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Shakespeare Camp Encourages Girls To Find Their Own Voices

For 18 of its 21 seasons, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has been running summer camps for kids in conjunction with the play or plays in Southmoreland Park.

This summer, camps were held at nine different locations, where a three-week session called Shakespeare Unbound is reserved exclusively for girls ages eight to 15.

In a high-ceilinged room with stained-glass windows in St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Kan., 14 girls are wielding 14 swords.

Weapons of mock destruction

The weapons do come to a point but are constructed of relatively nonthreatening wood, and are sparkly and monogrammed to boot. The girls are students at Shakespeare Unbound, a summer camp run by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival that is designed exclusively for young women. They're training in stage combat under the tutelage of camp manager Janae Mitchell.

"I love the focus going on in here," she says to the campers. "All right ladies,en garde. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. And I want to encourage you (to) be ready to go because you have to be able to move forward and backward in that power position."

Voices carry

While the girls energetically prepare for an assignment to pair off and create a fictional scenario that might, in theory, end in confrontation, Mitchell explains why this lesson in swordplay fits with a Shakespeare-themed camp for young ladies.

"This is an all-girls camp and it's a nice time to have female empowerment," she says. "They're eight to 15 years old and as we all know that is a very confusing time in anyone's life regardless of gender. And I feel like this is the first time a lot of the girls get to really find their voice and express themselves.

"It's not necessarily about Shakespeare to me - that's something I love and something I'd hope to share with them and hope they take away from - but I take more enjoyment out of seeing them start to think differently and start to find their own voice and assert themselves as people. 

"I encourage them to make decisions without me because they'll have great ideas. They just need that extra little push that they are as smart as they are. These are insightful girls."

The eyes have it

Twelve-year-old best friends Catherine Manrique and Ashley Guevara are paired up for mock combat that arises over their respective eye colors. Though both girls have brown eyes, their improv involves a challenges over whose are better, which ends in a simulated sword fight.

During a break in the stage combat lesson, Guevara explains how her feelings are changing about this, the first week of Shakespeare Unbound.

"At first I was like, ugh, Shakespeare. Whoa. He talks so different from I do. This is going to be hard," she says. "But then I came here and everybody was so nice and supportive. And then with all the girls, it makes it better because, you know, with guys, you don't have to impress anybody."

Shining through 

Camp manager Janae Mitchell, a third year MFA acting student at UMKC, offers her reasoning for why she thinks the Shakespeare Festival thought it important to design a camp just for girls.

"It's nice having boys around but it's that whole thing of you can focus more," Mitchell says. "You can let go more because everybody in this camp is entering that age group of middle school and high school where so much of who you are is a little shaky.

"To find yourself and an environment full of girls from all diverse backgrounds, you get to expose yourself more and you can just relax. You don't have to put on airs for anyone. You can let your own personality shine through in a way that's not easy when you have boys around."

Like all nine other camps, Shakespeare Unbound will conclude its session with a condensed version of this year's main stage production, As You Like It. The performance takes place on August 2, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on N. 18th Street in Kansas City, Kan. 

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