"101 Dalmatians KIDS" practice

Mason Willett, left, Sarah Reynolds, center, and Ursula Whiteley, right, rehearse scenes from "101 Dalmatians KIDS"  with other members of the ArtsCool junior camp on Friday at Kayhi. Staff photo by Sam Stockbridge

"ArtsCool," an annual youth theater camp organized by First City Players, is back for another year, offering local youth the chance to learn the ins and outs of theater and experience producing a show during summer vacation.

And this year, the camp will produce two live in-person shows, with the youngest participants producing curtain warming performances and being featured in the other shows.

"Last year we weren't able to do fully staged productions," FCP Executive Director Elizabeth Nelson told the Daily News during a Thursday afternoon phone interview. "We were just right in the thick of it. And nobody really knew, you know, as much as they do now about how to stay healthy and safe in the middle of the pandemic."

The young participants wear masks or face shields during the day, as a COVID-19 mitigation procedure.

Another staple of the ArtsCool program — a variety of youth theater classes — was not included in the program this year to keep indoor group sizes low, although Nelson said that she aimed to have that aspect of the program return next year.

"We really don't want anybody to get sick on our watch," Nelson said, noting that those mitigation measures are especially in place for the protection of kids under the age of 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.

ArtsCool is this year separated into three camps, based on the ages of the participants, Nelson explained. Each of the three groups will stage their own student-led, choreographed productions at the close of the program.  

Rising third-graders (meaning students who were in second grade this past school year, but will be in third grade this year) through rising sixth-graders are enrolled in the ArtsCool "junior camp" this year, Nelson estimated.

Classes for that age group began on July 6 and will run through July 30, culminating in performances of "101 Dalmatians KIDS" at the end of this month.

"We've been having a lot of fun so far," Nelson said about the group. "They're quick to learn and quick to play and we're just working on all the elements of putting a play together."

The junior company's performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on July 30 and 2:30 p.m. on July 31. All shows are set for the Ketchikan High School auditorium stage.

The ArtsCool senior camp includes rising seventh graders through rising 12th grade students, according to Nelson.

The senior camp is set to begin on July 19 and run through Aug. 14. At the end of the camp, there will be a musical production of "Matilda Jr." Compared to the junior camp, the senior campers work an extra half hour in order to develop a more in-depth final production. Performances of "Matilda Jr" are set for 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 13 and 2:30 p.m. Aug. 14.

"It's a little more complicated (of a) script; it's a little longer of a script," Nelson said about the senior camp. "A little more is expected of them. They'll have more technical elements that they'll be working with. As the kids get older, we give them more challenges."

ArtsCool also is holding a "littles camp" for kindergartners through second grade students. There are about 26 kids in the little camp, which this year starts on July 19 and runs through Aug. 14.

"Those kids are going to be puppies in '101 Dalmatians,' and then they also will be putting together their own little curtain warmer performance before the Saturday show of 'Matilda,'" Nelson said.

There will be three "littles camp" performances — set for 7:30 p.m. on July 30, 2:30 p.m. on July 31 and 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 14.

ArtsCool staff includes Elizabeth Nelson, productions director; Clare Bennett, junior camp choreographer and instructor; Deidra Nuss, music director; Tommy Varela-Kossak, costume/science design/technical diector; Stephen Varela-Kossak, scenic design director; Ashley Byler, littles camp instructor and choreographer; Dani Pratt, littles camp instructor and Andrea Short, junior camp intern.

Throughout her years working with the program —which she started in 1997 — Nelson has observed that different participants walk away with different lessons learned.

"There's kids who wouldn't miss a year," Nelson said. "There are kids who go on to study theater or performing arts in some way, or other kids who just go once and they had fun and then they go off and do something else."

Andrea Short, a Ketchikan High School graduate, is back as an intern and staff member this year, Nelson noted. Short began participating in ArtsCool as a camper when she was 9 years old.

Tommy Varela also is working with ArtsCool this summer. Varela, who started ArtsCool at the age of 8, is set to start teaching drama and technical theater at Kayhi this year.

And there's plenty to keep the campers busy during the days leading up to opening night.

"We (ArtsCool staff) try to make sure that there is always a mix of lots of games and lots of play time, as well as the focus of being on a show, which is a blast, but it's also really hard work," Nelson said. "There's a lot of discipline involving in any kind of performing arts and that's something we really highlight. But we also try to remember that it is summer vacation and make everything as fun as possible, as well. But for me, and most people, it's always the most fun if what you do is quality work."

Nelson said she couldn't put her finger on what she considers to be the best part of instructing the program.

"I mean, probably the coolest thing about our school is watching kids gain confidence in themselves and learn that they can do things that they didn't know they could do," she noted.

The Daily News also spoke with a handful of ArtsCool junior camp participants who were preparing for "101 Dalmatians KIDS" in the Kayhi auditorium on Friday morning.

Sarah Reynolds, a rising sixth-grader, is participating in the program for the first time this summer.

"I wanted to act for a long time, because I love watching TV and that kind of thing, and seeing people on stage is really cool," Reynolds said. "And the opportunity opened up and my mom was like, 'Hey, sure, something to do with your summer.'"

Reynolds plays the character of Cruella de Vil.

"It's really fun, because I get to be really dramatic and I'm really excited," she said.

Mason McRoberts, a rising third grader, has participated in ArtsCool for three years.

He's one of several campers portraying a puppy in the play.

McRoberts said he wasn't nervous for opening night "Because I've been in a play before."

He most enjoys the theater games that the students play throughout the day.

Five-time ArtsCool camper Ursula Whiteley plays the part of Jasper, one of Cruella de Vil's henchmen.

"I like it because I get to feel very important and I get to stand up on the stage," Whiteley explained.

Whiteley also enjoys working with others.

"I like that I can feel very proud of my other people that put together the play, and it just makes me smile a lot, and start laughing," she said.

Whiteley is a little bit nervous for opening night.

"I just tell myself don't be nervous," she said of handling that stage fright.

Mason Willett, 10, is a first-year ArtsCool participant, although he's acted in other plays. He plays the role of Horace.

Willett most enjoys "just doing all the scripts and learning how to be Horace."

"I've learned how to sing some songs and do some of my scripts," he said.

Fifth-grader Adelaide Michael has acted in other plays but had never participated in ArtsCool before this year.

One of Michael's plays was "The Night the Toys Came Alive," in which she played the role of a monkey.

In "101 Dalmatians KIDS," Michael plays the role of a dog catcher.

"I was a little bit upset when I didn't get the role of Cruella de Vil, but now I kind of like the dog catcher role," she said. "And I think part of the reason I like it a lot more is we got to write a backstory."