When it comes to theater summer camp, there are a lot of tropes.
The biggest trope is that the camps are full of dramatic, spotlight-ready kiddos who are looking for their chance to shine. An audience of young, soon-to-be dramatic personas take the stage for the latest rendition of “Honk! Jr.” or “Annie” or other child-friendly musical or play. Little attention is paid to anyone who doesn’t fit that archetype. Atop all that, the students must be present for nearly all the sessions.
But then came the virus, a ban on group gatherings and a death knell for in-person summer camps. But Lara Filip’s camp isn’t switching to digital from a traditional physical summer-camp experience. It is a new venture, borne out of the necessity to keep children engaged.
“We are trying to be as versatile as possible, so no kid feels excluded for the parameters of the activities,” says Filip. “We are even engaging [with] nonprofit groups for group homes with no parents per se. So we’re careful not to say, ‘Talk to your parents.’”
Rather than spending the summer doing Walking Plays performances at The Morton Arboretum or Jessamine County Public Library in Nicholasville, Kentucky, Filip has created a free, online theatrical experience for families. By combining her love for all kinds of theater, she has created something new from a difficult situation.
The four-part video series, geared to students from kindergarten through fifth grade.is presented through DuPage Children’s Museum and Jessamine County Public Library. The first video launched July 3, but kids don’t have to watch right away to take advantage of what the camp offers.
“We talk about technical theater, too,” Filip says. “If a kid isn’t a singer-dancer type they can learn about being a set designer or costume designer.” With a background in performance and direction, she knows that not everyone is interested in the performative aspects of theater. She hopes to encourage kids to be who they are, regardless of their interests.
“Some children are just shy and don’t want to have the attention on them, but there is so much they can enjoy about theater besides that.” Inclusive programming meets students’ individual needs but doesn’t leave students out. It’s especially good for kids who might not otherwise get to participate due to other commitments, or even things like a broken leg, which could prevent them from participating in the more traditional camp atmosphere.
Filip paid a handful of Chicago-area theater artists like Sawyer Smith to send in videos for the students to watch as part of the programming.
“For my specific video I wanted to speak to the kids about being different and how as a young kid, being different can feel like a bad thing, but truly what makes us different is what makes us special,” Smith says via email. “It’s like a superpower. As a queer artist who is trans femme non-binary, navigating the world can feel very difficult at times. But when I live my truest self vibrantly and publicly, it allows me to go deeper as an artist. Being myself and shining bright gives others permission to be themselves and shine bright as well. And that is a power. That is a gift. And if we accept those gifts and we share that power we are all stronger together.”
By creating a free, virtual theater camp, Filip and her artists can reach even more students. Anyone can watch from anywhere in the world, which is a great opportunity to spread the joy of theater. And, although the camp has not launched, she is already hoping that it becomes an annual event. “With or without social distancing, this is a great option for students,” says Filip. “In a theater camp type of atmosphere, the students and the artists don’t have to deal with the issues that other art forms are encountering in the digital switch.”
“What’s difficult with those is figuring out technology with [an] audio delay,” she says. “Music, dance and voice lessons with Zoom has everyone dealing with that.” The solution in the camp’s case is the use of prerecorded material. And, since students can ask questions through the platform, the artists can answer when the video is first shown, but also later on, encouraging interaction between students and teachers.
Creating this camp has been a joy for Filip, who refers to herself as “a fairly silly human being.” Although it takes the place of live performances that Filip and the other artists thrive on, this digital experience is a fitting placeholder. Students can still learn and everyone can dream together of the day when theaters are full once again.
For her final segment, Filip returned to the stage at Paramount Theatre in Aurora to remind everyone watching that artists must continue to hope. The ghost light won’t shine indefinitely.
“I stood onstage to say we’re all going to be back in the theater sometime soon,” she states. “Don’t forget that these spaces are still here for us when we can be here.”