Caution: Artstrek leads into the woods

Fairy tales aren’t just kid’s stuff. The sometimes dark, cautionary stories often have important life lessons to impart — which makes Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods, a particularly appropriate theme for this year’s Artstrek.

Instructor Kimberley Denis leads Artstrek students in a group singing exercise for the Stephen Sondheim musical Into The Woods on the Red Deer College Arts Centre’s main stage.

Fairy tales aren’t just kid’s stuff.

The sometimes dark, cautionary stories often have important life lessons to impart — which makes Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods, a particularly appropriate theme for this year’s Artstrek.

The residential summer drama program at Red Deer College aims to teach young people all about acting, singing, playwriting, sound effects, props and other aspects of theatre and stagecraft.

Using Into the Woods as a reference point for classes and workshops, more than 140 teenagers from all over Alberta and as far as Whitehorse, Yukon, and Kelowna have been studying Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and other stories behind Sondheim’s adult fairy tale of a musical this week.

“It’s been incredibly challenging because there’s a lot of depth” to Into the Woods, said curriculum director Lynda Adams.

Not only does Sondheim write songs that would tax classically-trained singers, but there are heavy themes to this musical — such as the ideas of consequences resulting from certain actions, of being careful what you wish for, and that some relationships will inevitably lead to entanglements.

Characters in the musical do not live happily ever after — in fact, some don’t survive the second act, which is much darker than the first, said Adams.

“We see all the relationships becoming very human. It leads us to question: Are we meant to live happily ever after?”

Adams said general discussions around the musical’s plot, including the unpredictability of life and death, led one 15-year-old Artstrek student to become emotional.

The girl told Adams she felt bad because she’d argued with her mom just before leaving for the program. “She said she’d learned to think twice before saying something nasty to her mom,” said Adams, who believes this was a small epiphany. “I just thought wow . . . what a gift you received today.”

Students are learning many other lessons in supportive and energetic classroom environments — such as how to sing The Witch’s Rap from the show.

One male student, who apologized for his voice cracking during a singing round, got a nonchalant shrug from instructor Kimberley Denis, who responded, “It’s OK, voices crack. It happens.”

In another class, students were learning to use props, such as feathers and mattresses, to influence how they deliver lines of dialogue.

Small groups in Studio A at the RDC Arts Centre were using their own voices to create sounds — from ominous whispers of “I wish, I wish” to wind, rustling leaves and foot falls.

Other students were working on structuring their own original plays from a combination of fairy tales in a dramaturgy class. “I didn’t even know what dramaturgy was before,” confessed Artstrek student Rachel Bokenfohr, 13, of St. Albert, who loves every moment of Artstrek.

“I’ve learned so much, it’s ridiculous,” said Bokenfohr, who mentioned the program’s creative classes, such as vocal yoga, and the “great people” she’s met.

Jake Tkaczyk, 15, who lives on a farm in the Holden area, loves the vocal classes, but also appreciates the easy companionship of lively, like-minded young people. “There’s never a dull moment. You learn whatever you want, whether it’s design or directing, it’s kind of cool.

“And you are who you are in theatre,” said Tkaczyk. “You don’t have to be anyone in particular — you just fit in.”

Adams, who’s in her 20th year with the program, said Artstrek has some of the best theatre teachers around, including Edmonton-based actor and playwright Mieko Ouchi, whose work has been short-listed for the Governor General’s Literary Award and other prizes. Toronto-based choreographer Gerry Trentham is also part of this year’s curriculum team.

Now in its 49th year, Artstrek has come a long way since its inception.

Administrative director Daniel Hall said enrolment has grown hugely. For instance, the last time Into the Woods was chosen as an Artstrek theme was during an economic recession some 17 years ago. There weren’t enough students for two separate weeks of classes so they had to be combined.

This summer, as well as this week’s Exploration I classes for 13- to 15-year-olds, next week’s Exploration II program will feature some 156 students who are from 16 to 18 years old. Adams said both programs filled up a good two weeks before the early-bird deadline and have sizable waiting lists.

The inclusive cost — $490 for the younger set and $525 for the older students — reflects that Artstrek is not just a theatre camp. Hall said, “It’s a drama school where we teach really meaty stuff.”

Students, who eat and sleep at the college, will be showing the public what they’ve learned at free 10 a.m. performances at the RDC Arts Centre this Saturday, and also on Sunday, July 19.

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