we are looking at the same thing. The kids get a chance to see … that we can have such a drastically different interpretation of what the same object is.”

Tommy Kishida, 10, plays a fashion show announcer who provides hammed-up commentary as the different “planets” of our solar system walk down a runway. It’s his first play, he said, but he’s not nervous.

“I’ve done big singing concerts in choir,” he said through a smile. “I sang in front of 500 people once.”

Tommy  also is one of the only characters who doesn’t need to memorize his lines.

“He has flashcards because he has to say a lot of things,” Samantha  said. “I only have like four lines, so it’s pretty easy for me.”

The play is broken into four scenes, each with a largely different cast of kids.

Hoesel said the most difficult part of directing a production with 50 child actors is achieving a balance that will yield a quality show and also allow the kids to have fun.

“Teaching is all about flexibility more than anything,” Hoesel said. “This job in particular has really taught me that. There’s a lot of ‘just let it go,’ a go-with-it attitude. There are a lot of things in the staging I didn’t come up with. When we relinquish some of that, better things come about.”

Hoesel has help from production assistant Laura Hauschildt, one of several teenagers volunteering behind the scenes. Hauschildt, 18, was in the theater camp when she was little and is now in charge of working with kids — often one-on-one — to sort out any issues they are having with a particular line, song or dance number.

“A lot of the older kids — we’ve all grown up doing this camp,” Hauschildt said. “We’ve kind of grown up into a leadership role.”

Hauschildt said she didn’t previously know many of the kids she shared the stage with during her childhood, but they became friends over the course of the productions. She said she sees the same dynamic at work among the current cast.

“We watch out for each other,” she said. “By the end, it becomes kind of like a close-knit family.”

On top of singing and acting, kids get a chance to work on the set and costumes for an hour or two each day. They also were assigned research projects that covered different topics related to space.

“History, languages, mathematics — it’s all compounded in this art form,” Hoesel said. “There’s also an element of vulnerability that comes from being in theater. You’re expressing who you are through the guise of a character. I like to be able to help students hone that — to be honest with the world and themselves.”

Vulnerability is an apt descriptor of what Hauschildt said she felt when she first got up on stage 10 years ago.

“My first role, I was so shy they could hardly get me to say one line,” said Hauschildt, who is now involved with the theater program at East High School. “It took the whole six weeks to get me to say that one line.

“Camp has impacted my life. I actually want to go into something with kids, something with theater, because of it.”

Seven-year-old Samantha possesses a similar enthusiasm for the arts. She said she is excited for her parents to see the play and plans to take on bigger roles in future productions.

They may have exhibited radically different personalities during their first times on stage, but Hauschildt and Samantha are alike in one way: They’ve been hooked by theater.

“I was only 8,” Hauschildt said of the time she was too bashful to speak.

“I’m younger than you were,” Samantha  quipped.