Fall 2019 is going to be quite the busy season for the ASC Education Department, and while the glow of summer still lingers I want to distill its lessons. Hi! I’m Lia Wallace. You may remember me from such blog posts as as “What I Learned on my Summer Vacation – an ASCTC 2018 Retrospective” and “What Are Your Hands Doing?” I am the College Prep Programs Manager for the American Shakespeare Center, which means I have the great privilege of running the ASC Theatre Camp every summer. I went to school for a long time and often think I know everything there is to know about my job, and every summer several dozen teenagers descend upon Staunton to prove me wrong. Here are five of the biggest lessons I learned from them in 2019.
1. Keep the same residential staff for both sessions.
The ASC Theatre Camp is a residential, college-prep experience, which means that our campers live in dormitories on the Mary Baldwin University campus and need round-the-clock supervision. That’s where our amazing residential staff comes in. We don’t just have camp counselors, we have Resident & Directing Assistants (or RDAs) who pull double-duty as both resident assistants in the dorms (just like college) and assistant directors in the rehearsal room (just like real life). Hiring (like casting) really is 90% of the job, and applicants with the right qualifications are hard to come by.
The ASC Theatre Camp is also a bifurcated experience, in that there are two distinct three-week sessions. While some campers will attend both sessions, for the most part everything flips over between the two: after Session 1, we get three new directors to direct thirtyish new campers in three new plays for Session 2. In years past, we’ve also flipped the RDAs in between sessions – like the campers, one or two might stay for the whole summer, but in general, the whole staff flips over. The infusion of fresh blood is often great, and having a different staff for each session allows me to hire more of the exceptional applicants that cross my desk — but it also means we have to re-orient and re-train the Session 2 residential staff, making it harder to learn from the mistakes or build on the successes of Session 1.
This year, we kept the same residential staff the whole way through. We all got tired (burnout is hard!) and we know that next year, we’ll be scheduling more time off for everybody — but overall, what a privilege it was to build and deepen the relationship with this team of professionals, who in turn got a better chance to develop their own craft and see more of the American Shakespeare Center from the inside.
“They were fantastic and incredibly helpful and supportive within rehearsal and outside of rehearsal!” — Session 2 camper
2. Production interns. Have them. More of them.
This summer, I doubled down on last year’s revamped Production Internship and gave each show two Production Interns: a dramaturg and a stage manager. As with the RDAs, I kept those six interns on staff for the entire summer. Each one got the chance to dramaturg a show in one session and to stage manage a show in the other, and they helped the RDAs with Showcase, too (see below). The dramaturgs wrote the daily rehearsal recaps for the blog, did presentations for the campers on the historical and cultural context of their plays, and created lobby displays for the Final Performance Festivals. The stage managers took notes in rehearsal, pulled and tracked props and costumes, and sent out nightly rehearsal reports. They were not in charge of campers in the dorm, but they did live there, and their presence provided campers a visible, tangible example of Life After Camp.
“I loved how the production interns were so approachable and how they became our older brothers and sisters during the duration of camp.” – Session 2 camper
The ASC Theatre Camp is a process-oriented experience, and the addition of the Production Internship last summer as well as its subsequent growth this summer has always been about a) improving the experience for campers in the rehearsal room and b) creating a substantive internship opportunity offering real, hands-on professional development in theatre production that c) campers can look forward to doing when they graduate.
“My mother has pretty much already decided I’m going to apply to be a production intern, and I was skeptical, but the PIs on my show made me feel like this was something I could not only do but enjoy. They were very positive forces in both rehearsals and just about everywhere else.” – Session 1 Camper
I don’t know that we’ll keep the exact same system for the ASCTC 2020 Production Internship, but this summer taught me how important the internship itself is not only to the product of the final shows themselves, but to the process of creating those shows and, indeed, the entire camp experience. More than 90% of this summer’s campers currently plan to apply for a Production Internship after graduating camp, and I can hardly wait to see what next year’s crop of interns brings.
