Growing up with a learning disability, Mitch Master struggled when it came to speaking in front of people – especially at school. He credits his time in summer theater camp with instilling in him the confidence he needed.
“When I was offered my first big part, as Oliver, I struggled to read my lines,” explains Master, who was 9 years old at the time he was cast in the musical Oliver! “When I went back to school the next year I was a better student – and I felt more prepared, especially with oral reports. The confidence I gained on stage poured out into schooling.”
Today, Master tries to help other children uncover their talents and skills as the co-director of the Roeper Summer Stock Theatre.
Granted, not every child will experience the same boost in confidence Master did. Yet summer theater camps offer something unique to children – skills that go beyond anything they do on stage. Kids learn to fuel their creativity all while developing better skills when it comes to reading, concentration, self-discipline and more. That’s right: They’re learning without even realizing it.
Whether your child is a pint-sized diva or has only a passing interest in the arts, here are a few questions to ask to find the right summer theater camp for her. The skills she’ll be learning may surprise you.
How credible is the program?
Check into the theater program’s history before signing your child up, suggests DeLashea Strawder, associate artistic director and director of music programs of Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit.
“One way to know if it’s a reputable organization is to look at their history,” Strawder says. “Not that new organizations are not qualified, but you want to make sure they are qualified to work with young people.”
If possible, talk to families or alumni of the program to see what their experiences were like. The program website should also give you a good idea about the qualifications of those who will be working with the kids. Look to see what kind of training they have – not just in the theater but also in working specifically with kids.
What is the camp-to-staffer ratio?
Theater camps are often set up with one artistic director over the whole program, with several counselors working with smaller groups of kids.
“At our camp, we usually have one staffer per 10 young people,” explains Strawder, who has as many as 165 youth come through Mosaic’s program during the summer season. “We want each of the kids to receive individualized attention.”
What kind of timing works best?
The amount of time your child is in camp will depend on his or her age, but you also should keep in mind your timing and budget. Many camps start with youngsters not even yet in school.
“We offer preschool camps on up,” says Michelle Trame Lanzi, company manager of Wild Swan Theater in Ann Arbor. “The preschool camp is just two hours – we’ve found that’s just the right amount of time for kids that age.” Full-day camps for older children are available, too.
When looking for youth theater camps, you can expect to find a range of different types of programs available – everything from two-week, all-day intensive programs to longer camps, some lasting the entire summer.
What is the right age for my child to start?
“The earlier kids start, the better,” says Cassie Mann, program director at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Youth Summer Camp. “I would definitely say by 5 years old, they’re ready.” She goes on to say that much of the programming during the day involves theater games and play – activities that appeal to kids. “The only skill set they need (to be in the program) is that they don’t wander off,” Mann jokes.
Is there a performance at the end? What type?
Not every summer theater camp involves a performance as the culminating event. And even if it does, the types of performance vary widely. “Our camps are more about process than product,” says Mann. “In some programs we may do a mini-production at the end. But our whole aim is just to have fun and to introduce kids to the world of theater.”
In Motor City Youth Theatre programs in Livonia, however, performing for an audience is always a part of the experience. “Even when we just do a two-week summer day camp, they’ll do a play in the week,” says Nancy Florkowski, the artistic director. “I think kids like to see a final product.”
Some theater programs may have the campers develop their own play during their time, while others use existing plays – for example Shrek Jr. or even Shakespeare.
Is the camp for all levels of experience?
If your child is new to the theater, you’ll want to make sure that the camp program takes beginners. Then again, if your child has already been in theater and is looking to develop his skills more, select a program for kids who already have theater experience.
What if my child feels nervous about performing?
Youth programs are designed to help kids to become more comfortable on stage and perform in front of others. Being nervous is expected.
“A lot of parents come in here and their kids are so shy the first day,” says Christina Zayti, owner of the Northville’s Historic Marquis Theatre. “But they get over it fast. We teach the kids about projecting and how to present themselves on stage. When they finally get on the stage, they see that they can open up and be themselves.”
Does my child need to be serious about the arts to do this?
It’s definitely not a requirement. “Theater camp is about giving children a chance to get their feet wet and to be exposed to the arts,” Strawder says. That said, some kids do end up deciding to pursue the arts as a career – in part from their summer camp experience.
Strawder spent three years in Mosaic’s program, which spurred her interest in being in theater education full time. “I started out wanting to be a doctor, so that I could change people’s lives, and now I’m doing that. Every day I get to witness small miracles with the children in our program and the skills they develop – and I think that’s awesome.”
There are several summer youth theater programs in southeast Michigan. Here are just a few. Call or visit their websites for more info on what they offer.
- Address: 322 W. Ann St., Ann Arbor
- Phone: 734-971-2228
- Address: 2251 Antietam Ave., Detroit
- Phone: 313-872-6910
- Address: 27555 Grantland St., Livonia
- Phone: 313-535-8962
- Address: 135 E. Main St., Northville
- Phone: 248-349-8110
- Address: 1051 Oakland Ave., Birmingham
- Phone: 248-203-7470
- Address: 6175 Jackson Road, Suite B, Ann Arbor
- Phone: 734-995-0530