Want to create a summer to remember? Try running a musical theater summer camp at home!
Three years ago, my two oldest children–then aged eight and ten–came up with a preposterous idea.
“We want to write plays and invite our friends over and perform them for all the parents,” they exclaimed one spring morning when my mind was still trying to wrap itself around how we were still going to reach a respectable stopping point in our curricula before June.
“That’s too much work,” I told them dismissively. “Besides, people value their summers. They’re not going to want to give up the amount of time that would be needed to pull something like that off.”
But my daughters, who’d been acting in full-scale musicals since kindergarten, are not quitters.
They continued to push, in that way that children do, offering more frequent and better-honed arguments until I’d been worn down like a rough patch of wood under the relentless grinding of coarse sandpaper.
Eventually, we discussed the idea in earnest over dinner one night. As they laid out their plans, my husband chimed in, “Hey, we could call it Bard in the Yard.”
Well, with a name like that, how could we not?
Bringing it to the Small Stage
That first year, I didn’t plan on being overly involved. In fact, I didn’t really think we’d go through with it.
I told the girls, “Write your plays first, then we’ll talk.”
So they wrote their plays.
The plots were decent, but there were gaps. The songs needed a bit of work.
“Let’s edit them. If you can see that through, we’ll start talking logistics.”
Until that point, my kids had struggled with editing, or, well, seeing things through in general. But this time, they were committed.
Together, we polished the plays and the lyrics. We asked a talented friend if she’d help put some melodies to our songs and she agreed. Using an outdated cell phone, we recorded her piano playing with a simple voice recorder.
Once we’d gotten to that point, there was no turning back. Only, we were still missing one important element.
I sent an overly apologetic email to the parents of all my kids’ friends. I’m so sorry to bother you…I know it’s summer vacation…But is there any chance that…
As I’d suspected, most families we knew were either not keen on giving up a week of their summer vacation for a structured activity or were going to be out of town.
But, through networking and cajoling, we were able to scrounge up six or seven kids who were willing to give it a shot.
They came to our house five hours a day for five consecutive days to rehearse. My girls did all the directing and I helped them with choreography. We made simple sets out of cardboard and purchased colored t-shirts at Michael’s for each of the kids.
On the first Saturday evening in September, dozens of people filled our backyard with picnic dinners. They spread out blankets on our lawn and watched two short plays: Emma in the Amazon and Six Kids, a Witch, and Some Magic.
We ran a bake sale to recuperate some of the costs and the whole thing was a spectacular success.
So we did it again in 2019, writing a new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. This time, we had more than ten kids. We borrowed our church sanctuary to record the music more professionally and we built sets out of wood. I bought, borrowed, or made real costumes for all the kids.
In 2020, it looked a little different. Our province’s lockdown was briefly loosened over the summer and we were able to pull off our summer camp at home with a lot more hand sanitizer and social distancing. We had fourteen kids and our original musical, The Puppingtons Go Into Business, had a ninety-minute run time.
We did two performances so we could fit in all the parents, friends, and neighbors who wanted to see the show without violating any capacity regulations.
Why I Continue to Bring this Upon Myself, Year After Year
Up until the final afternoon of our first Bard in the Yard summer camp at home, I just kept telling myself, never again, never again, never again.
Why? Because it was So. Much. Work. Despite my girls’ repeated promises that I’d barely have to do anything, I did an awful lot.
Whether I was editing the plays, helping record and edit the music, choreographing dances, supervising a group of children for a full week, doing face paint, making snacks, answering the many questions of the other parents and their kids, organizing a bake sale, making and hanging curtains to create a stage, or running the backstage aspects of the show with all its myriad technological difficulties, I was busy non-stop.
And I don’t know about you, but that’s not usually what I envision my summers looking like.
But as we gathered together before that very first show and the nerves of this small group of children who’d worked incredibly hard over the past week started to bubble over, my newly eleven-year-old daughter pulled them into a huddle and prayed for them, because, as she would tell me later, she didn’t know what else to do.
At that moment, I saw her emerging as the leader I knew she was created to be, taking her beautiful, ambitious visions, fighting for them without hesitation, putting in the hard work needed to pull them off, and being the voice of encouragement for her peers.
If that’s not the goal of my homeschool, I don’t know what is.
I knew from that evening on that I would support Bard in the Yard in any way possible for as long as that remained their passion.
How You Can Run Your Own Musical Theater Summer Camp at Home
So, you either read that last section and thought, yeah, there’s no way I’m putting in that kind of work, or, you read it and thought, you know what, I think I’d like to give that a try.
I do want to be clear, this isn’t for the faint of heart. It is a ton of work. But if musical theater is where your kids’ passions lie, it could totally be worth it.
And you certainly don’t need to go full-on DIY as we have. There are organizations that will license musicals to you so you don’t need to write your own. Depending on the popularity and newness of the musical, that can be quite expensive, but there are certainly lesser-known, less expensive options out there. I haven’t tried this, but you might also be able to connect with a university student in a creative writing or playwriting program and see if they might have something you could produce for them.
