As summer wanes and autumn waxes on the horizon, I find myself collecting my thoughts from another summer of camp and distilling them, once again, into a list of lessons learned. Hi, I’m Lia Wallace! You may remember me from such previous blog posts as “What I Learned on my Summer Vacation – an ASCTC 2017 Retrospective” and “Who let that lady in here?” I’m the College Prep Programs Manager for the American Shakespeare Center’s Education Department, which means I have the great privilege of running the ASC Theatre Camp every summer. Join me in a trip down Recent Memory lane as I mull over five of the most enduring lessons I learned from ASCTC 2018.
1. Production Interns are a great idea
What do graduated campers do when they’re too “time-honor’d” to come back to camp as a camper? (Other than joining the ASC Old Timers’ Society, of course.) Many want to immediately apply to work for camp as an RDA, but RDAs have to be at least 21, which means our eager new ASCOTS have to wait at least two years before being eligible to return as anything other than a visitor. Unless, of course, they could work for camp in another capacity… as interns, perhaps?
“I’m going off to college this year, so though I will not be able to return as a camper, I hope that next summer I will be able to return as an intern, that is, if you’ll have me back. Please.” — Session II Camper
My first experience with the ASC Theatre Camp was as a dramaturgy intern in the summer of 2014. I worked with two delightful casts on Henry VI, Part III (3H6) — Kim Newton, my predecessor as Camp Director, divided the epic play down the middle so we had a “part three in two parts” situation where cast A did the first half of the play and cast B did the second half. I formatted and glossed the scripts in collaboration with the directors and put together a presentation on the Primogeniture Problem of Edward III’s seven sons that would eventually lead to the War of the Roses and the events of 3H6. I made giant family trees of the Yorks and Lancasters to use in the presentation and display in the lobby during the final performances. As far as I know, the campers found my information useful, and I had a total blast.
I was also researching my first Master’s thesis, training for a new position at the restaurant where I worked for actual money, and falling in love with the man who would become my husband. In short, I was busy. Most of my dramaturgical work was complete before the session began, and my presence in the day-to-day of camp life ended up being nearly nonexistent. I was fine with that — as I said, I was busy — just like I was fine with the fact that the internship was unpaid. Dramaturgy is a vital component of the MBU Shakespeare & Performance graduate program where I was studying, and the internship was an invaluable opportunity to practice those skills in the wild; my compensation was pedagogical enrichment. As an intern, my participation during camp, visible contribution to the camp experience, and material compensation were all minimal. I’ve been working to maximize all three for our camp interns going forward.
This summer, I revamped the Production Internship and aimed it at undergraduates — specifically, recently graduated campers finishing up their first years at college. I enhanced the pedagogical enrichment of the internship by clarifying the focus: each show had a dedicated intern who would oversee all production elements for that show from start to finish, from prepping the scripts to pulling the costumes to writing daily rehearsal reports for the Camp Blog. They were required to attend every rehearsal with their cast and be at the beck and call of their directors outside of the rehearsal room, which increased their participation during camp as well as the visibility of their contributions.
Putting the interns in charge of the shows rather than the campers also differentiated their jobs from the divided duty perceived by the RDAs, who must split their focus been both.This necessary delineation also freed the interns from the demands (and the drama) of supervising dorm life, allowing them to avoid any discomfort or awkwardness that could arise from being put in a position of authority over campers who may have been peers the previous summer.
Finally, I increased the material compensation by offering the Production Interns room and board, which made the internship possible for many who would otherwise be unable to consider an unpaid position (no matter how enriching the pedagogical compensation may be) and guaranteed their involvement in camp life activities: they weren’t in charge of the campers outside of the rehearsal room, but they were with them nonetheless.
“My production intern was amazing at working with the cast, and related with us a great deal. I appreciated her contributions a lot.” — Session II camper
What a joy it was to welcome back five graduated campers to Staunton this summer as Production Interns rather than visitors. How useful to have enthusiastic young adults overseeing the production needs for each show without distraction. How wonderful to see last summer’s senior campers move into their first leadership positions with gusto and aplomb. How wonderful wonderful to watch the current campers see the same thing, and again wonderful to hear them talk excitedly about applying to be Production Interns when they graduate from camp. And how out of all hooping to have rehearsal reports (with pictures!) to post on the Camp blog every single day.
