Haley Nelson and Jessica Harris rehearseLast week for her week-long theater camp, Jessica Harris had 24 children aged 5 to 12.  This week it is the older kids’ turn, featuring seven kids aged 12 to 14.

“We had a fabulous week at Carysbrook Performing Arts Center. Of the students who participated in last week’s camp, most had never set foot on stage before,” said Harris. “Students learned basic theater knowledge such as stage directions and projection, and also learned character development techniques and 11 songs to boot.”

Partnering with Harris is Haley Nelson, who is studying drama at George Mason University. Together, these two young women are an impressive pair when it comes to teaching kids about drama and the basics of theater. Harris, who started the Empowered Players as a teenager, shows an infinite passion and dedication to her craft and understands learning the basics early for success later on the stage.

It is amazing to watch this young woman, barely out of her teens, conduct a session with her students in an efficient, organized, direct and creative way, encouraging imagination through writing and improvisation while learning about stage presence, expression, body movement and projection. Her teaching style resembles the Stanislavsky method, a system of training actors that includes preparation and rehearsal techniques. Harris’ approach is similar to Stanislavsky’s probing self-analysis and reflection, where the actor digs deep within; a methodology of psychological realism based on the experiences of the actor.

The students take direction well and jump right into writing and acting without hesitation. Harris has them writing their about their own experiences, feelings and emotions and translating that into a theater piece. The result is they learn the connection between telling a story and feeling it, and translating that to an audience.

“They are learning the motivation of the characters through the roles they create as well as the complexities of dramatic performance,” she said. “They will also perform songs, understanding the relationship between music and the dramatic art form.”
This week, this group of kids are writing autobiographies and acting them out with assistance from the other students. Harris’ critiques are encouraging, helping the student to see their strengths and weaknesses while polishing the performance for the finale. The students are as serious as Harris but have fun learning about writing, acting, blocking and directing. Through a series of exercises and team building, the elements come together as a whole.

One student named Lizzie read her monologue, which was part song lyrics and part story about how music affects her. She describes music as an emotion beyond the technical nature of G clefs, B flats and F sharps, and how an array of music plays a different role in her life and varying moods.
It may seem like an edgy approach compared to the old school method of handing a student a monologue from a well-known playwright, but Harris trains her students in the fundamentals of theater from their perspective. This more modern approach not only educates the students about theater and performance but helps them to understand a deeper part of themselves through performing.  
Harris’ partnership with the Fluvanna County Arts Council and the Persimmon Tree Players (PTP) has furthered her community outreach to children who might otherwise never have the experience of learning about the theater arts.

“We all had a wonderful time, and are so grateful for PTP’s support of our program. We could not have done it without them,” she said. Recently, PTP gave Empowered Players $500 for the summer program and vows to continue to support Harris and Empowered Players in the future.

Don’t miss the free performance of Shakesplosion on July 22 at 3 p.m. at the Carysbrook Performing Arts Center. Empowered Players will be performing all of Shakespeare’s plays in 80 minutes.