Shakespeare theater camp finds alternative stages after being displaced by floods

Chelsea Funnery staff are ready to prompt actors with lines during a

Chelsea Funnery staff are ready to prompt actors with lines during a "stumble through" reheasal of “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Chelsea school gym in Chelsea, Vt., on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. After being displaced from the Chelsea Town Hall following flooding, the two-week Shakespearean theater camp in its 23rd year, has found temporary rehearsal space at the Chelsea school and performance space at the Tunbridge school. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - James M. Patterson photos

Chelsea Funnery participants, from left, Kiki Kenyon, 17, of South Royalton, Silas Adkins-Hooke, 17, of Alexandria, Va., and Jesse Waters-Malone, 16, of Boston, massage their jaws and do vocal warmups before a rehearsal of “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Chelsea, Vt., school on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chelsea Funnery participants, from left, Kiki Kenyon, 17, of South Royalton, Silas Adkins-Hooke, 17, of Alexandria, Va., and Jesse Waters-Malone, 16, of Boston, massage their jaws and do vocal warmups before a rehearsal of “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Chelsea, Vt., school on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Silas Adkins-Hooke, 17, left, Sage Mills, 15, middle, and Seamus Hogan, 14, right, provide music for the masked ball during a rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing at the Chelsea, Vt., school, on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Silas Adkins-Hooke, 17, left, Sage Mills, 15, middle, and Seamus Hogan, 14, right, provide music for the masked ball during a rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing at the Chelsea, Vt., school, on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Tess Holbrook, head director at the Chelsea Funnery, tells the theater camp’s participants, including Sophie Sevi, 17, of Montpelier, left, and staff, including Lukina Andreyev, of Tivoli, N.Y., right, how to set up their temporary stage for a run through of Much Ado About Nothing at the Chelsea, Vt., school, on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The camp takes participants from an initial reading of a play’s script over the first two days through to a final performance in only two weeks. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Tess Holbrook, head director at the Chelsea Funnery, tells the theater camp’s participants, including Sophie Sevi, 17, of Montpelier, left, and staff, including Lukina Andreyev, of Tivoli, N.Y., right, how to set up their temporary stage for a run through of Much Ado About Nothing at the Chelsea, Vt., school, on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The camp takes participants from an initial reading of a play’s script over the first two days through to a final performance in only two weeks. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson photos

Addy Tucker, 14, of West Lebanon, holds her script while waiting for a scene she acts in during rehearsal at the Chelsea Funnery theater camp in Chelsea, Vt., on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The camp’s participants will perform William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Tunbridge school on Friday, July 21, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, July 22, at 7 p.m. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Addy Tucker, 14, of West Lebanon, holds her script while waiting for a scene she acts in during rehearsal at the Chelsea Funnery theater camp in Chelsea, Vt., on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The camp’s participants will perform William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Tunbridge school on Friday, July 21, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, July 22, at 7 p.m. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By CAOIMHE MARKEY

For the Valley News

Published: 07-19-2023 10:22 PM

CHELSEA — On Monday afternoon, nestled in a humble copse of trees to take advantage of a brief spell of good weather, campers in the Chelsea “Get Thee To The Funnery” Shakespeare Program were running lines. The annual two-week summer camp for kids ages 12 to 18 culminates in a brief production, just two performances, of a Shakespeare play.

Knots of participants flipped through this year’s scripts of “Much Ado About Nothing,” occasionally rushing to the school and back to retrieve instruments and overall looking quite at home on Chelsea’s South Common. A casual observer couldn’t tell that this was not the group’s usual rehearsal space.

Ordinarily, Funnery rehearsals take place in Chelsea Town Hall, and spill out onto the North Common, but last week staff were forced to change premises when the building’s basement was flooded. Director Tess Holbrook spoke to Principal Janet Cash from the Chelsea Public School, who allowed the camp to hold rehearsals at the school until the Town Hall recovered.

This image of day-to-day resilience reflects the small, grant- and donation-funded nature of the company. Much of the shoestring budget is spent on scholarships for campers, many of whom return each summer and remain loyal to the tight-knit community that the camp offers. Up to 30 teens attend each summer, a testament to its pay-what-you-can ethos.

A week after the flooding, summer sun streamed down into the grove where the group was busy rehearsing the Funnery’s slightly abridged version of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which they will perform Friday and Saturday behind Tunbridge Central School (or at White River Valley School in South Royalton in the event of bad weather). The air was alive with “haths,” “thees” and limbs flourishing in all directions as counselors encouraged campers to trust their physicality. This, Holbrook said, is one of the principles of the Funnery program.

“You should be able to portray your character just by acting,” she said. “We try not to use any props, and minimal costumes, and instead rely on the mind, the story and the body.”

Though Shakespeare plays have major and minor characters, everyone at the Funnery engages with the text. All roles have multiple actors, enabling every teen to try out the different emotions and characteristics that come with playing the complex roles in a Shakespeare play. All of this is geared toward building a sense of creative safety, the comfort of community and a real theatrical ensemble.

“We want to teach our campers to feel comfortable emoting within the safety net of a show.” said Holbrook, 31, who is in her sixth year as director of the program, which is in its 23rd year. She is a filmmaker, theater director and writer in her free time, and carries herself with the same bright and self-assured energy that is common among staff and campers.

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The effect a secure environment to express oneself has on a young person’s confidence is inestimable, Holbrook said.

“We had campers who didn’t want any roles at first and then found themselves wanting more and more lines,” she said. “Not everyone goes off to pursue theater but they will be engaged and involved in whatever they do.”

Studying theater and poetry in such a way improves analytical skills, leads to collaboration and heightens imagination. It is a valuable resource for teenagers struggling with self-esteem issues. Though many of the campers involved are local, some, like Jesse Waters-Malone, who is 16 and from Brookline, Mass., come a long way to go to the Funnery.

“Even though I’m from somewhere else, a lot of what brings me back is about the community. It’s special.” said Jesse, who has been coming to camp for nearly five years and whose favorite show to perform was last year’s “King Lear.”

When asked what’s next for the camp, Holbrook’s answer was short and firm: “Stability.”

The Funnery’s small budget, rotating staff, and reliance on grants and donations make it difficult to know if they will be active each summer.

Holbrook expressed interest in starting the Funnery youth program again, a session for elementary aged kids, in order to generate further revenue and increase the community’s reach. Many staff members, like Holbrook herself, attended the youth program, and she sees it as a way to keep the ball rolling.

While the continuation of the camp each summer is frequently unsure, a small but loyal band of campers keep it alive by coming back year after year. The power of this community, which Holbrook and her staff work so hard to keep sacred, is exactly what preserves the institution itself.

The Chelsea Funnery Shakespeare Program performs “Much Ado About Nothing” at 6 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday behind Tunbridge Central School, or at White River Valley School in South Royalton in the event of severe weather. Admission is by donation. For more information about the program, go to thechelseafunnery.com.

Caoimhe Markey is a freelance writer. She lives in Woodstock.