“The intern working on my show was fantastic, super helpful, and full of useful information about all matters dramaturgical. Unless for some reason I have no legs, am missing vital organs, or go comatose (or have some other, undoubtedly more boring obligation), I will apply to work as a Production Intern in the future.” — Session I Camper
2. Hire a clown
When our actors mention the ASC Theatre Camp to audiences during their pre-show speeches, they like to list some of the noteworthy components of camp (like living in Staunton and performing in the Blackfriars Playhouse) along with an off-the-cuff list of camp activities that usually begins and ends with “combat and clowning.” It makes sense to mention those two very active, engaging, exciting, memorable (and alliterative!) areas of theatrical training, but I’d always find myself chagrined at the white lie contained therein: while we do have combat workshops at camp, we’ve been totally clown-less for the last few summers (unless you count the campers themselves).
Enter Aubrey Whitlock, the ASC’s new full-time Education Associate and the ASC Theatre Camp’s new Camp Life Coordinator.
I would sell my soul for you, Aubrey Whitlock. — Session I Camper
Aubrey replaces the irreplaceable Adrienne Johnson Butler, who has moved into a new role as the Assistant Stage Manager for the ASC Resident Troupe, and she just so happens to be a bona-fide Clown. Not only did Aubrey fill Adrienne’s shoes like a champ, caring for our campers all summer long with a canine companion at her side (like Adrienne’s pups Peanut Butter and Winston Bishop before her, Ginny accompanied us to Sherando lake and even made an appearance at Sonnet Night!) she also led Clowning workshops in each session.
“The clown workshop was so much fun! I learned SO much from Aubrey and it definitely made me appreciate the clowns in a show a lot more.” — Session I Camper
Aubrey says that clowning is the most vulnerable acting work she’s ever done. It requires that the performer put themselves totally out there, without guard or guile, at the mercy of the most fickle and untrustworthy scene partner of all: the audience. Freeing campers from the need to tell jokes or blow up balloon animals or overtly try in any way to “be funny,” Aubrey led them on a journey of love, trust, and profound discovery. The room was bursting with creativity, openness, support, ideas, and (of course) laughter. Campers came out of their shells in ways I’d never seen nor imagined. They held each other up even when they were literally knocking each other down (for the sake of the scene). The joy, the exuberance, and the effervescent delight were as palpable and tangible as the theatrical uses for the training itself, which quickly found themselves implemented in the final shows.
No wonder “clowning” pops so readily to mind for the ASC actors during those pre-show speeches: camp needs a clown, and now we have one — on staff, full-time.
3. Go to Hell
Just in case you didn’t know already, the American Shakespeare Center has built the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre: the Blackfriars Playhouse. While many things make the ASC special (our approach to Shakespeare’s text, our commitment to ethical business practices, our focus on Education, our fabulous fashion sense) the Blackfriars Playhouse tops the list. The privilege of performing in that space can bring professionals to their knees, and our campers get to do it before graduating high school — how cool is that? And yet, they haven’t been getting the full experience of working in that unique space because they haven’t been able to use one of its most prominent features: Hell.
The Blackfriars Playhouse is a recreation of an Early Modern (the name we give to the turning of the 17th century, which encompasses Shakespeare’s writing career) theatre. Other Early Modern theatres include the Globe, the Rose, the Curtain, the Swan, and the Theatre. All of these spaces had similar setups, architecturally: they feature a thrust stage (rather than a proscenium) where audience is seated on three sides of the action, they are universally lit by either the sun or candles (or a combination thereof) so that actors and audiences sharing the same pool of light remain visible to each other throughout a performance (“We do it with the lights on!”), and they have the same exits and entrances: two onstage doors (right and left) flanking a central curtain (the “discovery space”) with a balcony above the stage and a trap door in the floor leading down below to, well, Hell.
Hell (the space beneath the stage, accessed by a trap door) got its name from its use as an entrance, exit, or residence for ghostly or demonic characters — the ghost of Hamlet’s father “cries under the stage” when he urges Hamlet to “swear,” the “spirit riseth up” when conjured by the witch Margery Jourdain in Henry VI, Part II and “sinks down again” when dismissed by the same. The ASC makes great use of the Hell-space in our Playhouse, but its always been off-limits to campers. Until now.
