Thursday, June 13, 2024

Upper Valley Connection’s Theater Camp to bring magic with Disney’s “Aladdin”

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LEAVENWORTH – Upper Valley Connection’s Theater Camp is returning this year with a highly anticipated production of Disney’s “Aladdin” on June 21 and 22.

“This one is one we haven't done yet, and it's one that a lot of people, a lot of our actors, have requested over the years that we do,” said Director Mandi Wickline.

Theater Camp is Upper Valley Connection’s most anticipated, and arguably the most special, event of the year. For one week, approximately 40 people with special needs, from 12 years old to 60 years old, and 50 volunteers get together to practice and rehearse and perform a full theater production.

Preparation for the performance begins with a workshop in April, in which participants are introduced to line work, singing and dancing, as well as auditions. By May, actors receive their scripts and roles in order to have adequate time to learn their lines. 

“About a month before, our living room turns into a stage where I sit with a script and Curtis sings and dances and does his thing. It’s just too much fun,” said Linda Nielson, the parent of participant Curtis Nielson.

For Curtis, Theater Camp is the realization of a lifelong dream. At a young age, he developed a love for musical theater, inspired by watching his uncle perform on Broadway. However, living in Southern California for most of his life, he never had the opportunities to participate in theater, or even build a community of his own, until the Nielson’s moved to Leavenworth last year, when he enrolled in Theater Camp. At 47 years-old, he was finally getting the chance to be on stage. Over the week, his mother watched a side of him that had been dormant come out, and come alive.

“He got down on his knees, he looked at me and put his hands out. He said, “Mom, this is just like Broadway!” said Nielson. “He just felt like he had the chance to be on Broadway. It just made me cry. He was so happy.”

Creating this opportunity was the reason co-founder Terry Anderman decided to start Theater Camp nearly 20 years ago. The Andermans already created Upper Valley Connection as a way to organize activities for their son Daniel and the special needs community after exiting school. However, it was only offering sports at the time.

“Daniel went with us to a lot of his [brother’s] performances, and I thought, “Ok, he loves seeing his brother perform—let’s see if we can give him a chance at being onstage,” said Anderman.

Anderman recruited a theater friend to help her organize the first camp in 2005. They had one mic, basic costumes, and no idea if anyone would come to the first performance.

“We set up 200 chairs, hoping they would mostly get used. There were no tickets. It was all just by donation. People started showing up about an hour before show time…Pretty soon we were running all over that school looking for any available chairs we could find,” said Terry Anderman.

Theater Camp has become somewhat of a holiday week for the Andermans. Their eldest son Nick became the Music Director in the camp’s second year, and has made a point to come back for the role every year since, even traveling from as far as Egypt and England for the week.

“I see my family, my mom and dad and my brother, twice a year: over the holidays and during theater camp,” said Nick Anderman. “I love doing this. I look forward to it all year.”

Putting together a production in one week is no easy task, but it always comes together. Participants will hit the ground running when camp starts on June 16. During the first three days, actors and stagehands, along with volunteer shadows assisting participants, practice blocking, acting, and their choreography. They do one run through on Thursday and a dress rehearsal on Friday morning, before performing in front of a packed theater Friday night.

“The stagehands have their plates full, the actors have their plates full, and I as a director, I'm going, “Why did we choose this?!” And then it works, because theater is magic. And basically, we work really hard and have a lot of patience, and a lot of stick-to-it-ness, and it always comes together,” said Wickline.

The participants work tirelessly, rehearsing from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day. On Wednesday, energy starts to wane, emotions run high, and actors may struggle to hit their marks. By Friday however, opening night brings a new, electrifying energy.

“Many times I've seen people struggle to get a song right, to do it perfectly, or struggle to say their one or two lines that they've been assigned. And then on opening night, they do it. They just nail it. I think that's a function of the great crowds that we have and it's just a function of the process,” said Nick Anderman.

Each performance attracts roughly 700 audience members who become just as much a part of the experience as the cast and crew.

The shows are full of unexpected moments, such as “The Wizard of Oz,” when an actor playing the scarecrow veered off the yellow brick road and into the audience to say hi to someone they recognized, Wickline recalls. During a “Peter Pan” performance, the actor playing Wendy started crying as she sang a lullaby to Peter and the Lost Boys.

“It was just a very natural emotional response to the song and being on stage, and it was a very tender moment. It was just one of the most beautiful things I've seen on stage. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house,” said Wickline.

Disney’s “Aladdin” will open June 21 at 7 p.m. in Cascade High School Auditorium, followed by a matinee performance at 2 p.m. on Jun 22. Admission is by donation at the door.

“This is a place where everybody can be themselves and share their talents that they have and be included. That's so important for self esteem and feeling of belonging,” said Wickline.

Taylor Caldwell: 509-433-7276 or taylor@ward.media

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