Theater Camp

I'm Camp Sick or Creating a New Default

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The transition from camp to home can, for some, be significantly more difficult than the transition from home to camp. You become so used to living in a carefree environment that is separate from the default world, that the process of changing back is difficult. Whether it’s your camper’s first or last year, there’s no avoiding camp-sickness. Remember, camp-sickness is a feeling that everyone experiences, but no one should have to go through it alone.

Let’s Call It Default, Not Real

Often times we refer to the world outside of camp as "the real world.” That’s pretty harsh. Camp is SUPER real. Sure, it comes with the benefit of not having to do homework, working on your play every day without the pressure of math, being with your friends around the clock and not having to go home for dinner. But camp includes a lot of the things parents and friends think we have somehow escaped from when we are there.

Stress is still present at camp. There is the show or build in the shop, with deadlines and nerves. There is the stress of friendships that in default may benefit from a little space but at camp are put under pressure from the same joy-giving 24/7 attention we just raved about in the previous paragraph.

Our emotions are very present at camp. We don’t escape sadness or anxiety or anger there. Happiness may be slightly intensified at camp, but with the ups come the downs and they don’t wait outside our gates.

At camp, we allow for all feelings and emotions and stresses. We make room for them and work slowly to find ways to allow them to not govern our actions or lives at camp. That makes camp special. In default, so often, we are told to move past things quickly or ignore them completely. But that doesn’t make camp less real, simply not our default.

Chris Murrah, Senior Director

Chris Murrah, Senior Director

So the challenge to campers and families is this: How do we carry the new default, the one of the past three or six weeks, into the rest of our lives. How do we make space for the “real” without falling back on old habits that make us crave the safety of Acting Manitou? We love that camp is a special place, it will always be, but we don’t ever want our community to feel that camp is the ONLY place the Joy, Creativity, Gratitude and Community exist. Camp is simply the place in which we intensify those practices so that we can use them more easily in default.

A Full Technicolor Shock

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On one of the last nights of camp every summer, we have a campfire in the woods. We sit as a community and enjoy the fire, the natural world around us, each other’s company for a little while, and then each CIT (our oldest campers) speaks for a few minutes about whatever they’d like. This sometimes takes the form of advice, or a memory, but most often it’s a thank-you to camp. My second year as a camper, a CIT spoke about how at camp, we can feel like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Kansas suddenly becomes Oz, the sepia-toned “real world” becoming a Technicolor fantasy. She shared her fear of going back to New Jersey after camp, having to retrace Dorothy’s journey back to black and white. But, she said, it is our responsibility to carry that rainbow way of seeing things back home with us: it’s no good having an Oz if it’s only in the summers, only for some of us.

I think everyone who comes to camp must have some version of that feeling: the arrival, the theater games on the lawn, the way we’re all encouraged to be our truest, most authentic selves — not just the selves we might default to, but the heightened, imagined, aspirational, mutable versions of ourselves that fill our dream worlds. At camp we get to be rock stars, heroes, champions, celebrated for being exactly who we are — and that’s before we even consider the shows, where we might be villains, pirates, queens, gods, witches, or (most frightening of all) teenagers exactly like us. Full Technicolor, shocking every time the door of that house opens and we walk with Toto into a field of wildflowers.

Zack Elkind, Director

Zack Elkind, Director

But as that CIT reminded me at the campfire, we don’t have to leave that way of seeing the world behind when we leave camp in July or August. Camp isn’t a location, a collection of buildings — and it isn’t really even a group of people, since we all grow up and eventually stop coming back to camp. I think it’s a way of seeing the world, a certain tilt of the head when looking at things. A willingness to accept everyone for who they are; leading with curiosity, not prescriptiveness; a love of theater and the power it has to activate the best in all of us. These are things we learn at camp, and return to camp to keep honing. But that way of seeing the world — in the full color it is, not the sepia it sometimes appears to be — can come home with us too, and after a summer at camp, you can see all year long in vibrant color.

The Necessity of Theater or What Theater Necessitates

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Camp was the first place I ever shared something I wrote. English classes in high school didn’t require me to stand up and recite my poems and theater classes let me give my work to other actors to perform. It was only at theater camp that I was asked to present something I previously considered private. And it was only in the supportive environment of Acting Manitou that I dared take the step of sharing a piece of myself.

The biggest necessity of theater is an audience.

The biggest necessity of theater is an audience. At a theater camp, the campers and staff fulfill the roles of both performers and audience; from our staff and camper showcases to our final show day, each of us is given multiple opportunities to bear witness to someone else’s openness and vulnerability. But for me the evening that best encompasses what it means to share a piece of yourself is elective presentations. It’s a night of unpolished, unfinished work, shared in an environment free of judgment and full of love.
While I’m not going to bust out the slam poem I wrote and shared in 2009, I do recall the specific moment I looked up from paper and saw myself in the mirror, surrounded by my fellow campers. What could have felt like a leap into the abyss was instead a slow float down into a soft bed; my friends there to catch me and hold me and celebrate my work. And then as soon as I had gotten up to share I was back in the throng, celebrating the next poet, songwriter, or dancer.

