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At Clown Camp, Learning to Shed Inhibitions

Eli Stack was a trash can, sitting at the far end of the stage, his knees tucked in and his arms resting atop his head. Behind him, five other kids operated an imaginary fast-food restaurant.

“Welcome to McFatty’s,” one said. “How can we make you fat today?”

Two of them, customers, ordered absurd amounts of food, ate quickly and fed scraps to Eli. They ordered more. The assembly line began to move faster. The actors’ movements grew louder, more expressive. They began piling food en masse into Eli’s garbage can, stepping on his feet so he’d part his arms, to make room for debris. They ordered faster, ate faster, discarded faster.

Welcome to clown theater. Or, more specifically, Clown Camp, which ran last week at Hartland’s Damon Hall, giving kids ages 8 to 14 a chance to let loose, to tell simple stories through their own physicality.

And they did. After five days, 13 campers were undaunted by the thought of being silly in public, whether tromping around on the wood floor like a dinosaur or pretending to send a text message with the enthusiasm of, well, a young person sending a text message. On Friday of last week, they performed about 10 skits they had developed to an audience of friends, family and campers from the Hartland Recreation program.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a safe space,” said Jay Mead, one of the class’ two teachers, calling the camp a “lab.”

“We’re trying to get them to shed preconceptions.”

That was on the penultimate day of camp, when Mead and Michael Zerphy, both of Hartland, were adding funny moments and details to skits that the campers came up with themselves. The two skits that took up much of the three-hour session were the fast-food restaurant — Zerphy came up with the idea of picking up speed over time, a modern take on the classic chocolate factory assembly line scene from I Love Lucy — and a group dinner date hampered by technology.

Cue the pantomimed cell phones and lack of conversation. The imaginary spoonfuls of soup. The diner, Ellie Jacobson, choking on food and falling to the ground. The lack of interest from others. The text message sent from the ground while flailing and pleading for help. The friends alerted, electronically, to the nearby emergency.

At the Friday performance, the absurdity got laughs. But the moment at the end of the fast food sketch, where Eli, 11, takes in everybody’s garbage at once and puts on the best I-made-a-mistake face this side of Lucille Ball, got guffaws.

The idea of clown theatre, Zerphy said, is finding the humor in saying “hi,” in turning the mundane into the exciting without the benefit of wacky makeup or costumes. That’s where the camp’s miming angle comes into play. Without makeup or very many words, the kids had to rely entirely on outsized expressions and emotions.

“I felt like I’ve become a better actor,” said Sydney Read, 11, after the show. “I like to express my feelings.”

“I think it’s a fantastic program,” said her mom, Bettina, noting the dearth of summer arts opportunities compared to summer sports camps.

It began four years ago, a collaboration between Mead, a sculptor and artist with a puppetry and street theater background, and Zerphy, who has been clowning and miming around the world for decades. This year, the camp was funded by the Mt. Ascutney Prevention Partnership and Hartland Community Connections.

The grant money brought one obvious advantage: for those attending, the entire week only cost $20.

It also served to slightly tweak the program’s focus. In line with the prevention partnership’s mission, Mead and Zerphy made sure that the campers searched for positive lessons among the wacky humor.

To wit: One skit dealt with two performers who got kicked out of a volleyball game by more competitive teammates, who ultimately felt bad and allowed them back in. Another dramatized the Trojan Horse story, but then replayed it as the Peace Pony, which ended with three warriors hugging a guard. A dinner table skit cast campers as anti-social technophiles in the first half, but outgoing friends in the second.

Some skits, though, just embraced the silly. At one point during the performance, a camper holding a piano via a pulley accidently dropped it, flattening several others. But he soon realized they’d become attached to the wires, and pulled his rope until they were Riverdancing marionettes. He then let go of the rope to present the dancers to the audience. They fell back down.

The skit, like every other, came from the minds of the campers.

“I love to see the creativity that comes out of the kids,” Zerphy said. “I think it’s a really healthy thing to be able to express.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.