It's really a very fun program," assesses Griffin Weisman, soon-to-be sixth-grader at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. "It's such a good time, we don't really realize how hard we're working while we're getting our shows ready to go. Bravo camp is a good place to express yourself. It's my third year in this program. It's highly organized, well structured, and intensive. It's not just some playtime summer camp. It's serious."
Both Oak Park middle schools offer outstanding, enthusiastically supported programs that provide learning opportunities in the applied and performing arts all year long.
CAST, which stands for Communication Arts, Speech & Theater, at Julian Middle School was the first on the scene. A key thrust early on was to provide kids with the experience of working with professionals — directors, choreographers, and tech wizards.
BRAVO! is an acronym for the Band, Repertoire, Art, Vocal, and Orchestra. The fine arts department at Brooks provides learning opportunities in the arts all year long — workshops, concerts, assemblies, and musicals. "Bravo" is the summer musical theater program.
"The Bravo Performing Arts Academy," Artistic Director Tina Reynolds explains, "has 147 kids this summer who will make up three casts and one awesome crew. They will dance, sing and act in three hot tickets: Big Bad, Peter Pan, and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
The popular summer camp program provides rigorous, intense experience for the students, ranging from improvisational acting, costuming and theatrical make-up to script development, scenic design and dance.
Junior Bravo's production of Winnie the Pooh just kicked off their season with 55 fourth- and fifth-graders mounting this delightful half-hour show in three performances.
Egan Cait, seventh-grader at Brooks, says, "Bravo is such fun, but the best part of all of this is that we're not only learning a lot, expanding our skills, but we're also making new friends."
"It's more than just a theater camp," points out 13-year-old, home-schooled Henry Griffin. "This program encompasses all the arts, from set painting to tech. It's my third summer here and it's really good for me. It pushes me out of my comfort zone."
Bravo is currently involved in intensive rehearsals as its three shows are getting ready to open. Brooks Middle School is a veritable beehive of supervised activity. Every large space is full of students dancing, singing, painting, and rehearsing. Both onstage and backstage, every student is focused and busy. The group is gloriously diverse. And every one of the kids who chats with me offers articulate and enthusiastic opinions.
Aidan Lenehan, an eighth-grader at Brooks, says, "I tried out once in third grade, but didn't make it. But then I did get on board in sixth grade and have stuck with it. I like that you can be yourself — to really get into theater and enjoy this kind of work — and no one makes fun of you. I've made a lot of new friends. If you have energy and a spark of talent, they'll turn you into a performer. There's lots of dancing. Bravo always adds it to their shows or builds up the dancing portion, like in Little Mermaid last summer. We're here all day, which may sound difficult but you can't believe how fun it is. I think audiences this summer will really have fun with our shows. I'm Captain Hook in Peter Pan. There will actually be flying. The whole stage will be a pirate ship. And, of course, Big Bad is really going to be something special this summer."
Yes, characters will be flying — for the third summer in a row — on the Bravo stage.
"Bravo is always excited to give kids the opportunity to fly," says Reynolds.
Hannah Zeller, a former Bravo participant who acted at OPRF High School, a student at Aquinas College and the summer company manager of Bravo, explains, "We have 147 kids in the program in this, our 11th summer season. We have a terrific staff of 40 dedicated artists, such as Johnny Fiegel, working with the kids on improve, and Jolaine Orlin coaching their acting. Joe Ramsden is a film guy doing a 'making-of' video. One of the staff is John Clay III who was such a big hit as the lead of Les Miserables at the high school early this spring. Cameron Burgess does a great job pounding the vocals, designing the sound. It's a terrific collaborative effort on everyone's part. Bravo also provides the kids with the experience of singing with a live pit — five professional musicians.
"[With] three different casts and one crew," Zeller adds, "the biggest challenge is achieving the balance between getting the logistics down and focusing on each kid in the process. I want everyone onstage as much as possible. Students will be singing, dancing, and acting in all three of our exciting shows."
Zeller is directing Charlie Brown and had to make the intimate piece, written for six characters, work for 38 performers.
"So I expanded the cast to include a lot of other Peanuts characters Charles Schultz named in his cartoons but who were not in the original show," Zeller says. "There's a lot of ensemble work but every one of the actors has a name and an identity to develop. The show will feature wonderful music supported by a fantastic pit orchestra. It's a great show for the entire family."
"I'm Linus in Charlie Brown," says Griffin. "He's a really great character, very smart, you know, yet he sucks his thumb and still carries his blanket. Our Bravo shows are always hits. Usually they sell out."
Though each of the productions this summer sounds charming, Big Bad seems especially intriguing.
"This is the first summer ever for Bravo to introduce a straight play — as opposed to our musical offerings," Zeller explains. "Audiences will definitely enjoy Bravo's unique interpretation of the trial of the Big Bad Wolf." The Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison, provides a new off-site location for this original production.
"With so many talented kids auditioning, the solution was adding another show and moving down a few blocks as well," says Reynolds. "Bravo is excited about the expansion into the unique Madison Street Theater space."
"I play Pig Number 2 of the 3 Little Pigs," explains Weisman. "Each of the pigs is different. The first is named Ferris Squealer. I'm a Jewish pig with a New York accent. In the wolf's trial, I go on the stand and tell what the Big Bad Wolf has done to me. I don't want to say too much and spoil it. But let's just there is an interesting plot twist."
"Everyone in our community schools is invited to try out for Bravo," says Cait. "It's a lot of hard work, but you don't notice it since it's so much fun and the teachers are all wonderful. With every show, I improve my skills. It is a fairly long day. We arrive at 9 a.m., bring a lunch, and we're here till 3:30. But no one complains."