Blog Post: On Drama Teachers & Camp Counsellors (A Trip Down Memory Lane)

So, Justin Trudeau was recently elected leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The Conservative party immediately launched a campaign to undermine his image, in which they were condescending about (among other things) the fact that he was once a drama teacher, and before that a camp counsellor. A lot of folks said “Oh for Pete’s sake, so what? None of this is relevant to his current ability to lead the country!” Meanwhile, anyone who had ever actually taught drama or been a camp counsellor was thinking Um, wait a minute, YES IT IS. Joanne Kates, the director of a residential summer camp in Ontario, lays out all the reasons why in this amazing article. Speaking as someone who spent four consecutive summers as a camp counsellor, doing musical theatre with kids ranging in age from 4 to 14 years old…yes. Yes to all of that. Sure, it was a fun, rewarding job, and I loved it. But it was also incredibly hard work: a daily lesson in responsibility, diplomacy and leadership.

This post is not about Justin Trudeau, though. It’s not even about why being a drama teacher and/or a camp counsellor might actually be pretty good training for some aspects of being Prime Minister. It’s about a coincidence, or possibly an instance of a phenomenon I like to call “iTunes Shuffle Can Read My Mind.” Every so often it will happen that I’m on the bus or walking home, listening to some playlist or other on shuffle, and a song will start to play that is really, completely, eerily appropriate to whatever I am thinking about at that moment. Usually it’s a song that I haven’t heard in ages, one that I might have actually forgotten I own – but iTunes Shuffle remembers, and somehow knows that the exact right time has arrived to play it again.

In this case, I was thinking about Trudeau and the whole drama teacher/camp counsellor kerfuffle, and iTunes Shuffle read my mind. It played the title song from Disney’s Beauty & the Beast.

 

I know, I know. What possible connection could there be? But you see, in my mind, that song is inextricably linked to my first summer as Head of Drama at Camp Oconto, in 1996. I was 19 years old, but not new to doing theatre with kids; I had spent my last two years of years in high school working part time for New Star Children’s Theatre in Ottawa, and had been a counsellor at their summer day camps until I left for McGill. But when I took the Oconto job, it was the first time I had ever been in charge of a program like that, and also (possibly even more stressful) my first exposure to the whole world-unto-itself of residential summer camp. Talk about culture shock. It was a steep and double-barrelled learning curve, no question.

But I put up the best front I could manage, tried not to listen to the inner voices telling me I didn’t know what I was doing, announced my shows and held auditions. At the time, the drama program at Oconto involved corralling campers (however many of them picked drama as one of their regular activities alongside canoeing  sailing, archery, pottery, diving  etc. etc.) into 6 shows over the course of two months: small ones (4 in total) at the end of each 2-week session, with the 2-week campers, and a bigger one at the end of each month with the kids who stayed for all of July or August. It was pretty much up to me what to do within that framework, so I had decided to do Beauty & the Beast with my first group of 2-weekers…drastically adapted, of course, into something that was more like a loosely-connected selection of scenes and songs from the movie.

Since everybody who wanted a part would get one, the auditions were more like assessments: I asked all the girls whether they had any previous acting or singing experience, and then they each had to read a few lines and sing something of their choice, a cappella. After a lot of wobbly 8-year-old renditions of “Happy Birthday”, the next up was a slightly older girl (maybe 10?) whose name I’ve now forgotten…maybe it was Emily?…but I remember what she looked like: stocky, with glasses and thick red hair in a blunt bob. She would have made a good Marcie, if we’d been doing Charlie Brown… all the more so because she was clearly super smart, not one of the popular kids but (as far as I could tell) not letting it get her down. I had a note on my chart that she had sung in choirs before, which sounded slightly promising… but I still had to work to keep my reaction from showing when she got up on the little stage and started to sing. No “Happy Birthday” for her; instead she launched into “O Canada”, and she sang it beautifully. Lovely clear tone, good pitch – she nailed all the weird, hard intervals (not easy when you’re singing alone and without accompaniment) – and she had a huge belt for a kid her age. I can still remember the feeling of relief and a sort of recognition: okay, this one is a pro. I have something to work with here. I cast her as the Narrator in my little adaption of the story, and gave her a big solo in the title song. A few people looked surprised, but I just thought: wait and see.

So…when iTunes shuffle unexpectedly throws up “Beauty and the Beast”, I don’t see an animated teapot singing to a little teacup. I’m instantly transported back to the main lodge at Oconto, to the crazy juggling act of that job and all the stress and learning and growth it involved. I see Emily  –  I’m just going to keep calling her that  –  stepping out of a line of little kids, planting her feet and lifting her chin and letting fly with that voice that was bigger than she was, soaring and confident: “Ever just the same…ever just as sure…” I remember the way heads came up in the audience, focus suddenly sharpened, and how she grinned big and wide when everybody cheered, at the end of the song.

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