PINE POINT, Minn. — One by one, the kids stepped onto the yellow school bus that appeared outside their houses on a muggy June morning, horn honking.
Most were groggy, quiet, uncertain. But there were doughnuts, colored pencils, Capri Suns.
"Hi, sunshine! C'mon in!" driver Neegonee Brunner greeted one girl. "Hello, beautiful!" she told the next. "Welcome, J.J.!"
When the little bus was full, Brunner turned back to Lisa Dove, director of the Northern Light Opera Kids camp. "So this is your crew, Lisa."
"Woo-hoo!" Dove exclaimed. "We're going to make something amazing!"
Weeks later, many of these kids will have twice performed the musical they created together during the four-week day camp, complete with original songs and a blinking, beeping time machine. But on this first day, they responded to Dove with silence and a few half-smiles.
Dove grinned wide enough for all of them.
Each summer, she and Brunner gather a group of children — half from the northern Minnesota city of Park Rapids, half from the Pine Point township on the White Earth Reservation — to put on a play.
Together, the kids write the script, build the set and devise the costumes. Then they stage the play both at Pine Point and in downtown Park Rapids.
"It starts with a blank sheet of paper," Dove said, "and ends with a performance."
They're kids who, despite the proximity of their communities, might not have met before. Pine Point is just 20 miles from Park Rapids, and many will attend the same high school. But they're separated by culture and sometimes misunderstanding, said elder Mike Swan, who helped bring the camp to his community.
Camp exposes the youth to theater and makes them more comfortable in front of a crowd.
"They see these changes in the kids," Swan said of their families. "To be onstage like that — it helps bring them out a bit more."
A pun turned nonprofit
The camp grew out of an unlikely theater company.
When Paul and Pat Dove retired to the Park Rapids cabin where they'd spent summers since the 1970s, a pun came to mind: Northern Light Opera Company.
The joke turned into musicals, staged each summer. A longtime vocal instructor, Paul Dove became the music director, the grant writer and the one who figured out how to fashion a chandelier out of hula hoops and costume jewelry.
But two decades in, younger generations are taking over: "The nice thing about it is that we have worked our way out of a job."
Their daughter, Lisa Dove, who is based in New York, had led a Metropolitan Opera Company program for school kids. So she became camp director.
The partnership with Pine Point started six years ago, when the theater folks were weighing whether to put on "Annie Get Your Gun." Did the script, revised in 1999, treat its Native American characters with respect?
They called Swan, asking him to read it and to consider playing the part of Sitting Bull.
"Chances are, if you ask me to sing opera, that's not going to happen," Swan said with a belly laugh. "My singing is different. I sing Native style." A powwow song won him the part, which led to others in "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady."
When Swan heard about the camp, he suggested bringing it to Pine Point because the school doesn't offer theater. The first year attracted many quiet kids.
"I was actually kind of scared," said Lisa Dove, now 57. "How are we going to do a show?"
But a girl named Star wrote a beautiful story about a dream catcher. The resulting show relied less on a script and more on movement.
"The voice is so personal," Dove said. "I'm always trying to figure out how to encourage the kids to speak louder in a low-stakes environment.
"It seems like a small thing, but for them it's pretty huge."
A poem inspires
Inside the Pine Point School, the kids sat on the cafeteria floor, folding open their new journals.
"Get close," instructor Melanie Goodreaux said, "so I can feel your brains."
Together, they read aloud a poem by Anishinaabe poet Diane Burns, "Santa Fe." Goodreaux, a New York City-based poet and playwright, asked the kids to place themselves in their own scene, then describe it as Burns had.
"What would the sky look like where you are?" "Who would be with you in this space?" In the poem, Burns says that for a moment, "The world was good and ripe / And all the lights were green." Goodreaux asked the kids: "What is your version of saying it was good?"
Elizabeth Rempfer, 11, wrote intensely, her notebook just inches from her face.
Later, she shared: "The future was white like snow."
Then the kids split into pairs, drawing and describing their ideas for a play. Blizzards and realms and windigo, the deer of Native American legend. "I'm happy," one young girl scrawled in purple marker.
"OK, writers," Goodreaux addressed them, her dozen bracelets jingling. "That's fascinating," she told them, elongating the word. "Oh, that's so interesting."
Goodreaux was one of several directors who coached the kids over the course of four weeks. She brought with her the work of Burns, a friend and Anishinaabe woman whose poems were published and revered.
Quickly, the doodles became a plot became a script became a show, "Skyview: The One-Eyed Time Ride," a time machine at its center. On a stop to the year 3027, the travelers and scientists encounter a robot deer: "No more water? No more deer? The future doesn't look bright at all."
But this machine treks to other realms, too, including the ancestor realm, where the characters encounter their lost loved ones.
Three teenage girls from Pine Point painted the backdrops for that realm with big swoops of purples and blues.
"When we're younger, everyone told us about our ancestors," said Shaylee Clark, 13. "The school did, too — across all of our ancestors, how our culture was made."
'We became a family'
In the program, her part was listed only as "Scientist 3."
But by the first performance, 11-year-old Annie White had given her character a name, a back story, a personality.
"She gets what she wants," White explained, her eyes wide. "But she's really sweet and kind and has a really nice heart. I feel like it's an awesome role. And she fits me really well."
This was White's first play, but she had the stage presence of an actor who had auditioned for decades. Hours before the July 15 show, she lent her script to a friend, as she no longer needed it. ("We became kind of a family through this," she said.)
Most of the kids, however, buzzed with nerves.
Upon arriving at the Pine Point Community Center, they grabbed props from the trailers. A few kids ran around the new space, darting down hallways. Others sat to the side, reading and re-reading their highlighted, dog-eared scripts.
The adults flipped switches and whirred power tools. Paul Dove, 85, arrived with two rolls of tape and got onto his knees, sealing the last few cords to the carpet.
Brianna Fineday, 13, fidgeted in the backstage area created by a bit of curtain.
"What happens if I have a panic attack?" she said to Dove, her eyes downcast. "You won't have a panic attack," a friend assured her. "You've done this before," Dove reminded her.
The families filed in, filling the four rows of chairs. Paul Dove readied the video camera. White waved at her family in the front row.
Before introducing the play, before singing about the future, before scurrying across the stage in dinosaur costumes, the kids gathered once more, this time behind the makeshift curtain.
They whispered the warmup they'd done each day, locking eyes with one another across the small circle, then gathered their hands in its center.
Dove counted: "1, 2, 3!"
Together, in their biggest voices, they shouted:
"Break a leg!"