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Shea's puts kids on Broadway Camp exposes youth to life in the theater

Camp Broadway changed Brian Johnson's life.

The 22-year-old Broadway actor was a Town of Tonawanda teenager when he attended the theater arts camp in 2001 and 2002 at Shea's Performing Arts Center.

"I grew up seeing shows at Shea's with my mom, and it was through Camp Broadway that I realized I could be serious about acting and that [the desire to do so] didn't need to go away when I went to college," Johnson said. He is currently in the ensemble cast of "Spring Awakening," a rock musical being staged at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

"Camp was a blast, and it was really great having it in Shea's. It was my first time being backstage at a professional theater, where I got to see how everything works."

Camp Broadway paid another dividend for Johnson: Two of the trainers told him about the theater program at New York University, where he is now enrolled and on his way toward a degree.

"Looking back, I owe a lot of what I now have to my experience at the camp," Johnson said.

The one-week summer theater camp returns to Shea's from July 9 to July 13 for children ages 10 to 17, regardless of acting, dancing and singing experience.

Camp Broadway began in New York City in 1995 before its founders decided to take the theater education program on the road like a touring Broadway show. Buffalo is one of 10 cities offering it this summer. Others include Detroit, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Providence.

The program provides instruction in voice, acting, movement and solo and ensemble singing, along with learning and rehearsing dialogue, musical numbers and dance routines.

On the last day, campers perform the Gypsy Showcase, a competition that requires them to collaborate in a musical project, and the Family Finale, in which they perform for family and friends.

Tony Parise, Camp Broadway's artistic director, said extra emphasis is placed on developing a proper work ethic.

"We're an ensemble-based camp, so we strive to get the kids working together in a common goal. They learn respect, responsibility, discipline and collaboration," Parise said.

Ten teachers instruct 100 students, who are divided by age.

Parise is no stranger to Broadway, having danced in the original "42nd Street," "Me and My Girl" and "The City of Angels." Neither are some of the other staff members, including the choreography and musical directors.

"We open the world of Broadway for these children," Parise said. "We conduct our rehearsals as if we were working with Broadway professionals. So in a sense, they are learning the language of Broadway."

The artistic director said having the grand Shea's stage to rehearse and perform on is a tremendous bonus.

"Some of the kids have seen shows on that very stage, and for them to be performing on the stage itself is a great opportunity, and a great thrill," Parise said.

Anthony C. Conte, Shea's president, has marveled at the progress he's observed campers make.

"The kids gather on a Monday morning at 8:30 who for the most part don't know each other, and by 4 o'clock Friday they've become a cohesive unit putting on a show that's pretty impressive," Conte said. "It's really incredible to see. It's one of the highlights of the year for me."

Conte said campers come from as far away as Jamestown and Rochester to the Buffalo camp, which is sponsored by First Niagara Bank.

Camp Broadway also holds auditions for young people in each of the cities in which it has a presence to perform in the Macy's Day parade. A handful went last year from Buffalo, Conte said.

Eliza Hayes Maher, a musical theater major at the University at Buffalo, attended Camp Broadway in the summer of 2001. She returns for a second year as a teaching assistant.

Maher says attending Camp Broadway while in middle school helped shape her career aspirations in theater.

"It was thrilling to be so young and have access to people who had worked on Broadway, and were prestigious [in their fields]," Maher said. "It let you see that [a career in acting] wasn't such a far reach if you really wanted it."

Of course, for many kids who have never sung or danced before, the biggest challenge could be as simple as overcoming the fear of embarrassment.

Parise said confidence building alone can be one of the camp's most important accomplishments.

"It's thrilling to see someone who feels they have no coordination to do a dance step on the first day dancing with total abandon on the last," Parise said.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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Camp Broadway is offered July 9 to July 13 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A limited number of scholarships are available by First Niagara Bank, with an application deadline of May 11. For more information on Camp Broadway, call 829-1152 or jfitzery@sheas.org.

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