I’ve wanted to take camp to Hell since day one, though I knew it would be a long battle with an unlikely chance of success if it were ever to happen. While Hell is really just a door in the floor of our stage, navigating it safely requires training. Using it safely (and consistently) requires practice and repetition. Practice and repetition require time in the Playhouse, which is notoriously hard to come by — especially during the summer, when we have both the resident and the touring troupes rehearsing multiple shows in that building during the day (and sometimes at night) while the resident troupe is also performing shows in the evening and the Staunton Music Festival is hosting concerts and Heifetz is holding concerts and we’re offering twice-daily tours of the building and still, the campers are jockeying for every moment they can get. Without adequate time for safety training and thorough rehearsal, the risks outweighed the rewards. Hell remained off-limits to camp.
Through some careful (and preemptive) scheduling over the last few summers, I’ve managed to continually increase the amount of rehearsal time the campers get in the Playhouse proper until finally, this summer, we got to a point where we had the time to go to Hell.
I put some restrictions in place immediately, because Hell is exciting and I knew our directors would want to take advantage of it. First, campers would not be allowed to operate Hell — only staff could physically open and close the doors. Next, all uses of Hell had to be textually supported — I wasn’t putting it on the table as a general entrance but rather acknowleding its importance among Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions and limiting its use to moments like the ones I mentioned above. If they wanted to use Hell, directors would have to submit a proposal to me outlining the textual justification and proposing a staging plan for the moments in question. If their proposal got approved, I took that staging plan to our Technical Director, Brandon Cook, who met with those casts during their first rehearsals in the Playhouse to go over operating the door to Hell and supervise the blocking of the scenes that would use it.
Two shows went to Hell this summer, one per session: the gravediggers entered from below and tossed skulls up out of the yawning grave of hell in the final act of Q1 Hamlet in Session I, and Malvolio emerged from below to beg Feste to help him out of the “hideous darkness” where he’d been consigned by Sir Toby in Twelfth Night during Session II. We kept everybody safe, and I look forward to all the future trips camp will get to take to Hell and back.
“If I could live in hell I would but I don’t think the ASC would be a fan of that.” — Session I Camper
4. Change is the only constant.
Camp is a constant for many of our campers — a constant source of support, of joy, of radical and unconditional acceptance. But the key to camp’s constancy is actually change. The real world (of which camp is manifestly not a part; see item #5 on this list) is always changing and camp needs to keep up whether we intend to keep in step or lead the charge away. This list so far is a perfect example of the ways that camp is constantly evolving in response to what we need, what we want, what we can do, what works, and what doesn’t. The Production Internship changed to better serve the productions themselves and the interns who work on them. Our curriculum changed along with our staff when Aubrey took over for Adrienne to better highlight Aubrey’s skill set and to put clowning back in camp. Camp’s use of the Playhouse changed to allow us more rehearsal time in the space, which in turn allowed us to go to Hell.
“Because that’s what we do/the way we do it” is the worst reason to do anything, in any way, ever. 2018 marks the 21st year of camp, which means we have 21 years of precedent to follow or break. In addition to clowns and Hell, this summer we also changed the playwrights, featuring Ben Jonson’s Volpone in Session I and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus in Session II. We changed morning warm-ups into movement training using the Viewpoints system developed by Anne Bogart. We changed the focus of the college credit course towards preparing text for performance, inviting in the session directors as well as ASC actor John Harrell to teach the campers how to take ownership of Shakespeare’s text. We changed the Extended Experience Week, adding more opportunities for campers to work behind the scenes with tech and administrative staff and taking an overnight trip to DC for the Capitol Fringe Festival (and some rollercoasters). We changed the activities we offer during free time, adding things like Archive movie marathons to the calendar and giving campers the opportunity to watch anything and everything the ASC has ever done. We changed the mid-session Showcase (again) to a collaborative creation devised by the campers themselves. In Session I, we took advantage of a blip in the Playhouse schedule to try out a new dress rehearsal system that let us run the entirety of the Final Performance Festival in one night rather than spreading it out over three. We changed auditions, removing a section on collaborative musical work and replacing it with cold readings from the session plays
“I really liked learning so much about Ben Jonson! Most people who come to camp know about Shakespeare, but I didn’t know a thing about Jonson before camp and I was in his show. I thought this was really helpful and made our show easy to understand where he was coming from.” — Session I Camper
“Archive Movie day is literally the greatest freaking thing, which should totally be an actual thing from now on.” — Session II Camper
Some of these changes worked wonderfully. Some of them failed miserably. All of them were valuable to me, because all of them taught me something I didn’t know before. But were they valuable for the campers? Change may be the only constant, but constant changes do not guarantee their own value or success; in fact, constant change rather guarantees the occasional (and occasionally spectacular) failure. Failure is inevitable — if you don’t fail occasionally, you’re not working up to your full potential — and I encourage campers to find the value in what they can learn from their failures, which is why camp needs to be a safe place to Fail Spectacularly without fear of judgment or reprisal. I try to model the values I espouse at camp, but still… nobody wants to Fail Spectacularly, not even me, not even to set a good example, and especially not if that Spectacular Failure comes at the cost of the campers’ experience. While they seemed to enjoy what worked and tolerate what didn’t, I knew the truth would out once the summer wrapped up, everybody went home, and camper survey responses started to roll in. And boy howdy, did it.
