This article appeared in The Herald-Sun in 2012:

By Wes Platt

CHAPEL HILL – Seventeen children lay side by side on the floor of the dimly lit stage before lunch on Friday as teacher David McClutchey explained:

“We’re going to try to keep rhythm with our feet. Pretend your feet are hands and you’re clapping with your feet.”

The kids, students from the Durham and Chapel Hill areas, were participants in the Theatre Quest summer youth camp put on by Playmakers Repertory Company. They spent the week learning some basics of acting as they prepared to put on a show in which they acted out about 30 famous Shel Silverstein poems.

Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” started whistling through the speakers in the Kenan Theatre at UNC-Chapel Hill – the lead-in for their performance of Silverstein’s panicky “Whatif.”

Some sneakers spread apart and came together in time to the music. But some feet missed the beat.

“Guys, if you think about this, start with your feet open,” urged another teacher, DeeDee Batteast. “If you start with your feet straight up, you have to go down to go back up.”

Matthew Webb, a 12-year-old from Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill, suggested that it might help to clap a hand against a leg to keep in time.

“If that helps you get the beat, I’m all about it,” McClutchey said.

They tried again.

“Together, together, together,” he said. “Guys, you have no idea how cool that looks. That looks amazing.”

During the week leading up to their Friday afternoon performance, the students gathered in the Center for Dramatic Art to tackle the challenge of performing skits based on Silverstein’s poems about dragons and people eating whales and fantastic homework machines without any props.

“These poems are for kids,” said Isabelle Winans, 11, who attends Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill this fall. “It’s easier to act them out. They’re fun and goofy and weird.”

She’s never done much acting, she said, but she thought it was fun.

“My mom says I’m always really dramatic,” Isabelle said.

Another first-time performer, Gabrielle Scales, 11, comes from the Durham School of the Arts. Her older brother, Christian, has been an actor. Now she wants to see what’s so great about it.

“I’ve never done any real acting,” she said. “I wanted to try it out.”

The kids didn’t just read scripts or talk about acting theory, though. They also spent a lot of time playing games, such as The Thief and The Jewel (in which two players wear blindfolds and one swings a rolled newspaper to try to catch the other who is trying to stumble upon and grab the precious cup and escape from the circle before they’re hit).

Batteast, a graduate student at UNC who previously taught summer camps for girls, said, “Watching kids play is so informative as an actor. To see at what age you lose that sort of play. You want to capture that and try to be that free on stage.”

McClutchey, in his fourth year teaching the summer camp at UNC, agreed.

“They are fearless. They will try anything and they have no inhibitions at this age,” he said. “They have more energy than a pocket-sized atomic bomb. It’s our job to harness that energy and sculpt it and shape it.”

The workshops continue this summer, including a program for high school students who will perform the off-Broadway musical Urinetown in July. The Theatre Quest workshops cost $300 per week. For information, visit the website at playmakersrep.org/outreach/syc.