You could skip the sets and costumes, or just have everyone dress in all black. We’ve been a part of simple plays that are all the more powerful for their simplistic use of sets and costumes.
But however you decide to do it, know that it will be work.
The Basic Requirements for Your DIY Summer Camp at Home
There are a few basic things that will help you with your DIY summer camp. While you could probably get by without all of these, I’ve sort of considered them to be the bare minimum in our camps.
- A play or musical for the kids to perform
- Digital music files that include any songs as both backing tracks and full versions with vocals
- Kids for your cast (I recommend figuring out the lowest possible number you would need to fill your cast, keeping in mind that most kids could play multiple parts, and aiming to recruit that number, possibly one or two more. You don’t want to invite the whole neighborhood and realize you don’t have enough parts for them)
- A place to rehearse (we use our backyard most of the time but we have an inside room available for days when the weather doesn’t cooperate)
- A place to perform (we use our deck and the audience sits on the lawn)
- A rehearsal schedule
- A basic document or email explaining the rules/expectations of your camp
- Plenty of free time
How to Plan Your DIY Musical Theatre Camp
Now that we’re four years in, our planning process looks different than it did in those first couple of years. While everything was very last minute in the first year, the planning and preparation consumed most of my summer in the second year.
In the third year, I tried to mitigate that by starting very early. We turned our summer camp at home into a yearlong-project. We began writing the play in the fall, recording the music in the spring. We had the play cast before summer even started.
When COVID hit, the uncertainty paralyzed us for several months, though, and by the time we knew we could move ahead with our camp, we were back in rush mode again.
I highly recommend that you avoid as much last minute stress as possible. To do this, start planning as early as possible.
Management: Who’s Going to Do What?
The roles you and your kid(s) will play in the running of your summer musical theater camp will really depend on their ages, interests, and ability levels.
In our family, as you’ve seen, my kids are extremely motivated about this and have a very clear vision for what they’d like to produce. All the kids who come are in the same age range (eight to ten in the first year; now in the eleven to fourteen group) and have experience with musical theater.
If you are in a similar situation, you can probably let your kids take on the lion’s share of the responsibility, while you play a supporting role.
If you’re trying to do this for younger children, though, or for those with little or no theater experience, you’ll want to oversee things yourself for the most part, at least for the first couple of years. If the acting bug bites your kids though, they might be taking over from you before you know it.
The Story and the Songs
Sit down with your kids and choose a play to license or come up with an idea for your own. I have a couple of resources that could help if you are stuck for ideas or you aren’t confident in your story writing skills.
- My free Story Planner will help you and your kids map out your idea and fill in all the necessary details to create a well-rounded story.
- My free Writing Prompt Generator tool can help you come up with ideas quickly.
- If you need more ideas, my Big Book of Writing Prompts has 500 writing prompts sorted by grade level and category.
If it’s going to be a musical, you’ll want to write a few songs. If you have a musical background, this is a wonderful activity to do together with your kids.
If not, find someone in your community who does. Try reaching out to your local homeschooling network to see if there’s a homeschool parent in your area who would be interested in writing a few songs with your kids. We’ve also had an offer from our church’s worship pastor to help our kids in this area, so that could be another route to explore.
Recruiting and Scheduling
Then, you’ll want to recruit your cast and set your dates. Start by figuring out how many kids you’ll need and make a prioritized list of who you’d like to invite. You can reach out to the parents in a group email or talk to them one-on-one.
If your own time frame is limited, you can choose the dates upfront. Since our family usually has the most flexible schedule of all our friends, we usually poll them and ask which week would work best for them. Then we go with the one that works for most people. (Doodle.com is a great resource for running polls like this).
Casting the Show
Once you know who is going to be in the show, it’s a good idea to think about casting. During the actual rehearsal week, you won’t have time for the kids to learn the lines and the lyrics. You’ll be focusing solely on blocking and choreography, so it’s important to give them enough time to learn their lines and lyrics before the start of camp.
Try to do casting as early as possible. We have had everyone come over to our house and do auditions, but we’ve actually found it more effective to do virtual auditions.
We give everyone a copy of the script and let them tell us which parts they’re most interested in auditioning for.
We also specify which scenes we want them to read for their auditions. Try to choose a few monologues from the show and let them select which one they want to do.
Encourage them to be “off book” as much as possible for the audition, so you can get a sense of their comfort and ability level.
Give them a choice of songs to sing (not from your show) and have them record a video of themselves singing it.
If your children are playing a directing/producing role, let them take the lead in casting the show, but make sure you have a say as well. Sometimes kids want to cast people in roles for inappropriate reasons and doing so could seriously impact the overall experience of the camp.
For example, one year, my daughters wanted to cast the five-year-old sister of one of their friends in a lead role, because the character was meant to be about that age. This was one of the most important roles in the show and had a large number of lines and musical solos, as well as a fair amount of choreography.
