GREENWICH — Whether they are pretending to be animals with superpowers or singing songs about snail mail and cookies, these young actors and singers are learning important lessons about forming inclusive friendships.
For two weeks, Greenwich mom and music instructor Mindy Smith has led a full-day theater camp for kids of all ages and abilities at Bendheim Western Greenwich Civic Center. The five enrolled campers have practiced their singing, dancing, improvising and acting. But the most important lesson they learned is how to empathize.
Smith started this camp because most productions follow strict rehearsal schedules and can’t accommodate kids with behavioral and emotional needs.
“Kids who need theater the most can’t get it,” Smith said.
The camp runs 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with plenty of breaks outside to run around. (For these budding thespians, tag is just as important as rehearsal.) In the morning, students work on improvisation, and in the afternoon, they rehearse their musical, “A Year with Frog and Toad.”
The tiny cast has just five members: Lily Smith, 9, Kaitlyn Raiente, 11, Emily Elizabeth Cabanero, 10, Nicolas Abagge, 7 and intern John Aldous, 14. Kaitlyn and Lily are “Frog” and “Toad,” respectively, while the remaining three play a host of animal characters: snails, squirrels, a mouse, a mole and a turtle. One camper, Ananya Saraf, 8, is involved in improv classes in the morning.
Smith advertised the camp as inclusive of all children, regardless of needs or musical theater experience. With three staff and an intern to five campers, the kids — all of whom have been in at least one musical or play — benefit from one-on-one attention while staff members are protected from burn-out.
“Because we all come from education and mental health backgrounds, we all have high tolerance levels,” Smith said.
This year, Smith co-teaches with Karen Taveras, who has a master’s in drama therapy from New York University, and has help from Lauren Barragan, a college sophomore who has worked with Smith for the last six years at Hoff-Barthelson Music School’s Summer Arts Program in Scarsdale, N.Y.
“Drama teaches things that are therapeutic, like focus, empathy, taking turns and spontaneity, things we need to learn anyway,” Taveras said.
Parents of children without special needs enrolled their kids so they could have exposure to kids with different needs and abilities, Smith said.
Lily, Mindy’s adoptive daughter, has been excluded from some theater activities because of her behavioral special needs. Lily, however, is self-aware and open to her fellow campers, Mindy said. She remembered her daughter asked the other kids, “What’s your deal? Do you get mad or sad?”
“She’s not wrong,” Smith said. “We all have our stuff.”
The children can explore characters using their own experiences, or use roles to distance themselves from who they are at home or school, Taveras said.
When they are not rehearsing the musical or their original skit about animals with superpowers, campers play games. One game is Strong Wind Blows, where a caller says something about him or herself, and if the other players can relate, they run to the other end of the room.
“They’re learning about other people through play, they’re learning they can relate to others,” she said.
Taveras said she has seen a lot of growth over the last two weeks.
The kids are empathetic, she said, and they encourage each other to run scenes. The older campers take care of the younger ones and teach them about setting boundaries.
Barragan said Smith’s teaching has helped the kids bond.
“With Mindy, everyone’s feelings come first before the project,” she said. “There’s a lot more of an emphasis on time spent together, not just ‘A Year with Frog and Toad’ and improv,” she said.
The kids’ friendships have deepened and they’ve resolved conflicts through acting, Smith said.
“It’s only been seven days and there have been play dates outside camp,” Smith said.
The camp has boosted Lily’s confidence.
“She knows she sings well, but to know people are clapping for her? That’s huge,” her mother said.
John Aldous, 14, a cast member and intern for Smith, said his favorite part about the musical is the comedy: the snails take a year to deliver mail (snail mail) and there is one song devoted to cookies.
But friendship brings the musical and the camp together.
“The differences between Frog and Toad are vast, but they’re still friends,” he said.
Not just “Frog” and “Toad,” but all of the campers.
“The camp fosters friendships,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody, we are friends with everybody and it’s brought us closer.”
The other campers applauded when he finished.
Kaitlyn and Emily, rising middle schoolers, both agreed the musical lets them explore new roles and attitudes. Kaitlyn said she is happy to have the opportunity to play a happy character (her last role was a mean witch).
Emily gets to explore an attitude her parents would punish at home.
“I get to be a brat and make fun of Toad,” she said.
Editor’s note: The students will perform their musical Friday at 2 p.m. in Bendheim Western Greenwich Civic Center. Tickets can be reserved at https://missmindysmusic.com/. Mindy Smith will also lead acting classes at the center on Saturdays this fall.