Ever hear the one about the kids who turned summer camp into a total joke?
Around the Washington area, budding comedians can finesse their skills this summer at an array of camps that promise big laughs. “There are a lot of kids out there who are really genuinely very funny and who enjoy learning the specific skills that go along with comedy,” says Sara Strehle Duke, executive director of Encore Stage & Studio. “People think that you’re either born with it or you’re not, but at camp, these kids get the opportunity to hone their skills and practice.”
Encore, located in Arlington, offers dozens of summer camps for kids as young as 3. A couple will appeal to young jokesters in particular, like the improv-a-thon for tweens ages 8 to 12 (Aug. 19-23, $350). During the weeklong program, attendees might, for example, be given a location or relationship they need to create a story around, which is an exercise in situational comedy. Imagine one kid is a teacher and another is a student, and they’re on the moon — what would happen? “They get to use their imagination and try out funny characters,” Duke says. “Kids are infinitely imaginative.”
In Encore’s Tragedy vs. Comedy camp (July 22-Aug. 2, $665) — also designed for the 8-to-12 set — participants explore both comedic and dramatic acting styles, plus the skills required for each. Last year, attendees were tasked with transforming “Peter Pan,” culminating in a performance for friends and family. “One group took the dramatic version, and it got kind of dark,” Duke says. “They took out the magical element and made it much more serious, and then the other team heightened the magic and the comedy and made a comedic version. So they got to explore how one story can be crafted differently just by the plot you choose, making it a completely different experience.”
Sheila Wenz, a D.C.-based professional comedian who offers stand-up and sketch comedy classes to kids and adults at Stand-Up Studios DC, says studying comedy helps boost confidence and public speaking skills. “I help [kids] get to the point and present their unique ideas in a humorous way,” she says. “It’s not, ‘Let me hear a joke about the chicken who crossed the road.’ It’s more, ‘Who are you and how do you see the world?’”
Wenz will teach three summer camps through Montgomery College Youth Programs: stand-up comedy (July 22-26 for students who will be in grades nine to 12 in the fall; July 27-Aug. 2 for grades six to eight) and funny girls (Aug. 12-16, for girls in grades eight to 12). Each camp costs $210 and will be held at Montgomery College’s Rockville campus. “I enjoy teaching the kids more than the adults because they’re just naturally funny,” Wenz says. “And they take it very seriously.”
At Smithsonian Summer Camp, held at the S. Dillon Ripley Center, future comedians can study the history of their craft. There are two options: sketch comedy, open to kids in grades seven through nine (June 17-21), and American comedy, geared toward third- to fifth-graders (Aug. 5-9). Each is $460, or $395 for members of Smithsonian Associates, which organizes the camps.
Brigitte Blachere, program manager for Smithsonian Associates, is succinct when describing this summer’s comedic offerings: “Fun!”
In the sketch comedy program, teens play theater games and learn to develop unique characters and unusual situations via a series of skits that they write, design and perform. They’ll discover how to best present comedy, whether it’s on the stage, big screen or YouTube, Blachere says.
Young comedians enrolled in the American Comedy program will visit the American History Museum, National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture, where they’ll examine stand-up comic Phyllis Diller’s gag file and the frilly shirt Jerry Seinfeld agreed to wear during an appearance on “The Today Show.” “It’s a unique opportunity that allows kids to not only have a great time, but to be part of a camp on the Mall, at the Smithsonian, and to get to see things they might not otherwise get to see,” Blachere says.
Traveling Players Ensemble, a nonprofit professional theater company, offers a range of summer acting programs for students in grades three to 12. Introductory programs last a week; more intensive, advanced training is five to seven weeks. During the Middle School Ensemble program (June 24-July 19, July 22-Aug. 16, $2,350), current fifth- to eighth-graders will perfect physical comedy techniques and perform a farce by the French playwright Moliere. During the five-week Commedia Troupe program, 13 high school students — admitted via audition — will study commedia dell’arte, a style of improvised theatre credited with introducing slapstick comedy and other popular theatrical conventions. The program, which lasts from July 22 to Aug. 23, costs $3,800.
“Essentially, they didn’t have cartoons in the 17th century —they had this,” says Toby Mulford, Traveling Players’ associate artistic director, and the founder and director of the Commedia Troupe. Summer program participants “learn really big, broad physical characterizations and other aspects of this style, and they get to experience building a play through improvisation with each other.” Students spend the final nine days of camp on tour, performing an original commedia play at places like the Lime Kiln Amphitheater in Lexington, Va. It’s never too early, after all, for a budding comedian’s grand debut.