First Stage Academy offers a dramatic summer camp

Kirstin Roble, Contributing writer

Summer is here, and the familiar activities of the season are in full swing in Milwaukee. Head to Bradford Beach and you will find volleyball scrimmages all day long. Local beer gardens are filled to the brim, with customers sampling some of the finest beers that Milwaukee has to offer. 

For students, summer often means summer camp. But not every camp requires you to head to the woods. One of the city’s most beloved just requires you to step on a stage.

First Stage Academy, an education program from the children’s theater company of the same name, will enter its 23rd summer this year, welcoming more than 1,300 students from kindergartners to high school seniors. With classes designed to challenge students at each level as actors, playwrights and singers, this experience is truly one of a kind, teaching kids life skills through theater and providing growth opportunities even to those participants who don’t have their hearts set on stardom.

Academy director Jennifer Adams says First Stage Academy sessions range from a week to a month in length, and always end with a performance that shows off the students’ hard work.

Much like in professional theater, what non-participants don’t see is all the work that goes on behind the scenes to produce that performance. The academy features a daily curriculum taught by members of the local theater community. Students arrive around 8 a.m. and subsequently rotate through classes on subjects including playwrights, acting and improvisation until they return home in the afternoon. Sessions for older students are even more intensive — Adams says they are allowed to “major” in an area of their choice: Shakespeare, perhaps, or musical theater. “It really gives them an opportunity to develop their craft over the four-week course period,” she says.

Program durations largely depend on the age of the participants. Elementary school students generally attend weeklong sessions, with the youngest kids only required to participate for a half-day. Three-to-four week programs are geared toward middle and high school students who want that more focused work.

Adams says each year features a mix of new and returning students, keeping each summer a fresh experience. “It doesn’t matter if you are new to the Academy or have attended several times — there’s always something for everyone,” she says. “Each session brings new scenes and challenges, plus our staff changes each year. Veteran or not, the students get to work with professional, regional actors — it’s a great opportunity for them.”

The current Summer Academy is underway, but that doesn’t mean planning hasn’t already started for the 2016 session. “We keep a running list of what is working well and what could be tweaked. Some items get added onto the curriculum right away while others are notated to add next summer,” says Adams.

And it isn’t too late to sign up for this year’s program, Adams says. The company has classes all summer long and has added two new locations this year: the United Community Center on Milwaukee’s South Side and St. Rafael’s School in the Layton Boulevard West neighborhood.

“It doesn’t matter if you have been to First Stage zero times or 20,” Adams says. “There is something for everyone. We aren’t just teaching acting skills, but also life skills. That is incredibly important to us, and to our students. It’s what we’ve built the Academy on.”

Join the Academy

Interested students and their families can find more information about First Stage classes or register for future sessions at firststage.org or by calling 414-267-2970.