I persuaded them to cast a nine-year old friend instead and to give the younger girl a part with just one line.
When they realized how challenging it was for a five-year-old to nail a single line, they were very relieved that they hadn’t given her a part that she couldn’t handle.
You will have to bring the voice of experience to the table as you guide your kids through these types of decisions, but always view it as a learning experience. Even if they make the wrong choice this year, they will still learn something from it.
Costumes, Props, and Sets
Read through the play line by line with your children and make lists of all the costumes, props, and sets you need (or want). I recommend getting as creative as possible and trying to whittle the list down as much as you can.
Backyards and patios are not stages and theatres and everything–transitions, set changes, backstage management, etc.–is more difficult in a backstage environment. You’ll likely also have a lot less help than you might have if you were doing an organized production in a theater. Make things as easy on yourself as possible.
Aim to have the costumes, props, and sets done before rehearsals begin so you don’t have to worry about it too much during the week of your camp. (Confession: I have never succeeded in meeting this goal, though that doesn’t stop me from trying.)
Costumes can be supplied by you, the families, or a combination of the two. Thrift stores are a great place to find cheap pieces that create a sense of character.
For props, send your wishlist out to all the families and see what they’re able to supply. Anything else, you may have to buy or make. If there is a lot to make, host a workshop one afternoon and have all the kids come over and get crafty.
This is not only a great bonding activity for them, but it also gets them excited about the show and gives them a greater sense of responsibility for it.
Keep sets as minimal as you can, especially if you haven’t done anything like this before. A table and a pair of chairs can be turned into a great many things. There’s no need to get fancy.
Planning the Daily Schedule
Although twenty-five hours might seem like a lot of time, it will fly by fast, and you’re going to need each one of them if your cast is going to pull together a show in a week, even if it’s a small show.
We usually try to break each day into four one-hour blocks. In between each block we schedule a fifteen minute snack break or a thirty minute lunch break.
Then we work on blocking for half the day and choreography for the other half. Realistically, most kids will not be able to learn choreography for more than a few songs in such a short time period. If your show has more than a few songs, you may want to reduce the number of kids in each song or having them stand still or do a few simple actions during some of the songs, rather than having them learn a whole dance.
If there are two or more directors, divide and conquer. One director can work with one or more cast members on a solo or duet, while the other teaches a scene or choreography to everyone else.
In a weeklong camp, aim to have the first full run-through of the play by Thursday afternoon. It will be a mess, most certainly. But don’t stress it.
The point of this run-through is to put a small amount of pressure on the kids to pull things together for the next day. Most kids will come back on Friday with a deeper commitment, knowing they still have so far to go.
Run the whole show at least twice on Friday. The second one should be a dress rehearsal. Have at least one director sit and watch the whole show and take copious notes.
In between the run throughs, let the kids take a break and refuel while you go over all the feedback with them. Be sure to comment on the things that are working, not just the places that need improvement.
The benefit of you watching the run-throughs means they will have to get used to running the show by themselves. They’ll need to know all the transitions, the scene changes, the costume changes, if any. They’ll need to know when to cue the music and what to do if someone doesn’t come on stage when they’re supposed to. It stretches them.
On Saturday, plan on having a final dress rehearsal in the early afternoon. Then have the kids stay so they can do their hair and makeup, put on their costumes, work through any tricky parts, and eat an early dinner.
They’re going to be super excited and they will need to talk a lot as a way to work through their nerves. Give them enough time to let that happen.
Draw the Curtains
We’ve found it best to schedule our shows for around six thirty in the evening, as some parents work on Saturdays and we want to give them enough time to make their way over to our house.
We open the gates a half hour before so people can come in, find a spot to sit, and visit with other attendees.
As mentioned before, we have each family contribute to a bake sale and one of the other parents mans the table. We do a suggested donation of $2 per item, but people tend to be overly generous and give more than that.
When it’s time for the show to begin, one of the directors can welcome the audience and do a little introduction. My kids have taken great joy in stepping out into this role.
And then, it’s time for the curtains to open and the show to begin!
Running Bard in the Yard hasn’t just been a fun way to pass the time in the summer.
It has shaped who we are as a family. It’s such a big part of our lives that, when it was time to move out of the rental house we’d been living in for several years and buy our first home last fall, a “stage” was at the top of our list of priorities.
It also had an impact on our friends and neighbors. It became a community event that people looked forward to and talked about all summer (and also most of the year). As I would carpool groups of girls through the rest of the year, they would reminisce over all the shows we’ve done, the parts they’ve played, the mistakes they made, and how they’ve grown.
Finally, it’s played a role in my kids’ schooling and future plans. We document all the work we do for the show and use it for school credit, and my girls now have dreams of acting on Broadway and writing scripts for Netflix and Amazon.
This time I’ll know better than to try and stand in their way.
If you’d like more information on or help with launching your own summer musical theatre program, come check out these further resources.