Did you know that time spent in a theater is one of the best things your child could do over the summer to keep his or her learning skills sharp for the academic year? Putting on a play is more than just costumes, applause and stage bows. It gives kids the opportunity to be part of a team and see a project through from start to finish — important skills as schools increasingly focus on collaboration, problem solving and project-based learning.
Also, whether she grabs the lead role or designs a set, whether he gets up the courage to sing in front of an audience or quietly brainstorms blocking a scene, your child will develop the resilience that experts say makes all the difference for academic and lifelong success.
Broadway or Shakespeare, indoor or outdoor stage, a big company or a smaller, more intimate one: Thanks to a broad variety of local summer theater programs, the experience can be as you like it. Whichever the approach, the rewards should be bountiful.
“We place a particular emphasis on life skills,” says Nathan Jeffrey, director of education and outreach for Seattle’s Taproot Theatre, which, like many of the companies profiled here, runs kids’ programs throughout the year.
“We are not trying to create the next great generation of actors. Every student should be able to take lessons they learn with us — public speaking, collaboration, creative thinking, teamwork — and apply them elsewhere.”
Taproot Theatre offers approximately 25 weeklong summer camps, serving ages 4–18 and staffed by experienced theater professionals with backgrounds in theater education.
Each camp’s focus is age-appropriate, mirroring the structure, literacy skills and concepts of a classroom.
For example, Taproot Theatre’s Adventures in Drama class, geared for pre-kindergarten through first grade, focuses on body awareness and collaborative storytelling. Camps for second- and third-graders introduce more structure. By fourth grade, campers are ready for scripted work. Camps geared toward this age group and older are very performance-oriented, Jeffrey says.
Read on, Macbeth
Have a reluctant or emerging reader? Theater improves literacy skills, according to Maureen Miko, founder of Seattle’s Stone Soup Theatre, which offers camps at three outdoor locations in Seattle and on the Eastside, all with shelter in case of inclement weather.
“Kids get excited about reading when they rehearse a show. It helps them understand the story better,” Miko says. Particularly popular are theatrical adaptations of literary works.
Shakespeare provides a wealth of material suitable for young children, who enjoy playing with language, theater directors say.
“The younger you are, the more flexible you are linguistically,” explains Don Fleming, summer season director at Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT). “Shakespeare provides an opportunity for young children. They are already making up language.”
Like Hamlet, Seattle Shakespeare Company knows that for kids, “the play’s the thing.” It offers Camp Bill, a summer youth theater program that teaches voice, text and scene work — and Elizabethan dance and stage combat, to boot.
Separate but equal: The language of the arts
“One of the problems when you talk about ‘arts education’ is that it makes it sound separate from ‘education,’” says Shana Bestock, artistic and education director of Seattle Public Theater, the resident theater company at Green Lake’s historic Bathhouse. “However, most of the artists I know are scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, creative strategic problem solvers, marketers and business folks.
“To be an artist means to approach a variety of disciplines with artistic tools and an artistic framework. So as we educate our kids, I think it’s really important to treat artistic disciplines as separate skill sets, to understand that there’s a craft here. These are the skills you need in your toolbox in order to speak the language of theater.
“But why do we teach foreign languages? It’s not only so kids can go to a foreign country and converse with people. It’s also to develop critical thinking and empathy in a way that gets them outside of themselves. Once you give kids the language of art, then the next question has got to be ‘Here’s the language, what do you want to say?’”
Bestock says the end goal of Seattle Public Theater’s youth programs is not the production, but for youth to discover who they are, what they have to say and how they want to say it.
Seattle Public Theater’s summer productions will include Twelfth Night, Treasure Island and The Reluctant Dragon, as wll as some student-written work.
“One of the reasons we partner with so many different organizations, such as the Pacific Science Center, the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and the Woodland Park Zoo, is to show how theater can translate to other subjects,” says Karen Sharpe, education director for SCT.
“The heart of our program and philosophy is skill-building and process-based opportunities for students,” says Sharpe, who, through her work as the president of Theatre for Young Audiences USA (a national service organization promoting the power of professional theater for young audiences), has been exposed to some of the best theater education techniques in the U.S.
Campers at SCT will have the rare opportunity to work alongside members of the Actors’ Equity Association, the 100-year-old labor union representing nearly 50,000 actors and stage managers in the U.S.
“Union folks bring an attitude of professionalism to our summer program,” says Fleming, director of the summer season.
Kids don’t need to have professional theatrical aspirations to participate in SCT’s summer theater programs, Sharpe and Fleming stress.
“We have space for kids who want to be the best and for kids who are unsure of what they want. Whether you are 6 or 16, there’s a place for you,” Fleming says.
They wholeheartedly agree that theater programs teach life skills, which translate to any profession.
“A former student called to tell me our program had empowered her to take academic risks,” recalls Sharpe. “She’s now a scientist.”
Bottom line: Your kid will likely have a blast attending theater camp, and also be changed in big ways.
“Theater can flip the switch for kids, both academically and socially,” Bestock says.
Choosing a program
When choosing a summer theater program, Seattle Public Theater’s Shana Bestock recommends you consider the following questions:
• What are we looking for in a theater program?
• What is the audition process?
• What are key words other parents use to describe the program?
• What does my kid like to read?
• Is this program interested in the growth of my child?
• How does the program define success? Does it offer risk taking and challenges?
Local summer theater programs
5th Avenue Theatre (Seattle)
Broadway Bound (Seattle)
Olympia Family Theater
Seattle Children’s Theatre
206-443-0807, ext. 1186
Seattle's Littlest Performers
Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Stone Soup Theatre (Seattle)
Studio East (Kirkland)
Tacoma Musical Playhouse
Taproot Theatre Company (Seattle)
Village Theatre KidStage (Everett and Issaquah)
425-740-3035, ext. 1 (Everett)
Wedgwood Drama Studio (N.E. Seattle)
Youth Theatre Northwest (Mercer Island)