Circus and Rock Shop and Musicals, Oh My!

Manhattan kids discover talents they didn't know they had, and make new friends who share their passions at a co-ed arts camp in the Catskills

23 Jan 2020 | 10:55

French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts is where Maroon 5 formed. It houses the largest children’s circus in the world, and countless Broadway stars got their start performing here. French Woods is also a sleepaway camp where I found a home each summer from 2012 to 2016.

Nestled in the Catskill Mountains, French Woods is a co-ed arts camp for kids aged 7-17. It offers four three-week sessions plus a shortened fifth. Most campers stay for two sessions, although some stay the whole summer while others just go for just one session. Days are divided into six, one-hour periods: three majors and three minors. Campers commit to attending the same majors every day at the start of each session.

The most exciting part of camp is looking at the endless list of major and minor options. Majors give campers the opportunity to deeply engage in a particular area of interest. Most performance-based activities like circus or musical theater take up these time slots. Even if the major isn’t working on a production, they end in a capstone project. If you take video, you might be featured in the camp film festival. If your major is Rock Shop, you can write songs with your band and record them. You can also sew costumes for shows, play in the pit orchestra, or learn how to silkscreen.

Minors are non-committal, exploratory electives the campers sign-up for at breakfast each day. Curious what leather-working means? Sign up for the minor! I did, and I ended up making giraffe sculptures. I had so much fun, I ended up majoring in leather-working the following year.

Auditions and New Experiences

The first two days of camp are a whirlwind of auditions. Auditions can be stressful, particularly for returning campers who want to place into a higher level dance class or get a bigger part in a musical than the year before. While getting a coveted spot in the cabaret or improv troupe is no easy feat, camp is for learning and auditions are the portal to that experience. I had never been in a circus act before French Woods, but auditions were basic assessments of campers’ strength and flexibility. I tried out on a whim and placed into static trapeze. That experience was catalytic. I found I had a real passion for aerial arts and joined a small circus troupe in New York City when I got home.

Even auditions for theater can be last minute and pressure free. Some campers spend months working on a song with their voice coach, but others sing “Happy Birthday.” My first year, I was too scared to sing in front of other campers, so a head counselor let me audition alone, before the official start time. Regardless of ability or preparation, each camper is taken seriously and given an accompanist, and everyone who auditions for a musical is guaranteed to be cast. Callback lists are taped to the side of the most central theater the following day, and kids wake up at the crack of dawn and huddle in a mob, waiting to storm the theater to see what they got. Ultimately, these crazy days of auditioning become just another camp tradition.

Respect and Autonomy

My friend and former bunkmate Tali Natter said, “French Woods is more intense than any normal camp, but it’s still a summer camp.” The bugle sounded at 7:30 a.m. every morning, igniting a cacophony of groans from my 12 bunkmates snuggled in bed. I always got stuck with a top bunk, so it took extra motivation to climb down and get ready for breakfast. Tali would always mobilize and turn on the "Next to Normal" or "Dogfight" original cast album. Soon enough the grogginess would fade and we’d be belting show tunes while brushing our teeth.

Twice a session, campers are gifted a “lazy day” to take a break from our hectic schedules. Mia Goodman, another friend and former bunkmate, said, “Outside of our bunk there was this beautiful grassy area. I remember someone bringing their guitar, and we’d just lie around and sing.” If it was raining, you might go to a movie. Other times, you could take a trip to see a Broadway show and meet the cast. We also had super bunk clean-ups each session. Winners were taken out for ice cream at The Cow Lick. Some overly zealous bunks had themed clean-ups, like “under the sea.” One of my favorite traditions was Brain Freeze night. Each age group would gather for trivia followed by karaoke. At the end of the night, Camp Director Isaac Baumfeld would request “Piano Man” and sing at the top of his lungs.

When I asked Mia and Tali what unifies French Woods loyalists, Tali said , “Passionate and driven would be the two words I’d use to describe a typical French Woods kid.” Mia said, “Everyone is artistic in some way.” French Woods is an empowering space, particularly for middle schoolers who are navigating cliques and conformity. At camp, each individual is celebrated for themselves and taken seriously as an artist. This level of respect and autonomy is a gift most young people don’t get to experience until college. Goodman said: “When you go somewhere where everyone is passionate about what you’re passionate about, it changes everything. These people I met five years ago, they’ve stayed in my life.”