A Summer Onstage for WNY Youths: Jon Elston on What Makes Medaille’s Theatre Camp Unique
One of the most unique summer camp experiences happening this year in Western New York is the Medaille Summer Theatre (MST) Camp. Under the guidance of world-class theatre instructors Jon Elston and Bella Poynton, young theatre artists ages 12 to 17 will create and produce their own original, world-premiere plays. Running from July 9-27, MST is a creative and exciting way for youngsters to develop their creative gifts.
Elston, the co-founder of Road Less Traveled Productions, has been an adjunct instructor in Medaille’s Interdisciplinary Studies Department since fall 2016. Here, he discusses what makes MST so special, and why it should prove to be such a memorable experience for campers.
There are many summer camp options locally, and a few involving theatre arts. What makes MST stand out?
MST focuses on the individual interests and ambitions of our very unique students. Those students have the opportunity to write or devise their own original plays, play any kind of leading role they might imagine, and even direct and design their creations. In the process, they develop invaluable collaborative skills as they support other members of their ensemble in the development and production of their plays.
Other theatre camps in WNY follow the familiar “production” model, where students audition for and are cast in some abbreviated chestnut of a musical. This experience may in fact prepare them for academic or professional productions – but it doesn’t seem like it helps them develop their individual talents.
In contrast, the MST program only accepts about 15 each summer, and each student is invited to grab the spotlight. The program does culminate with a production — a 90-minute evening of original student work — but we focus on the process of empowering our students to create the evening that they want to see.
What kinds of character traits does MST help build in its campers?
Dedication, camaraderie, compassion, critical thinking and confidence are just a few of the characteristics that I have seen our students develop over the past five years in this program. We have a great track record for developing “veterans” of our program. Four of the students attending MST this summer will be participating in the program for their fifth year. As these students support one another in realizing each other’s visions, they naturally bond, and really develop a profound sense of community. Also, I get to enjoy watching each student’s personal evolution.
Campers discover how to think about their own work and the work of their peers, and to talk about that work in a kind and constructive manner. Young playwrights learn how to communicate their vision to the collaborators who will support that vision in production, and their collaborators learn how to offer that feedback in a gentle, supportive way that helps each student reach their goal. These are lessons that some artists don’t grasp until college, or until they are adults working in their field.
Describe a typical day at MST Camp.
In week one, we get to know new students while the veterans get reacquainted. We play games and the students respond to a serious of impromptu “flash challenges,” from which they often generate ideas for plays.
In week two, we keep generating ideas and each student identifies a project they want to focus on. They write and develop scripts, or they develop their ideas through improv and devising. We rehearse, and we have fun.
In week three, we turn up the heat, we rehearse like crazy and we bond. It culminates with a public performance of the original world premiere plays these students have created. The audience goes crazy for them!
You’ve been doing this now for a few years, although this is the first camp at Medaille. What’s the atmosphere like at the final show?
The atmosphere at the final show is exciting, but veteran students are rarely or never nervous. They are well-prepared and they are ready for anything. No matter what happens, campers learn to roll with it, stay calm and keep the audience engaged. These skills — agility, adaptability, coolness under pressure — can be used anywhere in their lives.
9 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, July 9-27, 2018
Final show at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 27
To register and for details on pricing, visit medaille.edu/medaille-summer-theatre-camp
Photo: Jon Elston (right) with veteran MST student Henry Chugh at a recent production; photo by Emily Becker.
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