Phebe, played by senior Heidi Jablonski, left, reacts to Silvius, played by junior Thomas Millary, during CrashHouse's rehearsal of 'As You Like It' on Thursday in the MainStage Theater. The play will be performed on Thomas Plaza, in front of the Campus Center, on Friday, Aug. 30, and Saturday, Aug. 31, at 7:30 p.m. (Photo by Jason Lenhart, Daily News Record)

Students make ‘As You Like It’ creatively their own at two-week camp, culminating in show, Aug. 28, 30 and 31

For Izzy Howard, it’s hard to choose between her passion for play writing and her love of performing.

Lucky for her, she doesn’t have to.

For the past two years, the 16-year-old Eastern Mennonite High School junior has been participating in CrashHouse Collaborative Theater — a project started in 2008 that allows local high school students to insert their own voices into Shakespeare’s plays — as both a writer and actor.

“I can take all the things that I’ve been kind of bottling up over the school year and release all those thoughts,” said Howard, of Port Republic. “It’s a nice way to get all that creative energy out in something positive.”

In June, Howard was one of nine local students who helped to deconstruct Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” during a two-week-long camp. The group members reflected on the original script daily through journals, interjecting their own ideas and stories. During the month between the end of the camp and the start-date for performances, local playwright and Eastern Mennonite University alum Pam Mandigo crafts a new version of the script using the students’ input.

Each camp participant can see bits of his or her work in the final product. For example, though “As You Like It” is originally set in the forest, the CrashHouse version takes place in a desert, thanks to Howard.

“It’s sensational,” she said simply.

On Aug. 28, 30 and 31, Howard will have the chance to see her work on stage, from the stage –Thomas Plaza, in this case. The performances start at 7:30 p.m. each evening.

Bringing down the house

The idea for CrashHouse came about when Mandigo and Heidi Winters Vogel, associate professor of theater at EMU, saw a similar concept played out at a theater conference in Atlanta with “King Lear” as the subject.

“We decided we wanted to do something similar in Harrisonburg,” explained Mandigo, 27, who’s currently living in Boston.

The team got to work on writing grant proposals for the project and found a financial sponsor — the Arts Council of the Valley.

That first summer, only three high school students came out. Since then, that number has grown to nearly 10 participants every June. Although the camp has consisted of all girls most years, it’s guy-friendly, as well.

The camp takes place for about five hours everyday for two weeks. Throughout that time, the student writers work on theater games, improv and a host of writing exercises, including the daily journals. Guest artists, from musicians to dance teachers to improv gurus, visit the group during the camp.

During the first week of classes at EMU, a group of the CrashHouse camp participants, EMU students and alumni bring the script to life. This year, two camp-goers returned to act out the Frankenstein script.

“I’m learning that each summer is a different beast; each group of CrashHouse participants wants to do something different with it,” Mandigo said.

She was surprised when this year’s group became fixated on a subplot in “As You Like It:” a boy who just won’t take the hint and realizes that his love interest isn’t, well, interested.

“Some of the stuff they wrote was just amazing and hilarious and heart-wrenching,” Mandigo said, explaining that the original play ends with the couple marrying. Spoiler alert: In the CrashHouse version, a giant snake eats the heart-struck male.

“It’ll be funnier,” she said of the newest adaptation.

Hooked on CrashHouse

Amanda Chandler, the director of the play this year, returned to the project after acting in “Midsummer Night’s Dream ReDreamed” last CrashHouse season.

“I really liked that the girls who participated in CrashHouse had the opportunity to see their work produced in a full-production and to be able to relate to Shakespeare in that way,” said Chandler, 21, an EMU senior from Mount Clinton.

She also commended Mandigo, saying she “did a really good job of making [the script] accessible and understandable and keeping the story intact, but still putting it in the words of the girls who did CrashHouse.”

The style keeps participants returning for more.

“I enjoy acting just for the interaction; I enjoy the process and the workshops for more of my quiet creativity,” explained Howard, who said she will most likely return to CrashHouse next year.

“CrashHouse is very dear to my heart, so I’ll fit it in hopefully,” she said.

Courtesy Daily News Record, August 29, 2013