Company Spotlight Young Actors' Theatre Camp

April 2014

"Imagine a camp where you have 150 best friends and everyone is an artist just like you. That's Young Actors' Theatre Camp," says camp director and co-founder Shawn Ryan. With a mission ‘to discover and develop the artist within,' YATC prides itself on creating a supportive environment to bring out the artist in kids who might otherwise see themselves as the "freaks and geeks" of their schools.

The campers concur. Fifteen-year-old Allison Zanolli of Menlo Park says of the camp, "My favorite thing is that the people here are so accepting. It's unconditional love. You go up on a line or miss a note and people just love you and cheer."

Built to create what they wish they'd had growing up, YATC was started in 2001 by married couple John Ainsworth and Shawn Ryan in Oakland. When they moved to L.A. to pursue their careers, Bay Area parents complained there wasn't anything to fill the niche they'd created. After a brief stint in Livermore, the couple started regular summer sessions at Camp Sempervirens in the Santa Cruz Mountains (Mt. Cross in the winter) where they now run five sessions per year with a total of 500 kids, 70 percent of whom hail from the Bay Area.

Considered among the top five performing arts camps in the country, YATC differentiates itself by not requiring an audition to attend. "Our campers range from kids who've never stepped on a stage to kids heading to NYU in the fall or joining Broadway tours," says Ainsworth. Another differentiator, Ryan says, is that the focus is not performance-based, as it is with other camps. "We focus on the skills it takes to perform or make it in the business. While other conservatory programs train performers, we train artists. Because it's not just about the performing; it's about learning to write, direct, produce or self-evaluate."

That goal is backed up by bringing in real-world professionals across a myriad of disciplines. During the latest winter session, visitors included actors from the Book of Mormon tour and Oscar-nominated producer Daniel Dreifuss. Campers hear firsthand about a working actor's life on tour, or a producer's role in storytelling, to help influence career choices at an early age.

Ainsworth and Ryan say campers sometimes arrive thinking they're interested in one area of the arts and find out from the master classes that they're actually more interested in something else. Fifteen-year-old Luis Arriaga-Lucero from San Francisco experienced that in January: "I realized, in this supportive environment, that I want to do something other than theatre and that's game design. I'm ecstatic. We did a workshop today that destroys all the walls we put up and lets out your emotion. I saw things so clearly after that."

YATC staffs its camps with counselors who have previously come through the ranks as campers, offering a 2:1 ratio of students to staff (and an astonishing 99 percent return rate among the counselors). The adult teaching staff comes almost entirely from L.A., where they live and work as actors, filmmakers, songwriters or makeup artists. The camp environment feels like a performing artist's commune, with young dramatists doing scene work in one room, middle schoolers learning how to apply bullet wounds in the dining hall, and teenage dancers twerking atop picnic tables outside.

But one of the coolest features of YATC is the amazing roster of celebrities that come to teach master classes. Nikki Blonsky was the first big catch after she'd been nominated for a Golden Globe, soon followed by names such as Darren Criss and Heather Morris from Glee, Jonathan Groff and Sutton Foster. In the boondocks of the Santa Cruz Mountains, YATC is apparently a draw for celebrities who remember what it was like to be a little kid with a big dream—so much so that Ainsworth and Ryan say they receive calls from managers and publicists asking why so-and-so hadn't been invited to come teach a master class. On deck for this summer? Laura Bell Bundy, Groff again, Megan Hilty, Kristen and Robert Lopez (Frozen) and...fingers crossed...Audra McDonald.

Given that the teaching staff are all working professionals, what happens when that awesome gig comes up? The answer: take it as it comes. Last year Ryan was one of two finalists for a major ad for Macy's. If his agent called in the middle of class, he took the call. The kids saw the life of a working actor in action. When he didn't get the gig, it was a learning experience for them to see how he accepted it and moved on.

First-time camper Jack Bankson, 15, says, "YATC is life-changing, I'm not gonna lie." Zanolli adds, "Camp makes you feel like you can be the best you." The only remaining question is, where do the adults sign up?