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The Playground Academy shines amid pandemic

Submitted Photo The Playground Academy will host two weeks of summer day camp this month at the Dunkirk Lighthouse.

For those in the arts community, the impact of COVID-19 has had a unique and long-lasting impact with no real end in sight.

In an industry that’s success is defined by crowd size, ticket sales and audience interactions, social distancing has been devastating. But rather than focusing on what she can’t do right now, Janie Villella-Sharon, executive and creative director of the Playground Academy, has set her sights on creating an exciting week-long adventure in the fine arts for area students in grades two through twelve.

Normally, each summer the Playground Academy holds three weeks of day camp and one week of overnight camp, with each week culminating in a live performance of an entire musical. “We had to cancel our regular camp, and Shakespeare on the Lake got canceled for 2020,” Villella-Sharon told the OBSERVER. “I didn’t know what — if anything — would be possible this year.”

Since spring 2016, the Playground Academy has offered a variety of affordable performing arts classes throughout the year for elementary through high school students. Students enjoy workshops with theater professionals throughout northern Chautauqua County who have performed all over the world. Villella-Sharon, herself, is a professional actor, director and choreographer who has directed and choreographed more than 20 shows and performed in professional productions of “Chicago,” “Peter Pan,” “The Last Five Years,” “Into the Woods,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Children of Eden” and more.

Villella-Sharon’s theater experience is impressive, to say nothing of her gift and passion for teaching young performers. Many “Playground kids” have gone on to successful performing careers in college and beyond, and this reputation is the reason why Villella-Sharon’s email inbox began filling up shortly after COVID-19 cancellations were announced.

Submitted Photo During each week of the Playground Academy’s Shine On summer camp, students will hone their acting and improv skills, learn songs and dance routines from different Broadway musicals, practice stage combat, filmmaking and more.

“As soon as everything was cancelled, I had an influx of parents sending emails asking for something so their kids could have some kind of engagement this summer,” she told the OBSERVER. Eager to provide something safe and fun for area students, Villella-Sharon met via Zoom with her assistant director Rhiannon LaCross and consulting director Phil McMullen.

“I told them that these kids are desperate for something, and I kind of gave them a little bit of an idea that I had, and then we ran with it,” said Villella-Sharon. “We came up with our Shine On Summer Camp.”

Beginning July 13, the Playground Academy will hold two weeks of its summer day camp at the Dunkirk Lighthouse. Week 1 (July 13 -17) is open to students in grades seven through 12, and week 2 (July 20-24) is open to students in grades two through six. Due to COVID-19, the camp is being run in accordance with state guidelines for all summer day camps, so enrollment (each week) is capped at approximately 15 students.

From 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. outside and under the large tent, students will enjoy a variety of activities. “Each day is going to be a little bit different,” Villella-Sharon explained. “The kids will learn different music, work on their vocal skills, learn different dances from Broadway shows, acting and improv games, some stage combat and filmmaking, as well. It’s about having a good time, being creative and just being kids.”

An afternoon snack will be provided and children can bring their own bagged lunch each day. Villella-Sharon encourages families to register now, as both weeks are already filling up. The registration form is available online at playgroundacademy.org under “Academy Registration.” Use discount code OBSERVER to receive a 15% discount. For more information, email theplaygroundacademy@gmail.com.

“I think it’s going to be great for the kids,” said Villella-Sharon. “We have a lot of kids signed up from the Jamestown area, and we also have a lot of our local Playground kids that are returning. It will be nice to see familiar and new faces, and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for people to try something new.”

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