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Youth productions reveal stage talent of kids of all ages

For Tessa Buckley, summer means singing, dancing, acting and getting in touch with her "rough and tumble" side.The 15-year-old Ashland High School student stars as Annie in the Camelot Conservatory's youth production of "Annie Get Your Gun," with the first of six performances kicking off Thursday."I just love being on stage — acting, singing and dancing, and the feeling it gives me," said Buckley, who is one of 28 students, ages 8 to 17, in the musical. "My character is a lot different than I am."Classes and rehearsals for the show run weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for six weeks, as directors and instructors tackle the task of turning children with various acting abilities into adept stage performers capable of showcasing all of their talents at once."We have kids that have no experience, and we have kids in their teens that have done multiple shows," said director Rebecca Campbell.Campbell, who's a veteran director with Camelot and a social studies teacher at Crater High School, said that working with a wide range of ages and abilities can be challenging."We had more than half of our group this year put on their first pair of tap shoes," said Campbell. "The older ones that know more are able to help the younger ones along."Campbell said the program teaches the children theater manners, like how to behave during rehearsals and what to do on and off stage."I feel like I learn a lot," said Lillie Shepherd, 16, an ensemble member in the musical. "They always challenge me, and it's a lot of fun."Shepherd said she has taken advantage of the summer program five times, and values the opportunity because St. Mary's, where she attends school, doesn't have a large theater program."Annie Get Your Gun" is one of a handful of youth productions coming together across the Rogue Valley this summer.The Oregon Conservatory of Performing Arts is halfway through five theater day camps, including a 35-student production of "Summer Camp," a wacky musical in which most of the actors remain onstage throughout."Everybody is in everything," said Director Andrew Brock. "I'm exhausted. I'm working like a dog."Brock said that juggling 35 elementary-school-aged kids is a team effort, and he relies heavily on his musical director, stage manager and two high school "child-wrangler" apprentices who help keep everyone on task."This group started off squirrely, like they all do, but this group is getting better and better in terms of their focus," said Brock.The fact that the students are able to pull together a professional production in just three weeks is impressive, Brock said."It blows me away that these kids can reach down inside themselves . . . and put on this performance," he said.The OCPA holds its camp and final performance at Central Medford High School, utilizing the campus' large stage."We try to give them a positive, professional experience," said Brock.Hanby Middle School student Emme Herring said that performing a show at the Camelot will bring in a wider audience than school performances do."We're able to perform in a space where the whole public can see," said Herring, who is a member of the "Annie Get Your Gun" ensemble."I'm very excited," she said. "I do a lot of singing and a lot of dancing."Introducing children to the theater teaches them valuable life skills, said Kate Sullivan, co-director of the Ashland Children's Theater, which holds as many as 30 student performances each year."You're learning, listening, supporting your partner and we're teaching how to give focus," said Sullivan, who runs the theater with Eve Smyth.Smyth wrote "Fade to Black," a film noir comedy cast of 12- to 16-year-olds that runs Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 9-10, at the Ashland Community Center."We are wowed by how quickly they can pick it all up," said Sullivan.Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.

Aidan Brown, 9, on the left and Brady Gillaspie, 11, rehearse with Tessa Buckley, 15, star of Annie Get Your Gun at Camelot. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Bob Pennell