Magic of theater: Camp teaches acting — and mitzvot

"It's going to be loaded with education, whether or not the student knows it's going to happen," said Shannon Guggenheim, choreographer and marketing director for the National Jewish Theatre Festival, which is launching the summer conservatory. "It's using the theater as the medium to learn."

HaBimah! (the stage) will be offered on a rotating basis at six Bay Area synagogues from June 17 to Aug. 23. Each session culminates with performances of a musical called "Piece of the Puzzle," which uses song and comedy to explore Jewish history, beliefs and such mitzvot as tzedakah (charity), kedushah (holiness), and tikkun olam (healing the world).

"We set everything in a very fun, accessible way for kids," said Guggenheim, who helps run the theater company along with her husband, Scott, an actor and director; brother-in-law, Stephen Guggenheim, a cantor and opera singer; and Karen Kennan, a cantorial soloist. Jewish learning will be offered in a tangible and appealing way, she said.

The camp sessions are open to youngsters ages 7 to 15. Prior acting experience is not required. "Every student has a chance to shine," Shannon Guggenheim promises.

Hosting synagogues are Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos (June 17 to July 12), Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco (June 24 to July 19), Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City (July 1 to 26), Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland (July 16 to Aug. 9), Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco (July 23 to Aug. 16) and Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills (July 30 to Aug. 23).

In March, a cast of 36 youngsters from Beth Am staged the musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" as part of a youth theater program offered at the synagogue for the last four years by the Guggenheims. In the East Bay, they also ran a secular summer conservatory for youngsters called the California Theater Wing. Guggenheim said that program trained hundreds of youngsters over its seven years of operation ending in 1997.

The newest endeavor will offer classes in the same fundamentals of acting, dancing, singing and scene setting, but they will be infused with Jewish content, according to Guggenheim.

"It kind of answers the need for a student who wants a camp experience but also wants to do theater," she said.

Participants will have a chance to take elective courses in areas such as circus arts and stage makeup. Guggenheim said up to four guest artists will visit each site and offer workshops in specific techniques.

One popular elective, for instance, could be stage combat. "We're going to give them the techniques so it looks real without anyone getting hurt," said Guggenheim.

The camps will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, although Guggenheim said extended care may be offered depending on interest expressed by parents. Mornings typically will include classes in acting, voice, movement and staging while the afternoons will be spent in rehearsal, learning music and choreography, and playing theater games. On Fridays, campers will break into elective classes and enjoy presentations by guest artists, such as an actor who specializes in circus arts.

Another planned activity is a Maccabiah in which teams of campers participate in noncompetitive, performance-related games. Youngsters might play improvisation games, stage a relay race in which runners dress up in costume or are challenged to whistle "Hinei Ma Tov" after eating crackers smeared with peanut butter.

Friday activities will include Shabbat celebrations and barbecues.

"Piece of the Puzzle" is made up of Jewish-themed songs written by composer Craig Taubman. "We set it in a sort of clowning style [that includes] lots of physical comedy, lots of mime," Guggenheim said. Broken into sketches, the musical will showcase "lots of different characters in lots of different vignettes."

Guggenheim expects the program will draw both seasoned and new performers. "We're going to bring out the best in them."