OAKLAND -- Twelve years ago, Emily Dmytryk and Emily Soldavini met at the Aurora Theater Arts Camp.

At the time, they were kindergartners from different schools (Dmytryk from Aurora, Soldavini from St. Teresa) and every summer since, throughout elementary school and now into high school, they've returned for a month of theater and creativity, first as campers and now as Councilors In Training (CITs).

Stories of friendship are common at the Theater Arts Camp. Councilors say that more than two-thirds of the students return each summer, and 15 out of the 18 CITs came up through the camp as kids and have returned as teenagers to mentor the younger thespians.

"I've watched so many kids grow up," Dmytryk said. "Some of the younger CITs I've known since they were 5."

"And it's the only camp we ever enjoyed going to," Soldavini added.

The theater camp, held at Aurora School -- a private elementary school off Broadway Terrace in Upper Rockridge -- focuses on inspiring freedom of creativity through putting on a play. Not only do the campers learn their lines and the music, they also build the stage sets and create their own costumes.

"We're not just putting on a play -- they're not doing theater all day," said Jack Soldavini, Emily's younger brother, who is also a CIT. "The kids are in the wood shop and designing costumes, too."

The Aurora Theater Arts Camp admits two groups of elementary-age children: kindergarten through second-graders, and third- through fifth-graders. After the sixth grade, the campers can return as CITs. All the campers act in the play, while the CITs work backstage doing set changes or play in the orchestra. Despite the age differences, all the children and the CITs are encouraged to work together closely.

Nick Williams and Eve Decker, two of the camp's senior councilors, make community building a major focus of the camp, and one of their central tactics is to adapt the script and multicast the acting roles. This summer, they staged the Broadway musical "Annie," but instead of choosing just one actor to play the lead role, they had three: Annie Lou, Annie Sue, and Annie Boy, all with different personalities but an equal number of lines. They also tripled Miss Hannigan, the inebriated and disillusioned orphanage matron.

Decker, the music and art teacher at Aurora who helped start the camp 14 years ago, said that eliminating the hierarchy associated with theater has made the camp a safe and fun place for the children to express themselves.

The day of the play's grand opening on Aug. 1, the three Annies -- soon-to-be sixth-graders Jane Fogarty (Annie Lou) and Reilly Wilson (Annie Sue) and fourth-grader Jonah Broscow (Annie Boy) -- bubbled with excitement. Clearly at ease with one another, they took turns explaining how they had formed a family of sorts while working together over the last month.

"We give him noogies and everything," Wilson giggled, motioning toward Broscow.

For his part, Broscow, an uncommonly poised fourth-grader with a lot of theater experience, said that he liked the multiple main parts because it encouraged the campers to talk to each other. Fogarty and Wilson had even adopted "mini-me's" among the younger children and plan to return to the camp as CITs in the future.

Although the play has wrapped and another school year beckons, if the trend at Aurora Theater Arts Camp holds true, they'll all see each other again next summer.