Behind the Scenes of an Aloha Tradition

Director Downey watches the performance
Director Downey watches Friday night's performance.

Anne Downey, Department Head of Aloha’s Performing Arts Department, had just called a short break from rehearsals for this year’s show, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and the Hale, Aloha’s music building was quiet and almost empty. In two days, families and friends would arrive for Show Weekend and the back-to-back musical performances that have become a much anticipated and grand Aloha tradition. Downey gave the confident, matter-of-fact sense that she’d been through this nervous period before and that this year’s cast would be just fine. Still, she was now counting the remaining preparation in hours.

Some girls shuffled off to the main building to refill water bottles. Others retreated to shade under trees or on the porch. A heat wave was cresting over New England, spreading even as far north as Fairlee. Every door in the building stood wide open to welcome small gusts coming off Lake Morey or slight forest breezes. Downey waved her copy of the script like a thick fan and explained that after the break, the cast would do a complete run-through of the show. “We want them to see what they can do,” Downey said. “We have girls on lights, backstage, on stage. This is big-girl camp. Every girl plays an important role.”

Camel's head
Camel's head

Mia Melendy, wearing something that looked like footed pajamas in a rough tan fabric, unzipped to the waist, approached Downey. “I’m having trouble keeping my head on,” she said, showing the director a tall contraption of yellow burlap, twine, and felt — a camel’s head. Long yellow ribbons dangled below it. Downey, Mia, and one of the stage crew worked out a seviceable ribbon-tying sequence, and Mia walked off carefully, holding her new head high.

That night they’d do a second run-through in front of Aloha counselors, staff, and campers. “Tonight the energy level will go way up,” Downey said, with the predictive powers of someone who’s been putting up shows for years. And the ever-ticking internal clock ticked on: “Seven minutes to full dress!” she called out. Immediately, girls streamed through every door, pulling on costumes, carrying props, calling out questions or answers, and then disappeared behind stage. “Turn off the house lights,” Downey called. The show was back on.

Five teens in black dresses took their places on stage. Singly and together, they began the story in song:

Kira Farley as Joseph, with cast

Some folks dream of the wonders they’ll do
Before their time on this planet is through
Some just don’t have anything planned
They hide their hopes and their heads in the sand…

Joseph, played by Kira Farley, appeared, barefoot in shorts, singing “Any Dream Will Do.” She had followed her older sister to Aloha four years earlier, starting at Aloha Hive; last year, her first as an Aloha camper, she’d had a bit part in “Once Upon a Mattress,” in which her sister played the lead. Kira was invo

lved in drama as well back home, but she especially liked doing theater at Aloha. “I can focus on doing just this one thing,” she said. And she was having fun practicing her part everywhere she went at camp, back at her tent, on the docks, walking to and from meals.

Nine angels tromped down the middle of the aisle wearing white ankle socks and wings dusted with silver glitter. One of them was Bailey O’Donnell. She had a long list of roles in the play: angel, sheep, wife, dancer, be-bop dancer, screaming girl, adoring girl. It was her first year at Aloha; two of her cabin-mates had auditioned with her in the first week of camp and were also playing angels, sheep, and so forth. “It’s really amazing that I’m here,” Bailey said as the break was ending, tying back her red hair in preparation for donning her angel costume, “Because usually I have bad stage fright.”

Jacob, Joseph’s father, was being played by Jayne O’Dwyer. Jayne liked the community aspect of theater at Aloha. “We audition together,” she said, “we start practicing together every day, sharing scripts. It’s the best way to meet people.”

Stage left
Stage left

On stage, Jacob’s other sons acted out a classic case of sibling rivalry, with gusto. “We’re great guys, but no one seems to notice,” they sang. Some of the “sons” displayed peach-fuzz beards and smudgy soul patches. All displayed quite a lot of macho attitude, relishing the number of male parts, all of them going to girls.

The show rolled along through song after song, with Downey making adjustments on the fly and writing notes on a lined pad of paper. At one point, she called out, “Where are the Ishmaelites? What happened to the camel?” She called for the entrance music to start again, and Mia — the front half of the camel — sauntered slowly up the aisle behind the traders who would buy Joseph from his brothers.

Suzzy Bator returned to her spot alongside one wall out front, after handling the Ishmaelist problem. She had dubbed herself the show’s “stage chick.” “My mom said, ‘You have to be in the play,’” Suzzy said. “So I said stage crew.”

The run-through ended, and Downey and the other staff called the cast in and again turned off all the lights. Chatter, laughter, talking filled the darkened stage. Downey held up a hand, pen high. The theater quieted. “That was just great,” she said. “For your first time through, that was a great run-through. It’s going to be awesome.” She paused to let her words sink in. “I’ve got a lot of notes,” she continued…

MJ Parry makes a cameo appearance as a dancing cactus
MJ Parry makes a cameo appearance as a dancing cactus

And she talked about the need for angels to walk more quietly, to glide, as if they were angels, and the need for Joseph to find a pair of pants to wear, and for the camel to get into costume earlier, even in the unrelenting heat. Outside the day was still bright. The curtains flapped in a slight breeze. Downey came to the end of her list.  “Go over the top tonight,” she told them. “Your counselors will really love it. Rock the house.”

Someone announced that the lifeguards would stay on duty long enough for anyone who wanted to get in a quick swim. After that, the minutes would pass even more quickly: dinner, make-up, costume, curtain up. The audience for the run-through — and then the back-to-back real thing — wouldn’t appreciate all that was passing through these final minutes, but they’d sense the passage of years.

Someone asked Jayne, aka Jacob, if she thought she came back from camp a better actor. Her response was immediate: “I feel like I come back a better version of me.”

Elvis Presley helps save the day for poor Joseph.
Elvis Presley helps save the day for poor Joseph.

Author Kristen Laine, writes and blogs about environmental education, women’s issues and children in the outdoors.  After her graduation from Harvard, Kristen went west, and in between outdoor expeditions in the Seattle area, became “Outside Magazine Online’s” first editor.  Now on the east coast, Kristen lives with her husband and two children in Orange, New Hampshire, and when she’s not writing, can often be found rowing on the Connecticut River.