June 22, 2008 — At Pistarckle Theater, when the lights go down in March on the last production of the season, the show is still not over. Out come the kid costumes and in troop the campers — not one of whom is singing "Kumbaya." No bonfires, no hiking, no swimming lessons. Pistarckle summer camp is all about stretching imaginations and confidence, as well as the occasional muscle during set building, as children aged eight to 18 take to the stage many for the very first time.
"My daughter loves it," said Kerstin McConnell, mother of 9-year-old Natalie, who performed for the first time in last summer's Pistarckle camp. "She'll hide behind me if I ask her to say hello to someone, but she's on stage doing comedy, singing opera, being a radio announcer, and her diction is loud and clear," McConnell said.
Natalie's newfound passion is a credit to the Pistarckle formula, which says that even the most reclusive child can blossom under the guidance of experienced instructors who demonstrate to children that the stage and the theater are safe places to be "yourself."
"If you give the child the tools in acting and in voice and in movement, then they're able to build a character different from themselves — 'I'm Willy Wonka,' not Joe or Cathy," said Nikki Emerich, the theater's founder.
This is her 11th year offering children across St. Thomas and St. John an opportunity to find the hidden artist within or to hone their diva drives. Some campers have performed in season productions, up to five staged annually at the Tillett Gardens theater. Others have barely thought about performing. Whatever their backgrounds — theater experience or not, financial wherewithal or not — Pistarckle is made accessible to children courtesy of public and private funding that fuels two camps each summer.
The first begins in June and spans six weeks where children not only act, but do whatever it takes to launch a full-blown public production.
"They do set design, sound design, light design and stage management — and they even do marketing," said Emerich. "They go to radio stations do interviews about the show and what they're learning."
This year's production, "Willy Wonka Jr.," is well under way and is based on the Roald Dahl classic, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Performances run from July 9-13.
Pistarckle's so-called Leadership Camp has yet to kick off, running from July 21 to Aug. 15 and focusing on developing life skills. Rather than a traditional play, kids create their own characters, scenes — anything they feel compelled to create — all around a common theme.
"This year, we're tracing the history and roots of hip-hop music, from African days to the present," said Emerich. "They can go on stage, write something themselves, costume it themselves, or they can be Janet Jackson doing hip-hop if they want."
The production camp costs $900, and the Leadership Camp is $75 weekly. Kids can come for any or all weeks. Emerich credits a slate of supporters for offsetting tuitions costs for both camps: the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, Globalvest, Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, VI Council on the Arts, Lana Vento Charitable Trust, along with public support from the Department of Education and the Virgin Islands government.
Anyone interested in learning more about the "Willy Wonka Jr." performance schedule or the upcoming Leadership Camp can call Pistarckle at 775-7877.
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