Exploring Steamboat: A place where creative work gets done

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— I was greeted by the sounds of music during my recent visit to Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp — a magical place where creative spirits soar just north of downtown Steamboat Springs in Strawberry Park.

Exploring Steamboat

Lisa Schlichtman's "Exploring Steamboat" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Schlichtman here.

As I walked down the dirt paths that connect Perry-Mansfield’s primitive cabins and open-air studios, I heard the heartbeat of the camp — the staccato rhythm of drumbeats marking cadence for a ballet class, the soft modulation of shared voices rehearsing lines from a play and the modern strains of recorded music that the camp’s tech crew was listening to as they created faux brick walls for a theater set.

From the first dance class of the day at 8:30 a.m. to the final minutes of rehearsals at 9 p.m., the sounds of students practicing and perfecting their chosen crafts echo off the hills where the camp is nestled. Campers, who include juniors, young artists and pre-professionals, are engaged in a varied combination of the arts — from playwriting to theater production and modern dance and ballet to movement for actors.

With a rich 101-year history, Perry-Mansfield is a gem somewhat hidden from the general public, but to the dance and theater world, it’s a life-changing, iconic destination where young students from across the country gather each summer to immerse themselves in the pursuit of creating art and learn from on-site faculty who are among the very best in their professions.

When I was visiting Perry-Mansfield on the day campers were set to arrive, I enjoyed breakfast with Executive Director Joan Lazarus and board President Kathleen Wasserman, who graciously gave me a guided tour of the camp. I enjoyed my bagel with lox and cream cheese with fresh fruit, while sitting on a bench that was built a century ago under the watchful eyes of camp founders Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield.

As we were chatting over breakfast, Joan pointed out an ordinary-looking man wearing a turquoise blue camp T-shirt and sitting at a nearby table. The gentleman turned out to be Philip Hernandez, an acclaimed actor who is the only man in Broadway history to have played Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in "Les Miserables." Hernandez, who lives and works in New York City, is returning for another summer of teaching at Perry-Mansfield.

Encounters with artists of Hernandez’s stature are commonplace for campers who live and learn in close proximity to their all-star faculty, who live on-site during camp sessions.

“People’s mouths drop open when they find out who’s here teaching,” Joan said. “The faculty is exceptional.”

Kathleen speaks about Perry-Mansfield’s reputation for transformation.

“When I ask former students about their time at Perry-Mansfield, they tell me it was a life-changing experience or some version of ‘It changed my life,’” Kathleen said. “That just happens to kids here over and over again. It opens up a whole new world for them.”

It’s a world of almost constant movement where students and faculty focus on creating art from sunup to sundown.

“They’re here to be immersed in their craft,” Joan explained. “They learn to see and think differently. When someone takes the time to investigate how they do their art, they own. It’s theirs forever.”

The magic of Perry-Mansfield cannot be separated from the natural beauty that surrounds the camp’s 76 acres. A hike up “High School Hill” to the camp’s pinnacle offers sweeping views of the valley where Soda Creek snakes through the emerald green fields below. The sights and sounds of nature soothe the soul and surely inspired Portia and Charlotte’s decision to locate their dance camp in the middle of a remote section of the Colorado Rockies.

“Through sheer force of personality, these women made it work, and they got the biggest names in the business out here to teach,” Kathleen said.

This summer, 150 to 175 young artists’ lives will be changed forever during their time at this famous camp, which has been offering dance, theater and equestrian training for more than a century. And when you take note of all the famous performers, such as Julie Harris, Dustin Hoffman, Lee Remick and Louis Horst, who were students and teachers at Perry-Mansfield, it is even more amazing to think this special place of creative process and youth development is located right outside the city limits of Steamboat.

For those who in the words of Joan want a “glimpse into the magical window where creative work gets done,” Perry-Mansfield will host its final Tuesday Night Under the Stars next week. The event, which begins at 8 p.m., is open to the public and will feature an Artists Night showcasing performances by the camp’s pre-professional students.

“It’s just a fabulous asset that everyone in town should be very proud of,” Kathleen said. “Steamboat Springs wouldn’t be Steamboat without Perry-Mansfield.”

To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @LSchlichtman

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