Kids Camp: Where it all Starts

Written by Aria Schuler (Transcendence Summer Intern)

Theatre is nothing if not an exercise in imagination, so imagine this: You are about eight years old, a little nervous, starting a week of camp that your mom has reminded you about all summer. You look around and see some kids that you don’t know that well, some that don’t even go to your school. Suddenly you’re in a circle holding hands with the other campers, and the lead counselor says: “Now let’s take four deep breaths.” You heave through the first one, your nerves subside with the next two, and by the fourth breath, you have this feeling: this is where it all starts.

When I first walked into Kids Camp as an intern, a little older than the 8-12 age range of the kids there, I didn’t know what to expect. I pictured my glory days at theater camp, where the top concerns were choreography and how I was going to trade my Go-Gurt for Pringles at lunch. But that trip down memory lane did not totally eliminate my uncertain feelings. However, fifteen minutes in, I realized one fundamental, anxiety-quelling truth: Kids Camp is, in fact, for everyone.

This universality starts at the staff level, according to Director of Education and head of Kids Camp, Nikko Kimzin. Artists from all different backgrounds with a multitude of personalities act as counselors, or as they are officially known, Teaching Artists. This diversity ensures that every kid finds their person. From laid back Erika Conaway, an actress in Transcendence’s A Chorus Line, to more energetic AJ Ackleson, who I saw participating in the lunch trade as much as the next camper, the Kids Camp counselors are there for “whatever your flavor is.”

With a diverse staff in place, there is room for a diverse set of campers. While most campers have done performance art, for some, this is their first time ever on stage. There’s both a junior ensemble (ages 8-12) and senior ensemble (ages 13-18) allowing for what Kimzin refers to as “different standards of excellence.” The program also offers half and full scholarships to ensure socioeconomic diversity. And of course, as with any group of people no matter how old, there are the kids who are loud and proud and those who are silent and steady. But in all of this difference, there is unity. “We’re all really weird and I think that gives us space to come together and for the kids to be themselves,” says Brianna Miller, Education Apprentice.

As they find their best selves over the course of the week, Kids Camp becomes a place where kids and staff alike come together to make art. The days are action-packed, starting with a “circle-up” at 8:30 (because time is everything in the theatre), and then diverging into a myriad of activities. There’s songwriting class, where the campers write on both an individual and group basis to create an original track. And dance rehearsal, where the campers learn the steps for their performance on the Jack London Stage. Kimzin emphasizes that the curriculum not only caters to all kids, but also provides opportunities for both product-based learning through rehearsals for the performance, and process-based learning through regular masterclasses. Basically, these kids get a little bit of absolutely everything.

While giving kids tools to add to their artist toolboxes, Kids Camp is still just that: a fun summer camp. One of the top answers I got as I continued my investigative journalism among elementary schoolers was that a highlight of camp is the friends you make. Nothing better exemplifies this than the end-of-day “shoutouts”. Shoutouts are a time for campers to share appreciations at the end of the day, another Kids Camp tradition. According to Transcendence Artistic Director Amy Miller, kids shout out new friends from different schools who they didn’t know up until camp. And that was on Monday, the very first day. The connections formed are both speedy and undoubtedly more critical than any ensemble work in a classroom.

The skills learned and community formed are soon displayed as the week leads up to the final performance at Transcendence’s Fantastical Family Night. When I infiltrated a group of sixth-grade girls to ask some questions, they jumped out of their chairs with excitement after I mentioned their upcoming show. It’s not hard to see why: the kids will be performing to their own original song with specialized choreography in front of a crowd of 850+ people after working all week. As I sat in the gym for the first part of my day musing on rehearsal, I realized it’s clear this isn’t your typical recital, but rather the next generation of artists coming into their own. “My favorite part is watching the kids ownership of their songs,” Kimzin says, with a charming expression, “because it’s personal. It’s always personal.”

The program and performances seem to get better year after year. A moment that particularly stood out to me was when one of my new sixth grade friends said her favorite part of Kids Camp is that “every year you learn something new. It keeps growing, and there’s no way anyone can stop it.” Hearing the limitless potential of art from someone that age was just as inspiring as hearing it from any working actor. And to hear that even the campers themselves are picking up on Transcendence’s growth shows how intrinsic it is to the artistic development of local youth.

It’s hard to pin-point just one thing that makes Kids Camp so great. Maybe it’s because the program finds new ways to reach every kind of kid out there. Maybe it’s because the principles of theatre education develop good human beings, from social-emotional learning to remembering lyrics and dances at the drop of a hat. But most likely, it’s a combination of all those factors that make the week fun. With a great staff, all types of kids, and a value placed on their individual talents I can safely say one thing about Kids Camp: this is, in fact, where it all starts.

So for every eight-year-old in the future, nervous about their first day, just take four deep breaths, enjoy the day, and we’ll all be cheering for you from the audience.