Taking a lead role in helping students explore their creativity, Jackson State University’s Department of Speech Communications and Theatre hosted “Camp Stars” from July 5-30.
According to research, a robust arts education in school enhances student outcomes in multiple ways: Standardized test scores go up, motivation and attendance improve, and dropout rates go down.
For the seventh year, the theater camp offered a rotating schedule of classes centered on acting, playwriting, music, dance and a design element. A total of 42 children were divided into two groups – ages 6-11 were classified as “the stars,” and ages 12-17 were called “the galaxy.”
With a youthful appearance and a petite stature, the camp’s acting coach, Jasmine Rivera, exuded a calm demeanor as the excited banter of children filled the air.
“I definitely think these programs need to continue. It’s exposing [students] to the arts, and we don’t appreciate the arts enough especially in the secondary school system,” said the JSU alum.
Rivera, who also teaches second grade at Sykes Elementary, explained that art is a practical learning tool. “The kids have to read their scripts, so they’re memorizing and expanding their mind. We build basic skills like teamwork, responsibility and leadership. Everyone here takes on a role of responsibility, even if it’s a small role they still have to be accountable,” she said.
The end of the camp culminated in two final productions, “Jack and the Wonder Beans” presented by “the stars” and “Five Fingers of Funk” featured “the galaxy.” Rivera, who directed the plays, said that the ultimate reward was watching students shed their inhibitions as they evolved from nervous recitations of their monologues to fearless performances in front of an audience.
As Rivera speaks, her love for children and acting is evident, and when a camper approaches her with a hug, she instantly returns the embrace without breaking the flow of conversation.
“I am really proud knowing how far they’ve come. I can literally see their growth as they go from being shy, and not really saying anything, to highlighting their lines inside their playbook and understanding stage left and stage right. They go through an entire process, and I think a lot of children need to understand what it takes to put on a play,” she said in a tone filled with admiration.
After her first day at camp, nine-year old Marley Shorts said she knew she wanted to return. “They will never give up on you. That’s what I like. They push you to be better, plus it’s fun. My dad even asked if I wanted to miss camp, and I told him, ‘No, I do not want to miss camp,’ ” she gushed.
Although JSU coordinator of Theatre Studies Dr. Nadia Bodie serves as the camp’s director, she is clear to credit Jackson State Professor and former department chair Dr. Mark Henderson as the camp’s founder and visionary.
Bodie explained that Henderson had a desire to share the purpose and the cultural progression of the University with the outside community.
“He wanted to draw a younger audience into that experience and not just for them to learn a skill set, but we understood that theater, as an art form, would help them build confidence, learn how to collaborate in small and large groups, meet deadlines, understand authority and all the things that the arts do for young minds,” said Bodi, who is also a professor.
Bodie’s niece, Myla Crawford, attended the camp, while visiting from Freeport, Bahamas, and characterized it as a “safe space” where kids are free to express themselves.
“Everyone is so nice, and it’s really, really fun. They help you every step of the way. I remember I hated to dance, because I thought I had two left feet, but, now, I’m doing some dance moves that some people can’t do,” she said.
Crawford goes on to state that the creative writing class provided her an opportunity to write from the heart, and she was able to overcome her timid nature. “They really got me out of my shell and my comfort zone. I can talk to everyone now; it’s really cool.”
Clyde Okojie, a JSU senior and theater major, attended the camp for three years before returning as a creative writing teacher. “I recently won a couple playwriting awards, and it was due to this camp; it sparked everything, so if I have the chance to spark another mind I want to be a part of that,” he said.
Describing one of his teaching methods, Okojie explained how he would write down random words and place them in a hat. Students would pick at least three words from out of the hat, and then they would devise a story using the words selected.
“Creativity is instrumental in reaching students. Sometimes teachers are too used to the curriculum, but they have to apply a new way of thinking. Even if you’re in the corporate world, you have to be creative about how you make money. You have to be creative about how you brand yourself. You can’t be the same as someone else – you have to be different,” he expressed.
A second-grader at Davis Magnet, Kristopher Gaylor, shared what he gained from his theater camp experience. “What I like about camp is the great teachers here. I learned dance, monologues and acting. Sometimes I want to be an actor, and sometimes I don’t.” Gaylor paused, then added: “I really want to be president of the United States.”
As the summer draws to a close and students prepare for the start of the fall term, Okojie seemed to sum up a subtle benefit of attending the JSU theater camp, saying: “When I came here years ago, I kind of felt like an outsider. I believed that there was no room in theater for people like me. They were not looking for people that looked like me. Coming to this camp made me realize that it doesn’t matter what skin you are in, it’s about being free and being who you are.”