The truth? Our campers are thoughtful, mature, opinionated, caring, enthusiastic, contradictory, honest, open, sensitive goofballs who think thoroughly, feel deeply, share genuinely, and actively seek to learn from failure.
“Even though my director was rough, showcase was stressful, and it felt like there was a lot of tension between all of the campers, I think this was a defining year for myself as a soon to be adult. I think difference and diversity are important for growth and maturity. I certainly grew from my experience at camp this year in having to learn to respect people no matter how utterly opposite they are. I still love every camper, no matter how much of a [redacted] they are at times. Without the craziness that is camp (and the campers) I wouldn’t be who I am, and I am very happy being me.” — Session II Camper
They acknowledge the bad, but still look for the good — a rare quality, and one which brings me to the final item on my list.
5. Camp is Magic
Camp is not real life. Camp is magic.
When Co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen sent a company-wide email with the Final Performance Festival schedule, he added this note:
Attending even one of these shows will remind you why we do what we do — why you do what you do. I know how hard you are working, and I also know that in the daily pressure of getting the job done we can forget that we are the custodians of one of the world’s treasures — not our beautiful playhouse but the joy of theatre that lives in it, that magical combination of actor, language, and audience. These kids have that joy — you gave it to them — and watching how it transforms them is Red Bull for the soul.
Camp is the place where you are enough. A place of radical acceptance, where there will always be room for you at the table, no matter what you’ve brought with you to garnish the feast. Camp is in your corner, cheering you on. Loudly. And obnoxiously. Because at camp, every single person in the room with you wants nothing more than for you to succeed beyond your wildest expectations. Not many rooms are like that in real life.
Real life can cut you down as easily and capriciously as it can build you up. In fact, it rarely feels like you ever get one without the other. The magic of camp is the lack of such a ruinous quid pro quo: camp doesn’t require you to give tit before you can get tat. Camp requires nothing but you — all of you, the essential you, messy and mutinous and marvelous — because camp can make crystal clear an essential truth that in real life seems cloudy (but is no less true): you are enough.
“Not only did the ASC change my direction in life to the greatest it could be, but it also gave me this beautifully weird, dreamlike place with people that will walk with me, talk with me, and actually show me how to pursue the path of my happiness. My happiness isn’t just going into theatre and reading Shakespeare, it’s being comfortable and humbly proud with who I am in the world. When I first came to camp I was a socially inept, anxious, self-loathing terror that nobody wanted to be friends with. Three years later, I left camp this year being regarded as the “Cool Camp Dad”. I got to be there for those new campers who were just as anxious and confused as I was my first year, which was a defining moment in me accepting that I am growing up. Which has been weighing heavily in me this past year. Because of camp, and the people I have met there I no longer dread the future, doubt my worth, or believe that I am alone in this world. They may not be by me all the time, and we may never speak again, but I know who my friends are, and I know that I am loved.” — Session II Camper
Want to join the chaos and camaraderie of camp? Camper applications for next summer are OPEN. Apply now to attend ASCTC 2019!