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Kids discover their inner actors at camp

Clayton Stephenson, for only a second, slips out of character and starts playfully wrapping himself in a stage curtain during a rehearsal.

The brief slip didn't get by the director's eyes.

“Are you Clayton, or are you Willy Wonka?” Kellie Brown says. “I don't see Willy Wonka right now.”

For 30 kids ages 7 to 15 from all around the area, the NoDa School of Arts offers a six-week crash course in the performing arts, culminating in a full show. This year, the group will perform “Willy Wonka Jr.”

For the kids, many of whom have little experience and don't have the money to go to other acting camps, it's a chance to join a group of others just like themselves.

“I'm around people doing the same thing that I like to do,” said Clayton, a ninth-grader at the Northwest School of the Arts. “I was really shy before I came here. When I came here, everybody welcomed me.”

As for many others, the show will serve as Clayton's first. After more than a month of rehearsing and practicing five days a week for five hours a day, though, the timidity is gone for many of the performers.

During one rehearsal last week, the kids projected their voices, danced confidently and asked Brown to critique their performance when they finished. Brown obliged by pointing out things they did well and things they need to improve.

“It's not a fun summer camp play kind of thing,” said Amanda Bullen, executive director and creator of the nonprofit NoDa School of Arts, which opened in 2005.

The summer camp costs $25,000, which covers professional show equipment such as lighting and lapel microphones. Grants, donations and money from past shows cover most of the costs. The kids pay between $100 and $300 to participate, and they take it seriously.

They have to memorize a one-minute monologue before getting accepted to the cast. Prominent roles change if a kid has to miss too many rehearsals for other commitments.

“Every year, we have kids saying, ‘I was supposed to go (on vacation), but now I can't,'” Brown said.

Not that they don't enjoy it. Eight-year-old Andrea Ellerby, who will play Charlie, spent last summer at a cheerleading camp. But she says she likes this summer better because of the chance to dance and perform.

And Brown's doing her best to mold a wide range of kids into performers in just two months.

After the same rehearsal last week, one girl said to Brown, “You said before that our performance was like trudging through mud. What do you think now?”

Brown didn't hesitate.

“Now, it's like trudging through water,” she said. “You've graduated from mud to water.”

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