Ethan Bakewell led his 15 fellow cast members to the front of the stage from the side door of Medford's Central High School auditorium.

Ethan Bakewell led his 15 fellow cast members to the front of the stage from the side door of Medford's Central High School auditorium.

"You all look lovely," director Patsy Meeker said as the 11- to 14-year-olds, dressed in colorful green, orange and purple costumes, lined up for a dress rehearsal of "Hi Ho, Robin Hood!"

Bakewell, 13, wiped away a bead of sweat as it dripped down the side of his cheek. He didn't know whether it was the black tights and the green Robin Hood costume mixed with the Medford heat or his anxiety for his first big role in a play after nine years with the Oregon Conservatory of Performing Arts.

The OCPA was created in 1998 in Medford by Jeff Tabler and Dennis Foster. Both local high school teachers at the time, they didn't think there was enough theater in the schools. So they started the camp as a way to offer kids after-school programs, summer camps and Saturday programs that would teach the ins and outs of the performing arts.

Most theaters strive to create elegant costumes and believable props. They strive to be recognized for their award-winning productions and actors. They strive to be the best.

But the OCPA strives simply to teach kids about the long process of learning the performing arts.

"We're not about the performance," said Tabler, who is both the co-founder and artistic director of the OCPA. "We try to teach them about the performing arts and about life, and it helps them grow as a person."

And the OCPA doesn't play it safe when teaching the kids life lessons.

In 2007, the camp performed a production of the musical "Quilt," inspired by memorial AIDS quilts, and brought in people who had AIDS to talk to the students. In 2009, the OCPA also performed "Oliver!," the story of an orphan boy, and cast a homeless boy in the show so he could talk about his life and what he had gone through.

"Oliver!" was also a fundraiser for the Maslow Project, which provides street outreach for homeless youths in Medford.

"Before we choose a production, I do extensive research," Tabler said. "I look for productions that have a theme. 'Go West,' which is the play we have the little kids do, teaches about the American Indian and cowboys."

More than 1,900 kids have participated in OCPA's summer program over its 12 years, Tabler said.

It's kids such as Bakewell and Kayla Hadley, 12, who keep that number so high.

"I feel so comfortable here," Bakewell said. "They have tryouts, but it's not like if you don't get a part you're out. There is something for everyone."

Hadley, who plays Robin Hood's love interest Maid Marian in the play, said the OCPA has made her more of a character in real life as well.

"It brought me out of my boring, stay-at-home life," she said. "I'm a very dramatic person outside of the OCPA, and the OCPA is somewhere I look forward to using that drama."

Not only do the kids return year after year to the OCPA's summer camp, but so do the teachers and staff. OCPA has four camps for students ranging in age from 7 to 19.

Tori Dewar, 20, was once a participant in the camp, but has been a stage manager and assistant at the OCPA since she was 16 years old.

"The people I work with keep me coming back every year," she said. "They have a sense of humor and realize the camp is all about the process."

She also said the kids' reactions to the big audiences are a reason for her annual returns.

The camp isn't just about learning how to act.

To get the kids ready for "Hi Ho, Robin Hood!," Director Meeker said, the camp brought in a fencer, taught tumbling, learned fight choreography and even gave archery instructions.

And when asked what keeps them returning to the OCPA, every staff member had the same answer.

"Them, the kids," Tabler said. "Just when I'm about to find a reason to be burned out, I see what happens on that stage, and I'm hooked again."

The OCPA's production of "Hi Ho, Robin Hood!" will take place at Central Medford High School at 12 and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, July 6. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for seniors and children 12 and under. For more information, see

Amanda Barker is a reporting intern with the Mail Tribune. Reach her at or 541-776-4368.