Fake news and shadow puppets takes center stage at theater camp

Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater encourages young people to invent plays out of hoaxes and misinformation.

Students at Camp Wilma, a theater camp for children aged 6 to 16, perform

Students at Camp Wilma, a theater camp for children aged 6 to 16, perform "Fake News," a series of short plays that the campers wrote, scored and choreographed. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When Noah Eggerts started going to Camp Wilma at 8-years-old, he wanted to be an actor.

Now 14, what he really wants to do is direct. The freedom to invent is what keeps him coming back to the summer theater camp.

“There’s not only the freedom, but also there’s a community,” said Eggerts. “There’s a recurring cast of characters that appears every year that I get to spend two weeks with.”

Camp Wilma is run by the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, where kids 6 to 16 create their own short plays, design them, and ultimately perform them.

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There are plenty of theater camps in the region where young people learn to act, sing, dance, and rig theater sets. Few give kids the opportunity to invent stories and figure out how to stage them.

“It’s a very different set of skills. It’s collaborative creation: you are actually generating ideas and you have to agree on them in a group,” said camp director Anne Holmes. “We create these artistic monsters.”

The theme of this year’s camp is “fake news,” wherein campers consider stories about the perpetuation of misinformation and lies.

The Wilma broke up the 40 young people into age groups and gave them prompts to get them started.  Younger campers started with the 2016 Caldecott-winning picture book “They All Saw a Cat,” about different perspectives on the same feline.

The next group started with the historic story of the Nantucket Sea Monster, a 1937 hoax by an ambitious puppeteer with which the local newspapers colluded.

The older group took on the early 20th century phenomenon of the Cottingley Fairies, when two girls in England claimed to have taken photographs of winged fairies.

“It seemed for years and years they did take these pictures,” said Matilda Brewe, 14. “It finally came out in the 1980s that they were faked. But they had a shocking number of people convinced, including Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Anne Holmes, director of Camp Wilma at the Arts Bank, introduces “Fake News,” a series of short plays created, designed and performed by campers aged 6 to 16. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

While the campers used these stories as launching points for their own work, arguments around “fake news” in the current news cycles were on their minds. Holmes preferred to use historic examples of popular hoaxes so her campers could get some distance, and not risk getting political with each other.

She said collaborating on theater about fake news can be more constructive than arguing about it.

“I know when I’m making art I’m able to explore the complexities and not get dug in emotionally in the same way I do when I’m having a conversation with someone who disagrees with me sitting across the table,” said Holmes. “One of the things we’re trying to work on is: How do we listen without getting emotional?”

At the camp finale they performed their works for about 100 family and friends. The camp has neither the budget nor the time – just two weeks – to make elaborate sets. The kids relied heavily on shadow puppetry to make onstage theater magic. They invented their own choreography and played their own scores.

Every year, the summer camp employs a theme that will be explored later in the season on the Wilma Theater’s main stage. In January the theater will produce “Describe the Night,” a 2017 play by Rajiv Joseph set in the era of the Soviet Union about conspiracies, state mythology, and alternative histories.

While the kids are taking cues from the Wilma’s season programming decisions, the Wilma’s creative team is not above taking cues from the kids. Wilma co-founder and artistic director Blanka Zizka was in the audience for the summer camp finale, and has been known to crib ideas from campers for her main stage productions.

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