By Leslie Nicholson | Sonoma Valley Sun
When the curtain comes up on this year’s Performing Arts Camp, it will not be at Sebastiani Theater. As with most events this year, the curtain will be traded in for computer screens, videos, and Zoom meetings. Over 100 campers will take part in the 2020 Pandemic Camp through August 7.
Proving that the pandemic cannot break the community’s commitment to Sonoma Valley’s youth, the show will go on thanks to The Sebastiani Theater Foundation, a generous donation by community residents Norm and Nadine Yenni, and the camp team lead by Diana Rhoten.
“With support from our board, we wanted to make this happen no matter what,” says Diana. “With our amazing daughter-in-law Kim Rhoten, and the team of counselors and instructors who are the heart of this program, and like family, we are able to keep supporting the arts for youth. And equally important is giving kids something to look forward to during this summer of uncertainty.”
As the camp opens its 26th year, albeit in a viral format, there is no lack of enthusiasm from the PAC team, which has created a huge selection of classes and fun activities that campers can enjoy from their homes.
“Like everyone else, we are in the learning stages and have to accept that we can do the best we can under the circumstances,” says Roger Rhoten. “We are working on trying to provide a selection of different classes to interest and engage kids to give them as much of the theater/camp experience we can since we can’t be together.”
Just as the Rhotens have done since the camp started in 1994, they are bringing their positive and creative energy to this year’s camp and are seeing new opportunities that go beyond the traditional two-week camp. They hope to add an Outdoor Education program in the near future.
“With many of our classes being ‘on demand,’ we are looking at offering after school classes to enhance the Distance Learning format for students in Sonoma Valley,” says Diana. “Having to rethink how we could still offer a modified camp experience has really inspired us to see what we can do to expand our camp beyond the summer. We are doing our best to bring the experience they would get at the theater into their homes. And we have been able to make it more affordable, which we hope will give more kids a chance to participate.”
The Rhotens are reaching out to families to let them know there are scholarships that allow kids to get the links to the classes for free. There will be 20 videotaped classes that will be available “on demand.” Classes will be offered in modules and there are four videos per class. Kids can also take Magic and Acting Classes that will be offered on Zoom. Plans are to keep adding classes, including cooking with Sheana Davis.
“It is so disappointing that we won’t see the kids,” says Roger Rhoten. “We see kids come to camp for the first time and they are often quiet and shy. To watch them grow and transform over time and then come back year after year is such a joy for us.”
“This program helps unite Sonoma Valley by bringing kids together from diverse backgrounds, walks of life, schools, and often other cities, says Diana. “We can’t wait until we can bring camp back to the theater and provide the socialization and connections that are so important for the kids.”
“We have kids who come to us with all levels of talent. It doesn’t matter where they are in their abilities to sing and dance, we believe that everyone should have the experience to get up on stage and perform. It is not only therapeutic, but it gives all kids a chance to try something they might have never experienced. We love all kids and we especially love the quirky kids. All kids have a place here and that is what makes it special – the kids all know they are accepted and supported.”
While the pandemic is making camp much different this summer, it cannot diminish the memories and friendships that have been built over the years and remain the cornerstone of the camp, which will withstand the pandemic year and well beyond.
For more information and any questions about this year’s Performing Arts Camp Online Classes, please visit the website at Sebastianitheater.com or call 707-996-9756.
Izzy Hubbard, 12, and a camper since the age of four, credits the camp with taking her beyond just loving to belt out songs as a preschooler. The soon-to-be teenager has developed her love for performing into a year-round activity and she performs in theater productions throughout Sonoma County. “When I was four and in the Karaoke Room, I got the chance to sing my favorite song Girls Just Want To Have Fun by Cindy Lauper and I will never forget Roger running to get Diana. I still remember feeling so special to have someone (especially Roger and Diana) tell me that I was a good singer. I will never forget that. It gave me so such confidence.”
Gianna Gruenhagen,16, says “Camp friends are the best! A lot of kids come to PAC from other parts of the country. Kids are visiting with family in Sonoma and spend part of their summer attending camp. We are one big family. Whether you are an actor or a dancer, we all love and appreciate each other’s friendships and talents.”
Luis Contreras, 19, a Santa Rosa Junior College student working toward a career in engineering, came to his first camp at age 11. “I was big into trying to dance like Michael Jackson when I was young, but I had never danced in front of a large group. When I did my first Michael Jackson dance in front of the other campers, I will never forget the feeling I had after getting so much support. There are not a lot of places where you can perform and be yourself. I knew that I could do what I liked to do at camp and kept attending every year. I am now a dance instructor and I love feeling that I am giving back. I take great pleasure in saying that I am part of Rhoten Productions.”
Maritsa Vargas, 21, is currently a student at Santa Rosa Junior College and is working toward her dream of being a firefighter. Maritsa and her sister were noticed by Diana Rhoten when she did a class at Flowery School many years ago. “Diana invited my sister and me to PAC and we both took the hip-hop and tap classes. I didn’t know anyone outside of camp who danced so this was a great experience and I connected with counselors who became great role models for me. As a counselor, PAC has come full circle for me and I see myself in the kids and I am so proud of them. The most rewarding part of camp for me is to watch the Girls’ Dance and the Boys’ Dance. It is so fun to watching the kids do what they love!”
Aaron Bremner, 26, first came to camp at age nine. Seventeen years later, he is still contributing his time to teaching juggling skills, which will be on video for the first time ever. He has also been offering help with video editing. “My favorite memory is watching the curtain open and seeing the audience waiting for us to perform. As a camp counselor, it came full circle for me when I got the chance to open the curtain. It still holds the same excitement for me. Performing became a hobby and I have been a part of the Sonoma Shakespeare Avalon Players. PAC makes you feel connected to Sonoma as a community, and broadens your horizons. It helped shape me into the adult I am today. ”
Sophia Marija Metzner, 30, says “I attended PAC from ages seven to 18. I loved being part of a theater group where you didn’t have to be serious or feel any pressure. Kids are given so many opportunities to participate in things like Open Mic, which does so much to build their confidence. I feel like I grew up with the Rhotens, who created a comfortable place where kids felt like family. The Rhotens are people who believe in Sonoma and their legacy is that kids come back year after year and then bring their own kids. I now am a Social Worker and I wish every kid could have the same rich experience and opportunity to attend a camp like PAC where they could have a sense of belonging.”
Josh Gruenhagen, 39, and manager of Safeway in Sonoma, says “I attended Nature Camp because my Mom worked there and after a few years I became a Junior Counselor at PAC. I didn’t really have a talent, but I got the job of taking kids to the Plaza to hang out when they needed a break. It became known as ‘Josh’s Excellent Adventure’ and became a permanent part of camp.”