With lights shining on the stage, 7-year-old Claire Donoghue giggled with glee as she crawled across it on all fours last Thursday.
“I’m a unicorn!” Donoghue declared of the character she had just created during an improvisational theater class at Second Stage Amherst.
At the urging of Joe Blum, the class’s instructor, she then used her hand to make a “unicorn horn” while several other children in the class followed as part of an improvisational exercise, with laughter all around.
The class, along with other activities, was part of Summer Stage, a five-day camp that concluded Friday at the popular church-turned-arts venue on 2 Street in Amherst. In its fourth year, the summer flagship event drew 14 children ages 6 through 14 who immersed themselves in theater and a wide range of arts and crafts in the downstairs “art lab” under the direction of Maryellen Barron, art teacher at Amherst County High School.
Suny Monk, president of Second Stage Amherst, said the nonprofit looks for new ways during the camp to appeal to youth and allow them to tap into their artistic side for three hours each day.
“It’s controlled, creative chaos,” Monk said Thursday as the joyful shouts of children filled the one-time sanctuary of a former church, which now serves as a main meeting room. “We’re trying to cover all the arts and keep kids interested.”
The nonprofit plans to launch a film club in the fall for teenagers and is working with Amherst County Public Schools on that endeavor, according to Monk.
John Patteson, a member of Second Stage’s board of directors on hand during the summer camp’s festivities, said the more children who flock to Second Stage the more exposed adults are to a cultural resource that has a lot to offer all age groups.
“It’s an outreach to the people in the community,” Patteson said of Second Stage’s mission.
Blum, director of photography and cinematography at Sweet Briar College, said it took a few days to get the children warmed up and into the spirit of improvisation. He encouraged the creative flow of ideas as the children acted out several scenarios in a scene resembling the popular television show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” which centers on improvisational comedy.
He said the class focuses on “Yes, and..”, an improvisational practice in which a participant accepts what another participant says and expands on that line of thinking. Listening also is an important part of improvisation and children learn other effective communication techniques in fun ways, he said.
“Being silly is OK,” he said of the results.
In the art lab downstairs, children were busy Thursday coming up with colorful designs for T-shirts and other crafty ideas brought to life. Logan Lawhorne, 8, worked intently on his own vision of Bigfoot on a shirt while other shirts were splattered with images of the Batman logo and Spiderman, among other images.
One shirt said in painted colors: “What’s the best place ever? Second Stage?” with pink-colored hearts around it. Its creator, 8-year-old Maddie White, said she’s been to the camp two years now and enjoys soaking up the creative atmosphere.
She enjoys acting and the improvisational skills she learned — which she described as “really, really cool” — and said one project she especially enjoyed was turning a cardboard box into a dollhouse-like decoration she labeled “Maddie’s house.”
Margaret Ann White, a Second Stage supporter, volunteer and Maddie’s grandmother, said when she walks down the stairs and into the room she notices how quiet it is when kids are fully engrossed in their projects.
“It’s fascinating to watch them,” White said. “They’re all so busy, so concentrated on what they’re doing.”
Baron said the art lab class is a “maker place” concept where children create something different and use their imagination. It helps them develop basic skills, understand how things fit together and effectively use tools, she said.
“They’ve all thought of it themselves, so they can’t wait to get to it and don’t want to leave,” Baron said of the various exercises.
On a hot day in upper 90-degree weather with many county children in pools, Maddie seemed perfectly content creating her house of cardboard complete with hand-crafted chandeliers.
“If I could be anywhere I would choose this place,” Maddie said.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.