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ArtsCool summer camp closes with musical: Ketchikan youth given a chance to hone their theater skills via FCP camp
Students from the ArtsCool program preview a musical number with vocals by Anne Paxton, center, during the 44th Annual Blueberry Arts Festival's “main stage extravaganza” early Saturday afternoon. Staff photo by Raegan Miller

Daily News Staff Writer

Every summer since 1997, Ketchikan youth interested in theater, art and music have the chance to be part of “ArtsCool,” a four-week summer camp hosted by First City Players that ends with a musical performance.

Created by Elizabeth Nelson, ArtsCool is for kids in third grade through high school. ArtsCool students in kindergarten through second grade perform in a separate, shorter show.

“It's a really sweet program,” Nelson said about ArtsCool in a recent interview with the Ketchikan Daily News.

Each year, the camp is split into morning and afternoon sessions – kids can choose to do both sessions, or pick between the two. In the morning session, kids have the chance to take classes in subjects such as art, videography, music theory, choreography, set design, costuming, stage makeup and improv. During the afternoon portion of the camp, preparations are made for the final production.

This year, ArtsCool will perform “Once Upon a Mattress,” a retelling of the fable “The Princess and the Pea.” The story follows a cast of medieval characters as they try to find a princess to marry Prince Dauntless the Drab. The catch is trying to find a bride who will both appease the prince's evil mother and pass various tests to determine her worthiness. Until such a princess is found, nobody in the kingdom is permitted to marry.

The show will open at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Ketchikan High School auditorium. There will be a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Saturday. Before the Saturday show, the younger ArtsCool group – performing under the name “The Pickled Pepper Picker Players” – will debut their short performance, based on Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

The first week of ArtsCool is spent auditioning for roles and becoming familiar with the play. The remaining three weeks of the camp are spent putting together sets and rehearsing for the final performance.

During the 44th Annual Blueberry Arts Festival on Saturday, the ArtsCool group performed four songs from the play with accompanying choreography. This included the “Spanish Panic” dance, and songs such as “Happily, Happily, Happily Ever After.”

“It's pretty fun,” said Killian Connolly, 13, after his performance at the festival. “You really get to know a lot of people.”

Connolly, who has been an ArtsCool student for five years, will portray Prince Dauntless the Drab in the production, although he originally auditioned for either the wizard or the jester.

“It's a little challenging, and a lot of fun,” Connolly said about his role.

Paige Avila, 14, will play Queen Aggravain, the mother of Prince Dauntless. The character's name is derived from her tendency to be both aggravating and vain throughout the story.

Avila doesn't relate to her character, as Avila believes that her own personality is very different from the queen. Avila described Queen Aggravain as “mean and villainous,” and said it was “difficult to bring out that side of her.”

“I've been building a lot of acting skills,” Avila said about working with the unfamiliar role.

Oliver Wutzke, 12, also believes his role is challenging him to expand on his acting skills. Wuntze, who has been an ArtsCool student for three years, will play the role of the king. In the play, the king is described as being unable to speak “until the mouse devours the hawk.”

Wutzke has taken to not speaking during practices in order to better develop his character.

“I think it's really fun to be the king because he is expressive in different ways I haven't acted before,” Wutzke explained.

Alongside Connolly, Avila and Wutzke, 13 other ArtsCool students will take on main roles for “Once Upon a Mattress.” This includes Anne Paxton as Princess Winnifred, Nyron Hull as the wizard, Wyatt Miller as Sir Harry, Christina Cordell as Lady Larken, Neila Urquhart as the minstrel, Chandler Reeve as the jester, Elaina Etten as Lucille, Kate Brown as Rowena, Lauralye Boor as Beatrice, Adeilyn Reeve as Harold, Julian Jackson as the first knight, Mason Avila as the second knight, and Aiden Eldridge as the third knight.

All other ArtsCool students involved in the play will perform as ensemble characters in various scenes throughout the show.

Nelson described the preparations for “Once Upon a Mattress” as very “kid-driven.”

“It's going to be really good, and there's going to be a bunch of amazing costumes,” Connolly said about the production. “A lot of hard work has gone into it.”