Why Kids Love and Hate Theatre Camps

What makes theatre camps, acting camps, and performing arts camps applauded in some cities — and scoffed in others? Our author explores what happened in two nearby towns, and what theatre programs can learn from the kids’ reactions.

By Katherine Teel

For as long as anyone can remember, Mt. Vernon Community Theatre (MVCT) in Mount Vernon, Mo., has always done a summer musical. What’s more, they took great care to choose shows that could make use of a large cast of local young people  —  especially teenagers. Since Mt. Vernon is nearly an hour from any other theatre program, the teens looked forward to the summer musical all year. However, recently MVCT’s contract for its theatre space came into question, and it looked like the summer musical might not happen.

MVCT’s board of directors knew that many local teens were looking forward to being in the show; if the show wasn’t going to happen, MVCT wanted to do something else for the kids. “What about a theatre camp?” they wondered. Other acting programs for kids offered a week’s worth of lessons and rehearsals that culminated in a show for parents at the end of the week. Could they do something like that?

Why Some Kids Hate the Idea of Theatre Camp

To the board’s surprise, the teen response to this proposal was lukewarm at best.

“I guess I’d go,” said high-school junior Whitney VanderGrift. “I mean, all my friends are in theatre. I wouldn’t want to be the only one not involved.”

Other students were more outspoken  —  and negative. “No way,” said senior Sabra Teel. “I’m finally out of school, I don’t want to take any more classes. I just want to do shows. I just want to be onstage with my friends. I know where to go if I want to take classes. I don’t want to spend my summer doing that.”

Needless to say, the MVCT board scrapped the idea of doing summer theatre camps for teens. But it was puzzling  —  in the closest city of Springfield, Mo., about 45 minutes away, the community theatre held multiple sessions of theatre camps each summer, serving all age groups and skill sets. Media coverage of those programs quote students who are thrilled to be there, and wouldn’t spend their summers any other way. The question is, “Why?”

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Why Other Kids Love the Theatre Camp Experience

“I go three or four times,” sophomore Wesley Andrews said about theatre camps in Springfield. “There’s just so much to learn, and the directors really make it a great time. Our group is like a family.”

Sophomore Jessica Barlow agreed. “Every time I go to theatre camp, I learn more techniques and skills that I can use in my auditions. I don’t think I’d have gotten any parts without all these classes and camp sessions.”

Even when presented with these perks, the MVCT performers aren’t impressed  —  and they aren’t convinced that summer theatre camps offer any benefit. “People in these camps think you have to do them to succeed in theatre, and they don’t really believe that anyone from a small town can be as good as they are anyway,” asserted Elise Jarvis, a singer/actor who has held significant roles in several local productions. “But we’re here putting on shows that are every bit as good as theirs. That’s how you really learn.”

Learning What Needs to be Learned

Today, the MVCT board members can see both sides of  this issue. “We all have a lot to learn,” says MVCT vice-president David Kloppenborg. “Nobody should think that they already know everything  —  especially teens. But teens are very involved in our program, so we teach what they need to know as we rehearse a show. And we have some teens who are extremely good already.”

Obviously there are pros and cons to summer camps, and some kids will get more out of them than others. If you’re looking for summer theatre camps because your child is interested in performing, make sure your child sees theatre camp as an opportunity to develop his or her talent  —  not as just more classes in a life already full of classes. Anyone can get something from a theatre camp, but the camper’s attitude going in can make all the difference.

ActivityHero.com can help you “audition” the local theatre camps, theatre classes, and other acting and performing arts experiences in your area. For a list of 20 questions to ask when seeking the best theatre camp or theatre program for your child, read “Looking for the Right Theatre Classes for Your Child? Read This Before You Act!”

About Kathy Teel

Kathy Teel is a freelance writer and editor. She also helps run a community theatre, and teaches both at the high school and college levels.