Drama Camp was started by Magic Circle regular Cheryl Capshaw in 2001, said camp director Nancy Ballantyne, who got involved the following year.
“Everyone who works on plays here has a passion for the theater, and young actors also have a passion,” Ballantyne said. “This is a place they can find an outlet for that.”
But performers need audiences, and Ballantyne urges everyone to attend the free performances by young drama campers on June 18 and June 25 at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., with a 7:30 p.m. performance by high school students on June 25.
Besides giving kids knowledge about playing roles, the Magic Circle Players have a vested interest in seeing young actors learn about how to behave as well as act during a production, Ballantyne said.
“We wanted to train young actors so that when we need them, they’re there,” she said. “And we have hard and fast rules about how to behave – they even have to sign a contract.”
Some of the drama camp kids could be cast for Oliver!, opening Sept. 3 as the first performance in the theater’s 51st season, she said, and many return to camp year after year.
Most little theater groups have no programs for children, Ballantyne said, and they don’t get a lot of roles because plays are not chosen on that basis. But there were roles for children in recent performances of My Fair Lady and Oklahoma!, which closes the theater’s 50th season next week.
The Magic Circle Players’ very first performance in 1959 was Green Grow the Lilacs, from which Oklahoma! was adapted. To commemorate the occasion of the first 25 years, Oklahoma! was performed in 1984 under the direction of Tricia Dickinson, who is also directing the current production.
The Magic Circle Players, started by former Chicago radio actress Bette Dustin Spiro, is one of the longest continuously performing troupes in the state. The troupe got a permanent home in 1974 with the construction of the Magic Circle Theater on South 12th Street.
The theater has been hugely successful over the years, and performances are often sold out before opening night.
The drama camp is also popular, with kids and parents lining up every mid-April for the 88 slots – and not all get in, Ballantyne said.
“I suspect it’s the kids who really want it most and who push their parents to get here early,” Ballantyne said.
But the play is the thing, and when the three groups of students start camp on June 14, for five straight days, from 9:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., they’ll be completely immersed in the world of the theater.
Drama camp kids are divided into groups of third through fifth graders, sixth through eight graders, and high school students, and they get right to work as soon as they get to the theater.
“On Monday is some teaching time and we have some kind of audition and get to know each other,” she said. “But by the noon hour we have cast the play, then get scripts and start costume fittings.”
On the second day, they learn to block the play and do a run-through.
“We go through and tell the actors where they are in the play at any given moment,” she said. “It’s intensive and time-consuming, but they learn the basics of all movements and position, so if you say, ‘up, left, center,’ they know where to go on the stage.”
Wednesday is for character development, and by the afternoon, the actors are “out of books” and have memorized their lines, Ballantyne said. Thursday means more rehearsals, finalizing costumes and props, and when the young actors arrive at the theater at 1 p.m. before Friday’s performance, they’re ready for costumes and makeup while stage crews check sound and lighting.
“It’s very fast and extremely intense, but I live for drama camp,” Ballantyne said.
The third-fifth graders will perform Sungura’s Feast, which Ballantyne adopted from a folk tale about a trickster hare, and the sixth-eighth graders will perform Bad Read at Clearwater, an original play by Ballantyne about outlaws trying to take over a small town.
The high school students will spend their week preparing an audition piece, either in duos or monologues, which they will perform on stage after a week of rehearsals.
Ballantyne says she hopes people in the community will come out to see the kids perform and witness the passion for theater they bring to the stage.
“It’s pure theater, with no egos, just bringing a play to life on the stage and wowing the audience on Friday night,” she said.