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Magical Lessons Inspire Young Artists

laurenwilliamscreativecalud.jpgFrom the indoor confines of gadgets and game systems, Camp Director Laura Hull rescues modern childhood from the sedentary life through Creative Cauldron’s three week camp “From the Seeds of Imagination: Magical, Mythical Plants.”

Creative Cauldron is a Falls Church-based arts education non-profit organization.

The second of two camps runs through Aug. 15, forging “a community of artists” – of children and staff – employing imagination and daily expeditions to foster in campers an understanding of plant life and a deeper appreciation of theatrical skills.

An artistic director with more than three decades experience and veteran Director of Communications of D.C. area theater troupe Arena Stage, Hull launched Creative Cauldron and its camps to bring children back outdoors, to explore and create fantasy worlds grounded in nature. “The connection between nature, science and art is very deep,” Hull said in an interview with the News-Press this week.

This summer, 150 children in the two camps used their new skills – “combining performance and visual arts” with an appreciation of nature. “Plants” will conclude with children staging a musical play on the last day.

“I think, OK, we’re largely doing what people would call children’s theater,” says Hull, who runs the camp along with five lead artistic producers and two junior counselors – including longtime colleagues Matthew Conner, an accomplished playwright, and Oran Sandel, joined by Lauren Williams.

“But we’re more,” says Hull, dismissing the notion “Plants” is any regular camp. “We’re going back to the essence of storytelling.”

That storytelling begins every weekday at 9 a.m. in the main hall of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, next to The State Theatre on Washington St. – a temporary home, Hull adds, as Creative Cauldron transitions next year from “vagabonds” to a permanent residence at Pearson Square on S. Maple Ave., Falls Church.

Situated in a “sharing circle,” children engage in storytelling, along with dance, song and show and tell – displaying their newfound skills to their fellow campers – a diverse crowd, too, with campers as young as 7-year-olds sitting beside teenagers.

matthewconner-creativecalud.jpgDespite age differences, the children mingle freely – and as only children can do early on a brisk summer morning, they are ebullient and loud.
“Ah-go!” comes a shout from Williams, rising from the circle. The children respond all together: “Ah-may!” Silence follows. “It’s a Ghanaian phrase,” says Hull, interpreting the camp’s audible method of discipline. “‘Are you here?’ ‘I’m here!’ We use it all the time.”
In the brief interlude, children finish sharing their tales, and Sandel assumes a position tangent to the circle holding a guitar. Sandel is a fellow veteran of Arena Stage and 23-year director of the troupe’s community engagement program, Life Stage. He calls the children’s attention to a possible instrumental accompaniment to their musical number, “Magical, Mythical Plants.”

Bo-Min Son, a sophomore music major from Boston University, joins Sandel with a cello, and the two perform as Conner and Williams lead the children through the song.

After several trials, the sharing circle adjourns and the energized children break into their respective age groups – the oldest form Weeds, and so on down the spectrum – Herbs, Flowers and, finally, Fruits and Vegetables.
Each group disperses to their next locations, some destined for the preferred outside, while after a brief exit, the Herbs repair back to the hall with Conner, who reads books to them from the camp’s portable library – a small, black rolling suitcase filled with diverse titles, from The Magic School Bus to popular children’s titles, with one erudite treatise entitled Empire of Plants.

Activities are varied throughout the morning, plant life literature being one facet of this camp’s busy agenda. Occasionally, Sandel brings samples of herbs from his home to exhibit before the sharing circle. The lessons are infectious, too; asked what she has learned thus far, one young, eager camper spouts off the peculiar history of bay leaves and a Roman emperor.

Meanwhile, Williams leads her coterie bound for a neighboring park – the “magic forest” in camp parlance. Children search for a “magic portal,” Hull says, escaping into a fantastic setting to enliven the imagination. “They say some magic words – we have a few of them – [then] pass through some trees, and that is when we see the fairies. A seed pod can be a home for a fairy.”
Additionally, Williams says they take the children to the library regularly “gathering factoids.”

In this way, Creative Cauldron fills the “blank canvas” afforded by the outdoors and the larger community, translating what children learn and imagine into a cohesive story line for the final performance.
The process behind the product, however, is what most concerns Hull and the producers. “As performers, we focus on a product; as teachers, we’re focused on a process,” Conner says to nods from his coworkers.

Understandably so, as the camp depends on improvisation, a technique acutely familiar to Hull and Sandel, and integral to crafting a performance out of the camp’s general “green” theme.

“[We] very much follow the metaphor of the cauldron. It’s a circle idea: you can have many leaders; everyone can add their ingredient, and we see what bubbles up,” says Hull.

The improvisational atmosphere allows for everyone to learn as well. Artistic producers “are catalysts,” Hull says, “but they’re just as much in a frame of learning.”
The artistic directors agree. “I can given back and receive; as an actor, I can learn,” Conner says, with Williams adding that Conner and Sandel have “taught me so much.” Sandel tempered his colleague’s praise: “We all learn from each other, it’s called ‘R and D’ – ‘Rip-off and Duplicate.'”

In a more serious tone, he describes the new way of thinking posed to children by the Arts Adventure experience. “They come into freedom, and they think it’s license,” Sandel says. “I find myself saying, it’s not school, take a chance, fail. It’s so alien to the school environment, the modality we’re in here.”

What’s more, it is a way of thinking “No Child Left Behind … left behind, scorned,” he says, criticizing the federal legislation for assigning the arts a mere “enrichment role.” Sandel disagrees. “They’re vital, like reading, writing and math.”

Visiting artists aid staff in facilitating the creative process, introducing children to a wide range of artistic skills. Hull points to earthen plant pots the children designed earlier; they intend to plant them later.creativecaludren-new.jpg
Likewise, the children create their own camp t-shirt design, in what Hull calls an “iconographic treatment of the theme,” using materials to represent memories from the three weeks.

Well equipped with artists, five lead art producers and two junior counselors, Hull still finds the children prove to be leaders, and perhaps even edgier creators.
“When we first started, we were very cautious,” says Hull, reminiscing about the camp’s first run in 2002. However, she recalls “the kids were several steps ahead of us,” and still are. “We listened to that sentiment; sometimes kids can be in your face.”

Sandel adds: “If they didn’t create it, they won’t buy [into] it.” Teenagers can be the most audacious creators, he says, noting the teenagers’ ironic “spin on things” and “a lot of whimsy laced with what we know about world.”

Shortly before the camp concluded for the afternoon field trip to Arlington’s Potomac Overlook Regional Park, where children roam the grounds and talk to naturalists, Hull had some campers rehearse a short scene from the final show. A tale of love and dangerous sunflowers skillfully presented by several children and junior counselors Eric Holl and Daynee Rosales, the piece incorporated music with lessons about plants and folklore.

Above all, learning, exploration and performances reveal a unique experience for children, as well as Creative Cauldron’s commitment to “giving artistic tools to kids” and providing community theater that is both “accessible and affordable.” Curtains rise on the Lubber Run stage for the children’s finale at noon this Friday, Aug. 15.

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