Sewickley Academy's Performing Arts Camp marks 25 years

| Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Pam Gregg has been saying the same thing around this time of year for more than two decades.

“I don't know how this camp works, but it does,” said Gregg, referring to the Sewickley Academy summer Performing Arts Camp, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

This year, the camp will culminate in eight sold-out student performances, plus a special alumni show to be held over two nights, Saturday and July 12.

“It just always has worked on so many levels, and it's such a wonderful experience for the kids. Some come because they have a God-given gift to perform, and there are other kids who just want to be able to get up front of the class and give a book report without falling apart,” said Gregg of Sewickley Heights.

Although some want the spotlight, there are others who don't want to be star, preferring to be in the chorus or in the background, said director and choreographer Diane Melodia of Princeton, N.J., a 24-year camp veteran who travels back to the area each year to help with the camp.

Director Thom McLaughlin of Baldwin Township also has traveled back each summer for 23 of the 25 years from various states, as has camp helper Becky Harper of Denver, a camp graduate.

Gregg said many students stay in touch and establish close friendships. The first year of camp, Gregg said, about 35 youths showed up, and performances included small excerpts of shows. This year, there are 127 students from second-graders to new high school graduates. Students are placed into one of five groups, according to age, and in only a little more than three weeks put together two productions each.

In the younger groups, Gregg said, directors work hard to give all students a special part, even if it's just two lines, but as they get older, they have to “face the real world.”

Although directors and teachers do get paid for their work, the pay has remained the same for the past 25 years, which makes it a “labor of love,” McLaughlin said.

Gregg and choreographer Paula Jersey of Rochester, who has been to 23 of the 25 camps, first worked with the late Mario Melodia when he founded the camp in 1988. Gregg became director when Melodia retired in 1995.

The crew also includes musical directors Nina Mascio, who has been at 23 camps, and Lisa Gojkovich, the newest member of the crew, both from West Mifflin. Dru Cox of Marshall Township helps with camp organization. Melody Lockerman of Sewickley handles scenery. Other helpers include Cathy Hydzik of Sewickley Hills, a camp graduate, and many parents who help with props, sew and meet other needs.

“From the get-go, the goal of the camp was to provide an environment where young people could gain confidence, so in life, they are not afraid to speak up,” Gregg said.

Over the years, many students have gone on to win high school theater awards, and some have become professional performers.

“This is a very special camp. It combines self-esteem, poise, professional theater training, performance and ensemble,” McLaughlin said. “Students come in all shy, and by the end of camp, they have magically changed.”

This is Karsen Koah's third year at the camp. She started as a sixth-grader. “It's gotten me out of my shell and out and open. It's also helped me at school to meet new people,” she said.

All of the teachers and directors bring their own expertise to the camp, which, Melodia said, she thinks is the reason the camp has been so successful.

“We all have different perspectives on how to get the kids to perform,” she said. “We become a cohesive team, too, finishing each other's sentences by the end.”

Gregg said it is important for the camp to be performance-based because students try harder when they know they will be performing later for an audience.

The camp also includes a lot of humor, McLaughlin said, so that students can have fun and feel comfortable.

However, they also know expectations and standards are high, Gregg said.

“Over the years, the audience has come to expect shows that many have said are like Broadway performances.”

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406or

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