Theater workshop pulls them into love of the stage

July 28, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

Boisterously bouncing across the Apollo Civic Theatre stage, Princess Winnifred the Woebegone sings of her timid nature in a nasally, slightly shrill voice.

All around her, villagers and members of a royal court stare in amazement at her "reserved" nature, flying around the set with wild abandon.

She is - can't you tell - a bit shy.

Tearing through the song and subsequent scene, 15-year-old Chelsea Patthoff fills the royal shoes made famous by Carol Burnett in the Broadway production of "Once Upon A Mattress."


A comic retelling of "The Princess and the Pea," the musical tells the story of a mute king, a queen who decrees that none in the kingdom shall marry until the prince does, and the frantic search for a mate that yields the carefree, less than regal Winnifred.

"She's nothing like a princess," Chelsea says. "She's outgoing, she's pretty much the opposite. She's a tomboy, she swims the moat to get to the castle."

Decked out in shimmering renaissance finery, Chelsea and her castmates are knee-deep in a dress rehearsal on the eve of the show's Thursday premiere. The run through is the culmination of six weeks work by 50 children ages 8 to 18 during the 20th anniversary Youth Summer Workshop at the Martinsburg, W.Va., theater.

In its two-decade tenure, the workshop has presented shows as diverse as "The King and I," "The Wizard of Oz," "Guys and Dolls" and last year's presentation of "Cinderella." A matinee performance of "Mattress" begins at 2 this afternoon.

Begun in 1982 by a grant from the Aetna Insurance Foundation, the workshop peels back the curtain of live theater, providing practical experience in acting, lighting, sound ... every task required to bring the boards to glittery life.

"We want to pull kids away from video games and TV and movies and give them that love for stage experience," says co-producer Nancy White, the mother of two participants. "I think that's real important in today's society because there aren't a lot of outlets for live theater in this area."

Every weekday for the duration of the program, participants get together to prepare for opening night. Back for his second year, 11-year-old Andrew Ayers serves as The Jester, mouthpiece for a mute king.

"I'm just a big talker," he says. "I love talking."

In a spare moment Andrew and Gabrielle Tokach, 12, say the program is the ultimate way to spend a summer. Playing both a lady of the court and a wench, Gabrielle enjoys the opportunity to get swept away in a role completely different from anything she is used to.

"No, not at all," she says about trading in the experience. "A lot of kids don't get to do this sort of thing. A lot of kids go to camp and this is just different and I enjoy it."

Calling Winnifred her dream role, Chelsea has been hooked on the manic heroine since sixth grade when older sister Adria, a workshop veteran who is assistant director of "Mattress," brought home the soundtrack.

Not sold on theater as a career, Chelsea's nine years with the program have provided a fun backdrop for summer vacation. And just as she has fallen in love with Winnifred, she thinks the audience will adore lounging on this "Mattress."

"It's really comical and it's fairy taley, so it's good for little kids and it has some jokes only the adults will get," Chelsea says. "It's fun to perform and the audience goes away happy. If we put on a good production, at least."

As the Apollo stage rumbles to life with a seemingly endless stream of student actors mustering their best medieval spirit, White, the co-producer, says the magic of performance is the perfect encore to a successful six weeks.

"It's always fun. It's always challenging but it's always fun," White says. "It's six weeks of work, work, work but when you put those kids on stage and the orchestra begins you can't beat it."

If you go . . .


"Once Upon A Mattress," presented by the Apollo Civic Theatre Youth Summer Workshop

2 p.m.

Apollo Civic Theater

128 E. Martin St.

Martinsburg, W.Va.

Tickets cost $10 for students, $8 for students and seniors.

For tickets or information, call 1-304-263-6766.

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