Fifty energetic people, ages 7 to 17, just finished their three-week performance camp at the Performing Arts Training Academy based in Dallas, Pa. For that span I'm Coach Lonnie, in charge of acting. Camp founder and director Cari Tellis, a professor, voice specialist, and singer who also happens to be my daughter, is voice coach. Lauren Timek is choreographer; Coach Lauren instructs at a prominent dance studio and was recently a cheerleader for the New York Jets.
An original 2½-hour musical is cast in the first week, and, while classes and exercises continue, rehearsals for our performances begin. If you pass any group of these performers at any time, you should shout out, "What are we doing?" The immediate shout-back is, "Puttin' on a show!"
And they certainly do that. In two weeks they learn the words to 18 musical numbers, all new. Every scene is blocked, acted, sung, and choreographed. Did I mention we're talking about 50 unruly kids from ages 7 to 17?
This year's show, Just a Penny, regaled audiences with three performances over our final weekend. The typical parental reaction was, let's say, stunned: "I had no idea my daughter had that in her." "He never even got up in front of people, much less sang and danced." "No one in our family acts. What just happened?"
What happens does seem miraculous. Early on we tell our performers that what we are about to accomplish is impossible. Because that's what we do at camp — the impossible.
So, how do we make this happen? How do 50 rowdy and unsorted young sticks of dynamite explode in a cornucopia of acting, song, and dance that is highly structured and requires enormous discipline, sustained energy, and fierce focus?
The answer, and I'm warning you it seems way too simple, is: We expect it.
Watch Coach Lauren piece together a dance number. She says: "Do this." "Now this." "Now this." Before our eyes a choreographed piece emerges.
We usually just say here's what you do, sing this, say that. We rarely use terms such as you must or you have to or any form of the word can. Must and can suggest tentativeness, possibilities other than success. Such possibilities do not enter our consciousness and we bar them from transmission to our performers.
Call it the power of expectation. You look them in the eye, businesslike, and say, "Here's what is gonna happen," "Here's what you'll do." No one shows up to tell them they can't do it, or they shouldn't be able to do it, or it's beyond them. There's no one in the "PATAsphere" expressing the slightest doubt about their capabilities.
We use a lot of if-then sentences as opposed to ought constructs: "If you slow down, the audience will hear you clearly." "If you find your spot, the formation will be a V." "If you do this with your tongue, you will produce this sound." "If you believe what I'm saying, you'll be terrific out there."
Out there is where it finally happens. They take the stage unaccompanied, coach-less, with full accountability for what happens, for creating the magic that is theater. It is breathtaking to witness what these beautiful performers pull off just because everyone in their orbit simply shrugged their shoulders and expected it of them.
"My daughter never worked harder in her whole life, and yet she loved every minute of it," one parent marveled as her 10-year-old sobbed freely while parting from her campmates.
Ironic, I guess, but it has made me ask, Is any power greater for our youth than the power of expectation?