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Theater camp leader: She’s got cure for kids’ shyness

May 13, 2019

Next month’s local cabaret camp program, “How To Eat Like A Child: And Other Lessons In Not Being A Grown-Up,” can trace its roots to Deer Park’s Art Park Players, where camp director Shannon Nichols blossomed as a 5-year-old.

“We had just moved here, and I didn’t know anyone; I had no friends,” recalled the 2010 graduate of Deer Park High School. “Every activity my mother tried, I would scream and cry and not want her to leave.”

Tennis, gymnastics and art camps failed before Nichols’ mother enrolled her in an Art Park Players summer camp in 1999.

“They let us walk on stage, and I was sold,” said Nichols, now 27. “It was a done deal.”

At age 10, the daughter of Gary and Cindy Nichols landed the breakthrough role of precocious Lucy McFadden in Neil Simon’s “The Goodbye Girl” at the playhouse.

While in high school, Nichols began teaching drama classes at Art Park Players, which gave her the goods to draw on when she joined Pitch Me This, a Houston-based production company, in 2015. Nichols suggested that the fledgling group of young artists add a kids’ program to its menu of musical-theater services, and PMT Young Artist Series, also known as YAS!, was born as a youth-engagement initiative for students ages 6-18.

Tuition is $300 for June 3-7 and June 10-14 camps at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 18220 Upper Bay Road in Nassau Bay. For more information, email info@pitchmethis.com.

Many of the kids in YAS! camps remind Nichols of herself as a shy youngster.

“I see it every time,” she said.

“There’s always one or two in the mix who have never been on stage; they don’t know they’re about to meet the superstar in them. We love that. It’s why we do this. A camp is so much more than learning how to sing the right note. It builds confidence and you make new friends.”

A “cool thing” about YAS! is that students rehearse and perform with a live band, whereas most camps use prerecorded music tracks, Nichols said.

Art Park’s influence

Several members of the YAS! staff met in productions at Art Park Players.

For example, Nichols met her boyfriend, PMT founding artistic director Eduardo Guzman, when he served as music director for an Art Park Players fundraiser, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” in 2015.

In “Big Fish,” the next musical that was performed at Art Park Players, the couple met Monique VonDeylen of Friendswood, who became the music director for YAS! camps. Her son, Jonathan, 18, will play keyboard for “How To Eat Like a Child” campers.

Angela Hendrickson of Deer Park is the camp program’s choreographer.

Serving as the students’ vocal coach will be Sophia Saenz, a former classmate of Guzman’s at South Houston High School.

The camps’ acting coach is Jonathan Teverbaugh of Houston.

YAS! camps began in the Bay Area, but following next month’s camps in Nassau Bay, the group will host another “How To Eat Like a Child” camp June 17-21 in the Midtown neighborhood of Houston.

“How To Eat Like A Child” is a stage musical that’s based on a 1981 TV special that was adapted from a best-selling book by Delia Ephron.

YAS! will return to Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in early July for tryouts and rehearsals for the group’s summer musical, “Into the Woods JR.,” with performances July 26-27.

For further information about YAS! and PMT camps, productions and services, call 832-516-9167 or visit www.pitchmethis.com.

Don Maines is a freelance writer who can be reached at donmaines@att.net