Community Theater Camp Makes ‘Sheer Magic’ in a Church Basement

by | Jun 2019

Children perform as pirates at Morningside Theatre Company.

Photos: Rachel Nadeau

How a neighborhood theater camp helps kids grow.

“A pinch and an ouch,” says Jane Williams, a founder of the Morningside Theatre Company (MTC), is what it takes to act. She means, “This happens that makes that happen and that happen, on and on,” to simplify the principles of stage performance to make it accessible to students from kindergarten through ninth grade, who’ve poured into the un-air-conditioned basement at Morningside Community Church each summer for the past 10 years.

This season, MTC offers four age-based theater camps and shows. A decade ago, Williams, the children’s programming director at the church from 2003-2010; Jim Lansing, the pianist and organist at the time; and Kelly Newell, the choir director, decided to start the theater camp idea they had been dreaming about for years, as a chance to find ways to allow kids opportunities to be on stage. That first year however, “We had nine kids,” says Williams, “and four of them were our family members.” They performed Into The Woods and most of the kids played multiple roles. Williams’ daughter, Ella, was both Little Red Riding Hood and the Witch.

The next year, 16 kids showed up for camp. This year, nearly 130 kids will perform. They’ve never advertised. The growth has all been word of mouth and a “truly special, unique thing,” says Lansing who points out that not only have they grown in camper numbers over the years, the camps have also provided opportunities for older students to help out in various roles.

Jim Lansing and Jane Williams. Williams' motto is, “Be big, be bold, be brave.” The motto has stuck in this safecommunity space where kids get to take risks and develop lifelong skills.

Jim Lansing and Jane Williams. Williams’ motto is, “Be big, be bold, be brave.” The motto has stuck in this safe
community space where kids get to take risks and develop lifelong skills.

About the beginning, Newell says, “Jane, Jim and I sat down and brainstormed how we could bring the community of Morningside together utilizing each of our talents. Jane oversees all creative departments and is a costume designer and a director [she is the costumer for major movie productions when they come to town], Jim is the music director and an accompanist and a businessman [he now also orchestrates the administrative duties of MTC], and he vocal directed from 2010-2012. We had all the pieces needed and the faith that people would want to be a part of our productions.”

Newell has since moved on. Others have jumped in over the years. People like Katie Widen, a music teacher at Highlands Elementary School, who now directs the K-1st program and Williams’ daughter, Ella, who, after four years of acting on stage “knew she still wanted to be involved.” She has moved from assistant directing to taking over direction and choreography for the elementary productions in 2018 and is in college studying musical theater. Emily Youel, also a college student and former camper, now serves as the vocal director for MTC elementary-aged kids. Cary Van Heel has done costumes for the performances since 2015 and got involved in the program through a theater connection at Edina High School. She wishes she had a program like MTC while growing up.

Williams and Lansing believe their dream for kids has always been to help them grow as individuals and develop life skills beyond the stage. “As we look through pictures and memories it’s like looking at your own kids and seeing how they’ve grown. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job,” Lansing says.

Ann Walsh’s three sons have been performing with MTC from the beginning. She feels the program “that Jim and Jane have created in this community is sheer magic,” she says. Her sons weren’t involved in theater in school but have brought friends to camp. “They learned to sing and dance and empathize and problem solve all while having a wonderful time,” she says.

The kids arrive at camp in the morning and put their devices and phones away, leaving distractions behind. The purpose is to “look up and watch people and see what is going on,” says Williams and to give the kids a chance to dream together.

Williams’ motto is: “Be big. Be bold. Be brave.” It is a motto that has stuck and has encompassed a sense of community, a safe place to take risks and a chance to develop lifelong skills. For the kids that show up that first day—sometimes scared and worried about what they have gotten themselves into, to a kid who belts out a song and jigs on a stage in front of an audience—the long-term implications of their experiences at MTC will be the stuff these kids will reminisce about forever.

“We have kids from St. Louis Park, Golden Valley and Minneapolis,” says Williams, “but most are from the neighborhood.” Many bike or walk to camp, a little like the olden days, when summers were full of daydreaming and play.

Lily Randall started riding her bike up to the church the summer after sixth grade. She has gone on to participate in numerous shows, both as an actor and youth leader. She says, “After rehearsal every day, us kids would meet outside the church and discuss our plans for the afternoon … from there it was just classic childhood shenanigans.” Beyond the fun, there was the experience they were gaining while being on stage.

Judy Randall, Lily’s mom, says, “The directors pushed Lily to take risks in many ways that really allowed her to grow, all while providing amazing support and a safety net in which to catch her should she fall.”

For Williams, part of the safety net is the fact that the kids learn they are all in this together and can count on each other. “We are not backstage with the kids,” she says about the performances noting a time when the kids had to pull together to fix a broken prop behind the scenes on their own.

“I think what MTC and Jane, in particular, really excels at is bringing in a way of teaching with examples from outside the theater world, things the campers can relate to at school or at home,” Van Heel says.

The formula is working. This winter, sign-ups for Annie filled up in five hours, prompting Jane and Jim to open a second elementary show slated to run in July.

Despite the growth, they will stay in the church basement, they reiterate. There is temptation to expand and find more space, but they don’t want to lose the unique neighborhood feeling.

“This whole thing is a labor of love,” says Liz Heineke, whose daughter May credits MTC with her love of theater. “She lets the kids put on full blown productions, then lets them see all the things that are involved. We had no idea what talent and love was waiting for us in that hot church basement.”

Nicki Williams’ daughter Bridget will be in Annie this summer and son Wyatt has helped with lights and sound. “It becomes a neighborhood wide event,” she says.

Youel says, “There is friendship and community building that happens” and Widen says, “There is so much to be said for the fact that it is in this really cozy neighborhood space, informal warm and inviting … it is a safe space for kids to have this experience.”

Brooke and Paige Parry, participants over the past several summers don’t think about ideals though; they just like coming. Brooke says she loves “learning lines, wearing a costume and meeting new friends.” Paige says, “My favorite role was Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians. I didn’t think I could do it, but Jane encouraged me, and it turned out to be a great show.”

Newell says from the earliest days, “One of my fondest memories is sitting on the steps in the back, squeezing Jane’s hand, watching our young actors and singers do their best. We would both end up crying tears of joy and it was the best gift we were given after a job well done.”

Other involved family members have included Jane’s son as a lighting technician and her husband Larry, her biggest supporter, along with Arch Williams who is heading off to The Ohio State University to pursue a PhD in chemistry.


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