“I WANT TO BE A DRAMATURG SO VERY BAD.” – Session 1 Camper
3. Showcase: fixed it.
As much as I would love to do absolutely everything myself (let me play the lion, too!) I really can’t — nor should I. As the incredible team for ASCTC 2019 began falling into place, I knew I was in the perfect position to do something I’ve needed but heretofore been unable to do: hand over the reins of Showcase to the residential staff team.
“Please please please keep the system of the RDAs directing small scenes. It works so well and it gives people the ability to act and interact with characters and scenes they never would have been able to otherwise.” — Session 2 camper
“Showcase” is the extra, fourth performance the campers put on midway through each Session, and it’s taken many forms over the years. From staged readings to devised theatre, we’ve tried A LOT, with predictably erratic results. In my opinion, the best model we tried was during ASCTC 2017, when I asked campers questions on their audition forms about parts they’ve always wanted to play or scenes they may want to perform, and then incorporated those requests into a cohesive suite of scenes drawn from throughout the Shakespearean canon. Campers got a chance to weigh in on the final product, and explore things they weren’t doing in their main shows throughout the Showcase rehearsal process. And, of course, it accomplished the goals of letting campers play different kinds of characters while also being responsive to the main show casting, so that campers with less to do in their main shows could have more to do in Showcase and vice versa.
“Showcase was so much fun and it’s such a great way to try something new in performance! I loved doing scenes that were fairly well-known and getting to do our very own take on them. I also appreciate getting to work with people outside my own cast because it was a great opportunity to make friends and learn from others!” — Session 2 camper
All of that was great, but it was too much for me to do by myself. If only I had, like, a dozen other theatre professionals who already know the campers and the canon and may want to pitch in on a project like Showcase. But where am I ever going to find th– oh. Right. Duh.
So during ASCTC 2019, the RDAs directed Showcase. I worked with them to select scenes and decide casting, and then let them go for it. And go for it they did. With the Production Interns stepping up to serve as Assistant Directors, each Showcase scene was able to get the time and dedicated direction it deserved. Campers got to work with different staging styles, different artistic teams, and different casts. RDAs got the chance to solo-direct, and Production Interns got to dip their toes into assistant directing. The process was positive and the product was a solid, enjoyable piece of theatre in its own right. It may have taken me a few tries to get the Showcase equation right, but now that we’ve got it, I’m glad I kept trying instead of settling for one of the less-successful models, or getting rid of Showcase altogether.
“It worked this year! Unlike previous years.” – Session 1 camper
4. There is a difference between being “uncomfortable” and being “unsafe.” Defining that difference is useful.
Theatre is an intense, intensely vulnerable, intensely collaborative art, so while I don’t think our campers have more angst than most teenagers, I do think we ask them to tap into resources that may call on that angst far more frequently than perhaps they are comfortable doing. While the industry standard for the performing arts has been abysmally insensitive to things like mental health (how many of us have “pushed through” a panic attack because we know how replaceable we are as performers?) the ASC Theatre Camp has gladly joined the modern movement to change that standard. Still, distinguishing between feeling panicky and “having a panic attack” can be tough for anybody, especially teenagers, especially in an unfamiliar environment, especially working in theatre. How do we remain sensitive to the realities of mental health without grinding work to a halt every time somebody feels a bit anxious? Far more important, how can we encourage healthy and productive self-care habits in our campers, so that they don’t pick up self-destructive habits in response to stress instead? I don’t have an answer for you, but I do think we made progress on that score with some careful definition (and delineation) of the terms “uncomfortable” and “unsafe.”
“ASCTC is and continues to be one of the only places that I am able to function independently (getting out of bed on time, doing my own laundry, etc.) and my parents and I agree that it has and will serve me well.” – Session 1 camper
Throughout camp, all staff members constantly reinforced the difference between feeling uncomfortable, which is both tolerable and occasionally desirable, and being unsafe, which is neither of those things. At camp, we want to keep everyone safe while occasionally pushing them out of their comfort zones, because that’s where learning takes place.