Spencer Lutvak, Business Manager

Spencer Lutvak, Business Manager

If theater necessitates an audience, then a performer requires a desire to share. But while even the most accomplished actor may need to work through their stage fright every night they go on stage, that yearning to get up in front of a group was sparked at some point in their life. At camp, we believe everyone’s stories deserve to be heard and by cultivating that desire we give our campers the tools to speak up, at camp, at school, at home, and out in the world.

Heart and Music

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Anybody with a voice can sing. But it doesn’t take much to convince someone that they can’t. Maybe it’s getting passed up for a solo in middle school chorus. Or maybe it’s a friend’s joke when everyone’s singing along in the car. Sometimes all it takes is one incident in childhood to turn someone off of singing—or music—for the rest of their life.

For many campers at Acting Manitou, singing—especially in front of a group of people—is one of the most intimidating experiences they encounter. Starting on audition day, the campers are presented with many opportunities to showcase their voices; from the musicals and the camper talent show, to multiple singing electives and pool time jam sessions, our campers are given boundless chances to be loud and proud. But speaking as someone who still struggles with his own singing abilities (especially when it comes to harmonizing…oh boy), I know not everyone jumps at the next chance to hit the high C in Seasons of Love.

In the spirit of growth that we foster among our campers and staff, we place enormous value in trying new things. And as a musician at camp, I see time and time again that singing—and learning new instruments—is often outside many folks’ comfort zones. But what better place than summer camp to join an a cappella group or write your first song? Yesterday’s elective presentations crystallized the idea for me that people of all ages and backgrounds deserve the right to express themselves through music.

Now when I reveal that I’m a classically trained guitarist who started lessons at age five, you may roll your eyes and say, “Well it’s so much easier to start when you’re young!” I point you to my co-staff member Simon who is still in his first year of teaching himself guitar and on top of his job of running our amazing evening activities can be found every night in his room playing and studying one of his guitar books. And if unregulated, consistent practice is not up your alley, then I’ll direct you to one of my favorite artists, Amanda Palmer, and her trusty ukulele.

Spencer Lutvak, Business Manager

Spencer Lutvak, Business Manager

Amanda champions the ukulele as an instrument of the people because of its shallow learning curve and accessible price point. The lyrics to her song “Ukulele Anthem” illustrate her point nicely:
“Play your favorite cover song, especially if the words are wrong…
You can play the ukulele too it is painfully simple
Play your ukulele badly, play your ukulele loudly…
Stop pretending art is hard, just limit yourself to three chords, and do not practice daily”
And lastly, if music isn’t your thing: great! On your journey of trying new things, it’s important to learn what you don’t like. Statistically speaking, there will be way more experiences that you will dislike than ones you will like. Crossing those off the list is just as important as underlining the ones you enjoy.

The Magic of Play

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Today I stepped out of my usual duties as Evening Activities Coordinator to choreograph the stage combat for one of our shows – His Dark Materials, directed by Zack Elkind. 

I arrived about halfway through the rehearsal and slowly worked the cast through a smattering of falls, grabs, and grapples. As the rehearsal concluded, the cast showed me what they had been working on before I arrived. For those unfamiliar with His Dark Materials, the show’s characters frequently tear holes in the space-time continuum to walk between dimensions. To represent these journeys between worlds, Zack and the cast had gotten their hands on some durable, simple, beautiful, twinkle lights. They showed me how they had used the lights to devise a variety of ways to represent the tearing of reality’s fabric. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who plan to see the show, but suffice to say that the swirling, mystical pattern of those lights is still fresh in my mind, many hours later. 

We give our campers free rein to play to their hearts content.

This wasn’t the first time this session that I was stunned by the creativity and ingenuity our campers possess. We give our campers free rein to play to their hearts content, whether in their down time, or in rehearsal, or in our daily evening activities. And they use that freedom to spin the mundane into the beautiful, the uproarious, the mystical, and the serene. Already this summer, campers have painted the simplest stones into stunning works of art. They’ve turned googly eyes and goldfish into chic runway looks. They’ve invented and tested new sports and games. And now they’ve turned twinkle lights into interdimensional gateways. As I watched the lights weave and twirl, I could see the play at the heart of what those campers did in Zack’s rehearsal room. All it takes is a bit of play to make that simple leap from A to B – from twinkle lights, to a door to another world. From this universe, to one infinitely more magical and wonderful. 

So much of theater is about finding that door from the real to the magical. How can we turn an outdoor ampitheatre into Shakespeare’s Globe? How can we make an audience see the Mediterranean Sea in a three-foot-deep pool? At what point do twinkle lights stop being twinkle lights, and become infinite? At Acting Manitou, our campers don’t have to feel limited in asking those questions. They are constantly, happily, wonderfully free to play with how the theater works, and to push it to be something more. Sometimes, the door to the next world won’t open, or it leads to a dead end. But more often, we get to play with the theater we make at Acting Manitou until we can take it all the way through that magical door, and into the theatrical world beyond. 

Simon Schaitkin, Evening Activities

Simon Schaitkin, Evening Activities

So much of theater is about finding that door from the real to the magical.

As we head into the days ahead, I’m so excited to see what the campers will think of next. They are constantly surrounded by the resources, time, and inspiration they need to make the leap to the next world. All that it takes is their continued willingness to take the jump.