Lunch hour at Spark! Youth Camp at Alberta Avenue Community League hall is busy and noisy. Camp participants eat pizza after spending the morning learning about theatre. Some, like 13-year-old Violet Walker, are mastering the technical side. Others, like Nyctea Hazewinkel, a Grade 5 student, are taking acting.

“We made pizzas that show our personalities,” explains Walker. “My pizza is kind of sweet but kind of not.” Some pizza combinations may never be repeated, such as one with bacon bits and chocolate.

This summer is the fourth year of Spark! and Walker has attended from the beginning. Taking the technical side of theatre, she’s learned about lighting, props, sets, and costumes. In performance, she has expressed her creativity as a playwright and an actor.

The two-week Spark! camp culminated in a performance of the student-created play called The Llama Heist: The Mayor Strikes Back! | Mat Simpson Photography

Hazewinkel is attending Spark! for the first time, focusing on performance. He’s in a group for ages seven to 10 years. His parents heard about the camp by word-of-mouth. When they asked Hazewinkel if he’d like to attend, he said he was “right on board.”

He’s enthusiastic after a morning improvising with Joleen Ballendine from Rapid Fire Theatre, using everything from a garbage can to a mop. “I feel free, I can be anything I want,” Hazewinkel says. “I was inspired. It’s the real deal, awesome.”

The aim of the 36 students is the creation and performance of a play, which took place on July 21. The students, with guidance from professional instructors, create the script and roles and are in charge of all technical and design aspects.

Spark! camp participants and staff pose after this year’s performance of The Llama Heist: The Mayor Strikes Back! | Mat Simpson Photography

Spark! was launched by Lianna Makuch, an actor, producer, teacher and director, and Chris dela Cruz, a theatre technician/technical theatre instructor. The staff consists of nine professionals, including two youth leaders. Others come in to teach short sessions such as mask making, magic, culinary arts, and multimedia painting. Parents pay a fee of $250 for their children to attend.

What started as a two-day camp now runs for two weeks.

On performance day, the appreciative audience fills the hall. Parents, friends, and the public wait expectantly.

Before the show starts, dela Cruz laughs when he sums up the play The Llama Heist: The Mayor Strikes Back! “The script comes from the participants’ hearts, minds, and some twisted places, too.” Characters in the fast-moving play include a fluorescent purple talking llama, the “DDDS” (Deadly Divorced Dad Squad), a maniacal mayor, and more.

For Walker, the list of neat things about the camp is long. She makes friends and meets new people. “The instructors are great. They really interact with us. They listen to what we have to say. We have to remember lines, so we memorize with friends. Working with other people makes learning a whole new thing,” she says.   

Her mom, Montrose-based clothing designer Sabrina O’Donnell, is a big fan of Spark! “It’s such a cool opportunity for the kids of the community to have this type of theatre camp,” she says. “Violet has gone to many summer programs. She says this one is the best. The instructors bring great talent and share it with the kids.”

More than 12 sponsors now include TELUS Edmonton Community Board and Alberta Avenue Community League. Donations to the silent auction fundraiser came from 34 local businesses. Chona dela Cruz, Chris’ mother, has supported the program financially from the beginning. “The growing sponsorship really helps. I’ve seen great improvements this year,” says the local realtor.

“We could expand,” adds dela Cruz. “There is talk of it. It’s really, really popular.”

Hazewinkel certainly hopes to be back. “I’d like to try technical next year,” he says a little wearily immediately following the play.

Featured Image: Actors perform in scenes from the play, The Llama Heist: The Mayor Strikes Back!, which was created, designed, performed and run by Spark! Youth Camp members.| Mat Simpson Photography