I spent last Tuesday at the Five-Week Summer Shakespeare Conservatory, wandering around and observing the multitude of activities; it made me realize how much I miss summer camps. I had a bast just moseying around the conservatory. In addition to appreciating the fun atmosphere that was ever-present at the camp, I was really impressed by the sophistication and the higher standard to which the teaching staff held the campers, while still maintaining that fun summer camp atmosphere.
The teaching staff at the conservatories—currently there are two sessions running, Five-Week at Bentley Upper School and Two-Week at Holy Names—is composed of working professionals assisted by interns from the Professional Immersion Program and the Teaching Artist Fellowship. I met all of the Bentley staff and observed them at work, and their passion and energy was unyielding. It was absolutely wonderful to watch such excellent teachers.
I really appreciated the structure of the conservatory as well. It was like a theater kid’s heaven. I wish I could enroll in the conservatory simply to attend all the classes the teaching staff provides the kids. In the morning, all of the campers attend classes: one-hour sessions in stage combat, improv, Shakespeare history, movement, or text/voice. That’s what was on the agenda the day I attended, but other days include storytelling, a master class on hip-hop Shakespeare, and so on. Before listening in on a Shakespeare history class I thought it would be a bit of an uphill battle—trying to get kids to listen to history during the summer months seemed to me to be a very tough mountain to climb—but with the skills and larger-than-life personalities of the faculty, it was not at all the losing battle I had predicted. It was actually fun.
The second half of the day, after lunch, is rehearsal time, with the five different groups all retreating to separate classrooms to rehearse the plays they were working on. I was impressed by the young kids tackling Shakespearean language with tenacity, laughing and joking and having a blast. The interns and TAFS got to teach and exercise their directorial skills by working with small groups within the casts—simultaneously providing one-on-one attention for the campers and hands-on experience for the TAFs and PIPS who are pursuing careers in theater education.
“You really pick up a different part of your craft when you are able to articulate it, rather than just do it,” Teaching Artist Fellow Vince Rodriguez said. “And so not only do I teach the kids, they also teach me. Also, to be able to see how one goes about teaching abstract concepts like movement to such young kids is wonderful, and I’m learning a lot.”
Heidi Abbott ran a wonderful improv class that all of the kids (myself included!) loved. She didn’t play down to the kids, no matter how young they were, which in turn helped spur the kids to play on a level higher than perhaps they usually would do.
It was fascinating to watch the movement classes as well. Susannah Martin really challenged the kids to just plunge into the exploration of movement—to enter a “private laboratory” where you just experiment with the space. Susannah asked her students to feel the space with their muscles, feel the space with their skin, as a fluid, and so on. She was asking them to completely abandon the ever present fear of looking foolish, and the students (the Queen’s Own group, grades 10-12) rose easily to the challenge. They moved across the auditorium with complete abandon, focusing solely on their movements, how their bodies felt, not on the other kids around them. This summer camp obviously pushes kids to step outside of their comfort zones, and in the very safe and fun environment that is present, the kids are willing and even eager to do so.
It was very cool also to talk to the PIPs and the TAFs about their seemingly endless passion for theater education.
“I’m going to sound completely cliché, but when you are teaching theater you are not just teaching ‘ok this is upstage and downstage.’ You aren’t just putting on a play, you are teaching these kids skills,” said Teaching Artist Fellow Jenna Goodman. “You are building confidence; they are learning how to be an individual as well as to be part of something greater. The kids are being challenged to make bold choices, and to sort of stretch and grow. There is something about it, there is a kind of freedom that comes with teaching theater that you don’t really see anywhere else.”