Karen Johnson-Diamond, administrative director of Artstrek. (photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

Artstrek boosts students’ self-confidence while honing theatre skills

Youths gather at summer residential boot camp at RDC

If confidence can be taught, then 75 Alberta teenagers are learning how to throw their shoulders back this week at Artstrek.

The residential summer boot camp for theatre kids at Red Deer College has 13 and 14 year olds leaving their inhibitions behind while learning to dance the Charleston. They’re also making up songs and singing them out loud in front of instructors and peers.

Since the youths are studying the play Vimy, by Vern Thiessen, in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, they are also discovering their nation’s history, including the Aboriginal and French Canadian war effort.

But perhaps most importantly, “They find their people here. They find support, and friendships that last forever and ever,” said Karen Johnson-Diamond, Artstrek’s administrative director.

Johnson-Diamond loves the enthusiastic energy of the young people who come from across Alberta — even from B.C. and Saskatchewan — to take the one-week theatre training camps that continues with 15 and 16 year olds next week, and 17 and 18 year olds before wrapping for the season on July 29.“I think theatre kids are going to change the world!”

This is the 21st year Artstrek is based at Red Deer College, but the 57th year of a program that started in Drumheller and then moved across the province before settling at RDC because of its facilities and central location.

Levi Bowling, 14, of Edmonton, liked it so much last year, he came back: “I’m meeting all these new friends who like you for who you are. Everyone just accepts you — there’s no judging.”

Kelsie Blain, 14, of Bonnyville, loves the emotional punch of Vimy, about a First World War nurse who discovers her own lover has died in the trenches. “It might be a touchy subject, but we are finding a way of making it beautiful” through voice and movement exercises and student-written monologues, she said.

Since Thiessen’s script has only one female role, Johnson-Diamond said Artstrek commissioned the Edmonton playwright to write a companion one-act play, featuring the voices of other war nurses. Thiessen’s Bluebirds is now also being studied by the students.

“I tell the kids, ‘Do you know you are the first to read a new play written by a playwright who has (another) work opening on Broadway?’ ” said Johnson-Diamond, who believes Artstek provides the most professional theatre training for youths in the province. “A lot of our kids have gone on to be hired in professional shows.”

She’s particularly thrilled whenever she’s cast in a play with a former student. “I’ve even had one of my former students direct me!”

Ty Huber-Starks, 14, of Edmonton, came to Artstrek on his drama teacher’s recommendation. “She said it would be a life-changing experience,” he recalled — “and she was right!”

lmichelin@reddeeradvocate.com

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