Uncomfortable feelings are things like this is unfamiliar and maybe I’m not so good at it so I feel self-conscious, or maybe I didn’t eat enough at lunch and I’m really hungry right now, or wow do I really dislike this topic of conversation/disagree with this person’s opinion. The reaction to an uncomfortable scenario should be to lean in and get whatever you can get out of it, rather than shutting down completely and denying yourself the opportunity to learn something new or grow in an unexpected way. That sort of productive discomfort is usually the zone of profound discovery that leads to substantive growth. Why would we want to avoid it?
“I think that the many positive learning experiences at camp have helped me immensely. I also think that the occasional frustrations I had with camp helped me in their own way.” — Session 1 camper
On the other hand, unsafe feelings are those that call into question or threaten one’s immediate physical or emotional well-being. If a camper found themselves feeling unsafe, the first step would always be for staff to remove the camper from the situation in question and call mom and dad. We will move heaven and earth for a camper’s safety, and we wanted to make sure they knew that — but heaven and earth don’t move without mom and dad knowing about it. Knowing that deeming something “unsafe” would immediately mean a “phone call home” pre-empted campers from using the term lightly. And, frankly, it allowed staff (myself included) to do the same.
5. Camp (like everything) requires and reinforces a growth mindset.
The “uncomfortable” vs. “unsafe” delineation was a natural outgrowth of the ASC Education department’s general obsession with Carol Dweck’s book, Mindsets. According to Dweck, the most reliable predictor of success is a person’s mindset, which can either be fixed (those who believe that traits are innate and cannot be changed with effort) or oriented towards growth (those who believe that traits are not innate and can be changed with effort). “Traits” is a purposefully broad word, because Dweck applies her theory to everything from academic intelligence to business acumen to sports ability. Importantly, Dweck’s theory is entirely unconcerned with whether traits can be changed or not — the point of her book is that the results lie in whether we believe they can.
For people with a fixed mindset (like yours truly), criticism can be deadly because we find it hard to separate the traits or work being criticized with our worth as human beings. The societal value on innate talent (this kid is a musical prodigy, that kid is a math wiz) and devaluing of hard work (none of the cool kids – including the musical prodigy or the math wiz – ever practice or study) reinforces this feeling, which can quickly grow to “unsafe” levels of self-loathing in response to “uncomfortable” feedback and a subsequent cessation of all efforts to ever again step outside of that comfort zone to learn new things. This is a disaster, generally, but specifically in an environment like camp, which is chock-full of opportunities to learn.
“I think no matter what- what I’ve learned this past summer goes beyond Shakespeare and theatre. It’s putting yourself in a vulnerable situation and knowing those who love you will still love you. I’ve learned to love myself and let myself be loved in return. I’ve learned to make mistakes and deal with pressure. I love theatre, but even if I don’t end up doing something with it, I’ll have gone to a bomb camp and met some bomb people.” — Session 1 camper
Following Dweck’s advice for cultivating a growth-mindset culture, we made a point this year of valuing process (and progress) over product. Instead of praising talent, we praised effort, highlighting for campers the difference between where they started and where they ended up, even if they ended up a bit short of their original goal. This was not a gambit designed to secretly make the product better by pretending to focus on process. We actually did so, and in my opinion, the results speak for themselves.
“I know this isn’t the end of me and ASCTC or the ASC, but it’s the end of me as a camper, and that’s been an important part of my growth as a human being. So thank you to everybody who was a part of that growth, it’s beyond my scope to pay you all back, but know that I’ll always appreciate and remember you.” — Session 2 camper
At the ASC Theatre Camp, we don’t set out to train the next crop of Shakespearean actors (though we do end up doing a bit of that by accident) but rather the next generation of fully engaged human beings. Camp is about growth in all areas, and as the American Shakespeare Center continues to grow in reputation and renown, I look forward to camp growing along with it. Thank you all for another great summer, and here’s looking ahead to ASCTC 2020!