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Artpark delivers fame to students Not quite so famous students from across the region get an opportunity to shine

Pascal Frisina made his way along the dimly-lit apron of Artpark's Mainstage Theater, speaking in a reassuring tone to the group of young people lying on the wooden floor.

"I want you to picture, inside of your bodies, a very cold ball. It's freezing cold, and it's sitting right around your belly-button right now. I want you to feel this cold ball picture it traveling down your right leg, through your hip, through your thigh, through your knee, down your calf and your ankle, through your toes. It should cool you down, it should feel refreshing."

Though the exercise seemed akin to something in a yoga or meditation class, it is actually just a ritual that Frisina, the 33-year old director of Artpark's Fame: The Musical Theater Camp, likes to do at the end of rehearsals to "cool down."

After a full first day of singing, dancing and reciting lines, the drill seemed to be just what the assembled group of aspiring thespians needed.

As Frisina directed the students to imagine the cold ball returning slowly back up their leg and then down the other, oohs, aahs and assorted giggles could be heard. After the ball made its way up the body, past the jaw and behind the eyes, Frisina said, "I want you to visually picture yourself shooting the ball out of the top of your head. I want the ball to leave your body, that cold feeling should go right out the top."

With audible gasps, the students complied and Frisina urged the group to remain quiet as they began to share the sensations that their fertile imaginations helped create.

Frisina, who was born in Buffalo and attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, has learned many techniques to share with campers during his career in theater. After dabbling in sports, he discovered a natural inclination toward musical theater when he was forced to audition, along with all the other students, as a requirement for a music class. He landed a lead role in the school's production of "Carousel", and was encouraged to pursue acting by director Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, who recognized his ability and urged him to "go for it."

"I remember that first moment of applause," Frisina said, "when I realized that someone out there appreciated what I did. I saw that it was a community thing. I was giving to the community and the community was giving it back to me. I realized that was what I wanted to do."

Several productions later, Frisina found himself applying to Niagara University, to study theater as well as political science, because his father urged him to "have something to fall back on."

After earning a degree in theater studies, Frisina moved to New York City for eight years, performing in numerous productions.

He eventually returned to the Western New York theater scene, starting a family, and becoming the drama instructor and director at St. Joe's. Having been involved in more than 15 productions at Artpark in the past 12 years, Frisina was pleasantly surprised, but not shocked, when he was asked to direct this year's theater camp.

The modern-day iteration of Artpark's theater camp began in 2007, in conjunction with the production of Elton John's "Aida." Niagara University professor Doug Zschiegner was the director for the first two years of the camp, which has grown in size each year and now has a waiting list for admission.

The camp runs for one week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and campers range in age from 9 to 15.

The cost for the week is $250, and in addition to putting on a performance on Friday for family and friends, the campers get to meet and work with the cast of whatever production is going on that summer at Artpark, in this case, "Fame: The Musical." The campers were treated to a matinee performance of the show on Aug. 18.

In addition to Frisina, the 38 campers received guidance from three other instructors:

Assistant director Toni Dentico, a lifelong dancer who previously worked at the Academy of Theatre Arts in Williamsville.

Dance instructor Lauren Green, a dancer and choreographer who earned her BFA in Dance at the University at Buffalo and went on to work with the Lehrer Dance company.

Jason Bravo, a pianist and vocal coach who was also the music director for the Artpark production of "Fame."

Although the instructors each had considerable experience teaching, the Artpark Summer Theater Camp was a new challenge for the group. Many of the campers in attendance had been coming to the camp for several years, and Frisina said he believed that the new teaching staff helped to energize the students with a "new vision."

"A lot of the parents commented that 'My kid's been in this for five years and they came home every night and talked about it this year, and they weren't in the past,' " he said.

Coming into this year's camp as the new director, Frisina said he was surprised by the dedication of the students.

Understanding the business better was particularly important to campers with long-term professional aspirations.

"I do want to be famous. I want to be on Broadway someday," said Taylor Tedesco, 14, of Niagara Falls. "I definitely learned a lot of things at this camp."

Selina Iozzo, 14, of Lewiston, who also has been coming to the camp for four years, said she was sad that this was her last year.

"I've learned so much here, acting tips, like feeling the moment, stuff like that," she said Iozzo.

Lindsy Clark, 14, of North Tonawanda, said the Artpark camp was more "laid-back" than other theater camps she has attended. "Not as in, like, workwise," stressed Clark. "But it's just a really comfortable feeling environment. It gives me confidence to go out there and be myself."

After a week of daily rehearsals in which they acted scenes, danced and sang songs from four different shows -- "A Chorus Line," "Grease," "High School Musical" and "Fame," the campers put on a half-hour show for their families on Friday. The performance was greeted with enthusiastic applause, followed by tearful hugs and goodbyes in the courtyard outside.

While many of the older campers were sad they would not return next year, some of the new instructors felt they had such a positive experience that they would like to come back again.

"We were really hopeful that we could meet past expectations, and the parents would walk away feeling like their kids got a really good experience, and talking to some of them afterwards, I think we all feel pretty confident that it was successful," said assistant director Toni Dentico. "And the kids really had a good time, which makes you feel good. You spend a week with them and you feel like you imparted knowledge, that they come away with feeling like they got something out of it, which is really great."

According to dance instructor Lauren Green, the biggest challenge was "not knowing what to expect."

"Going into it, it was hard to prepare what I wanted to start out with because I had no idea what level the kids were going to be. I was really excited that even if some of the moves were harder for the kids, that they were up for the challenge, and they went home and practiced, and it turned out great."

Green said she would like to come back and do it again next year, if her schedule permits.

"I loved it, it was one of the most fun experiences I've ever had teaching," she said. "I'm crossing my fingers."

email: clewis@buffnews.com