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Theater camp nurtures friendships, dreams

June 27, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. -- They act, sing, write and produce from London to New York City, but what they have most in common are their roots.

It was at Totem Pole Playhouse's summer theater camp in the 1990s that a group of friends from the Tri-State area first fully discovered a love of drama. Now, the women have carved out careers in the arts.

"We're all recognized as young people in our profession, but we're nowhere near 'making it,'" Jessica Beck said.

Beck directs shows for London's Theatre 503. Her younger sister also is in Europe, writing a play about Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian tourist shot by the London Metropolitan Police in 2005.

Maggie Coleman writes musicals in New York City. Liz Carbonell has recorded some of Coleman's songs.

Jesse Barton is modeling in New York City.

Jenny Kreyl Shoeman teaches in the Philadelphia area, but returns to Totem Pole in the summer to direct the same camp she remembers fondly from her childhood.

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The women reunite at shows all over the world, but the woods off U.S. 30 is where they first bonded as children. Some went to summer camp with an already established fondness for the stage, while others initially enrolled against their will.

"My mom made me do the camp when I was 12," Beck recalled. "I hated it the first day."

But things changed on the second day, when the youths played a theater game called "Freeze." Beck uses that game and others learned at Totem Pole when she teaches workshops.

Coleman participated in the general camp and the musical theater camp when she was 16, then served as an assistant for several years.

"I would say that's where it really got started. ... That was the first experience I had in theater outside of high school, and it allowed me to take it more seriously," she said, saying it also was nice to meet other "theater geeks."

"I felt euphoric on the Totem Pole stage because at the time, it felt like I had landed on Broadway," Beck's sister, Sarah, said in an e-mail.

In the e-mail sent from London, Sarah Beck shared memories from "Romeo and Juliet" and "Twelfth Night" performances at Totem Pole. She now is working on the play about Menezes.

"I can't help but think the reason why I'm still working in theater now has something to do with Totem Pole. ... I'll never forget how thrilled I was to bite my thumb as Sampson (in 'Romeo and Juliet') on stage," Sarah Beck said.

Jessica Beck and Coleman became fast friends at camp and took home what they were learning.

"We'd dress up in dresses and do Shakespeare on the back porch," Jessica Beck said.

The 2009 camp started for 30 children last week. Although activities at this year's camp differ from 15 years ago, Kreyl Shoeman sees some of today's children forming the same early connections to theater she and her fellow campers did.

"It's a lot of fun and the kids are having a blast," said Kreyl Shoeman, who teaches at the Renaissance Academy, a fine arts charter school in the Philadelphia area.

Coleman, who has worked and studied in New York, Russia, London and Los Angeles, is getting ready for production meetings about an Andy Warhol-based show that debuted at Yale University. She also is doing lyrics for an adaptation of the 1930 movie "Blue Angel" starring Marlene Dietrich.

She first reconnected with Carbonell when both attended a graduate student's birthday party in New York City.

"It seems really funny we were in 'Cinderella' together in Chambersburg when we were young, and now 15 years later ..." Coleman mused, trailing off.

Coleman, who graduated from Saint Maria Goretti High School in 1997, said returning to Totem Pole Playhouse stirs up not only memories, but also inherent excitement about the stage.

Beck graduated from Saint James School in 2000. She oversees Theatre 503's "fearless new writing" projects, including the current one about the night before Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

Coleman's mother, Kate, is employed by The Herald-Mail. Jessica and Sarah Beck's mother, Marie, is a former Herald-Mail reporter.

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