The latest act in town features very familiar faces
Originally published in Portsmouth Magazine's Spring 2019 issue. Read the original article with photos below!
On a chilly late winter night in Portsmouth, most conversations probably involved mention of an impending snowstorm.
Miles Burns, Alden Caple and Seraphina Caligiure, however, were thinking about summer.
Gathered in a room in the parish hall of South Church, the founders of the area’s newest youth theater company - along with technical director Christian Arnold - discussed their vision and plans for the new venture with the laid-back ease and joviality that punctuate longtime friendships.
After all, Burns and Caligiure met and became friends as second-graders at Maple Wood Elementary School in Somersworth.
Life went on and the pair grew up, but they always remained close. Eventually, they found themselves working at Seacoast Repertory Theatre, he as artistic director and she as the director of youth programming and education. Through the Rep they met Caple, who was an assistant director of its overnight camp program.
Over the course of their careers, the trio has become well respected and integral members of the Seacoast’s theater community.
They are relying on those reputations and their vast knowledge and skill set as they establish Upside Arts in a region known for its love of the arts — but where there is no shortage of theater companies to nurture that love.
A new chapter
The friends came together last fall to launch their own youth theatrical production company after Burns was dismissed from his position at the Rep and Caligiure resigned from the nonprofit in protest.
They wasted no time finding a new project. By the holidays, the company was ready to stage two productions. Those performances included “Saving Santa Claus,” an original play by Burns, and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” for which they partnered with the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport.
As the new year approached, Arnold, a former camper at the Rep, joined their team along with Joshua Goldberg, another former student, now attending Bennington College in Vermont.
“We’re not starting from scratch,” Caligiure explains. “We have been dedicated theater educators in this community for years. We have a community behind us. It’s been business as usual.”
Without a dedicated performance space, the fledgling company is renting South Church’s parish hall to run its classes and vacation programs.
Although the lack of a permanent spot is a hurdle to overcome, Burns says it also brings a freedom.
“We can go anywhere, perform anywhere,” he says. He says he is enjoying that ability to branch out and work with multiple theaters. When tied to one company or group, it’s hard to think about leaving that bubble, he adds.
“That’s one of the things that excites me the most,” he says.
The group at Upside Arts also was in the midst of spending several weeks preparing for school vacation camps and finalizing the spring schedule for weekly music, playwriting and acting classes. And they were looking forward to presenting “Rock of Ages: Middle School Edition” with a cast of 10- to 15-year-olds.
The vacation camps, geared toward elementary and middle-school students, were held in February with another coming up in April.
With the theme “The Show Must Go On,” the February session incorporated scenes and songs from Broadway shows. The April camp will tackle rock musicals under the theme “Vacation Rocks!”
Campers learn elements of theater from stage direction to improv, using games, songs and skits. At the end of the week, the group stages a production for family and friends.
Caligiure said the camps are suitable for kids of all personalities and all levels of acting skills.
The kids with more stage experience help teach and mold their younger counterparts, she adds.
'They get to invent something'
Over the summer, Upside Arts will hold several day camp sessions, as well as a sleepaway camp. The company also is partnering with Prescott Park Arts Festival to direct Camp Encore summer day camp. The two day camps will run simultaneously from June 24 through Aug. 4.
Upside Arts Day Camp will offer original musicals written by Burns and Goldberg. Those who attend Camp Encore will learn and stage pre-scripted Broadway Junior shows.
Caple, who is now the theater director at Portsmouth Middle and High schools, will oversee Upside Arts’ overnight summer camp from Aug. 13 to Aug. 2. Open to ages 8 to 17, campers will stay in cabins and attend classes each day, where they practice music, dance, improve and songwriting. Activities will include summer camp traditions — an Olympic carnival, campfires, and a talent showcase at the end of the session.
In addition to the co-founders, the rest of the camps’ staff will consist of former theater students returning now to teach others.
A unique aspect of Upside Arts is that the students learn and perform a play written just for them. While Burns enters camp week with the idea and framework for his play, he waits to write pieces of the script for specific campers. By doing so, he is able to incorporate parts of their personalities and characteristics into the roles, which gives the kids an added sense of confidence, he says.
The whole script must be completed in time for campers to learn their lines and successfully stage the show. Suffice it to say, Burns doesn’t get much sleep until camp is over.
“Summer is my favorite time,” he says with a laugh. “It’s my wife’s least favorite time.”
The hectic pace and full schedule is all worth it on performance day, when it can be utterly magical to watch the students’ hard work come to life, Caligiure says.
“The payoff is worth it,” she adds.
Burns agrees. “They have created it; they are confident in what they are doing,” he says. “They get to invent something.”
And in the rare instance where a child is experiencing some stage fright, their castmates are there to offer encouragement and comfort.
“These kids are all kind hearted, nice individuals,” Caligiure says.
Max Cavanaugh, 12, is one of Caligiure and Bums’ seasoned veterans. He started attending camp with the pair as a 6-year old. Initially uninterested in acting, Cavanaugh says he first tagged along to a day camp with a friend. By the end, he was hooked and has returned ever since. His favorite shows to perform are the comedies.
“They really make it fun,” he says of Caligiure and Burns.
His mother, Leigh, sees the influence of theater in all parts of her son’s life. “They are just really good at what they do,” Leigh Cavanaugh says.
Join the troupe
To learn more about Upside Arts programs and performances, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or find them on Facebook and Instagram.