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Founder's spirit alive and well in theater workshop in Sewickley

| Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The Mario Melodia Musical Theater Workshop camp continues to thrive at Sweetwater Center for the Arts, five years after its founder's death.

Melodia's inspiration is the reason, said Martha Prine, assistant to the director. Everyone involved in running the annual camp that begins July 20 at the Sewickley center was a student or colleague of his at one time.

A Broadway performer in productions such as “Brigadoon,” choreographer, dancer, director and teacher, Melodia began the camp in 1998. That was about 10 years after he started a performing arts camp at Sewickley Academy.

“He taught and worked with so many people that we are honored to carry on his camp,” Prine said.

Prine, a Sewickley Academy graduate who now lives in Virginia, said Melodia, who died in 2008, was the most important teacher she ever had.

“He used to say, ‘I don't teach dance. I teach self-esteem.' It's true,” she said, referring to teaching with Melodia in the musical theater and dance department at the academy. “He made everyone in his dance classes and plays feel important.

Melodia was known for inspiring children to do better. “He would not allow anyone to say, ‘I can't.' We know what he expected from us — to try our best all the time. We try to pass on his lessons to a new group of students every summer,” Prine said.

Thom McLaughlin, this year's director, also worked previously with Melodia in the academy's drama department and has been a director for 23 out of the 25 years the summer Sewickley Academy Peforming Arts Camp has been held. He and has an extensive background in theater arts and teaching, at one point owning his own theater, Upstairs Theater in Bloomfield.

He said he enjoys working with children, and seeing the “ah-ha” moments they have on stage.

“They come in with that shyness and within six to eight days, they start to have poise and moxy on stage,” said McLaughlin, a New York native who now lives in Baldwin Township.

Prine said for many children, the camp is their first experience in theater because campers as young as 6 can participate. Typically, there are about 30 children who sign up, and anyone is accepted.

Some children are frightened when they arrive, but camp directors get them singing and dancing right away and give them snack breaks so they can socialize.

“And by the end of the week, we've got them singing a solo,” Prine said. “The transformations that can happen are extraordinary.” McLaughlin is filling in this summer for frequent camp director Lisa Gojkovich, who will return next summer along with her sister, musical director Nina Mascio.

Dylan Parda, 13, a rising Sewickley Academy eighth-grader, said he began attending the camp in 2007 because he always has been passionate about singing and dancing,

His siblings, Andrew, 17, and Maeghan, 15, also were campers and now they, along with their mother, Rhonda, help at the camp.

Dylan has had a lead role every year in the camp's performance, but this year he plans to help backstage so that “younger kids can share the same experiences as I have had.”

Rhonda Parda said she has seen Dylan grow more confident in his singing and dancing, and he now is able to speak in front of an audience and is willing to try new things.

“When you see kids reach out and try something new, and they are good at it and have fun doing it — that is the beauty of the Mario Melodia Camp,” she said.

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

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