BLOOMINGTON — When art imitates life, stage players can take some valuable lessons from their roles.

Middle school students participating in Illinois Wesleyan University’s Spotlight Camp are soaking up more than acting techniques as they prepare for “Creature Features: Modern Day Mutants.”

“They are learning to be part of a team. It’s not about hogging all the attention. You want the person next to you to shine as much as you want to shine,” said Cristen Susong, the play’s director and organizer of the summer program.

Susong works in the university’s admissions office; her husband, Scott, is assistant professor with the School of Theatre Arts. There are 13 students enrolled in the three-week camp; two camps for younger children were held earlier.

For 12-year-old Adam Alexander of Bloomington, the stage presented initial challenges.

“I was kind of nervous about getting up on stage and maybe messing up. But we’re learning cool tricks to become better actors,” said Alexander, one of six boys in the troupe.

The chance to connect with other actors drew Katryce Bridges, 14, of Bloomington.

“Some of the new people I’ve met are really out there. They are so confident and into theater,” said Bridges, who has been active in community and school theater.

The story line of the play has sparked dialogue among the players about bullying and tolerance of people who may seem different. The unique attributes of characters - tagged in the script as either normal or original - point to how easy it is to categorize people, said the director.

“The play I chose is very topical. It’s about normal kids who dress alike and don’t want to be different. They come to realize that there’s nothing special about them,” explained Susong.

The players have picked up that normal kids are not necessarily kind. The bullying behavior in “Creature Features” is similar to what youngsters confront in school, the actors agreed.

“My character has big eyes and people are always calling me names. But I have a unique gift,” said Alexander, choosing to keep the gift secret until the June 29 production.

The Susongs conducted summer theater camps in Baltimore before coming to IWU five years ago. The camps have proven so popular that an additional session - for students entering first through sixth grade - has been added for July 23 through Aug. 3.

Susong sees several common elements among her students, who have benefited from voice and choreography instructors.

“They’re all non-traditional students. They have a need to move around, be creative and think outside the box. Theater is the perfect place for that — you can work it all out on stage,” said Susong.

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The play is at 3 PM Friday, June 29 in the black box theater at Illinois Wesleyan. It's free and should be fun. Cristen Susong is a great theater teacher!

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