Camp Guide: Small Stage, Big Creativity

Campers get an immersive experience building miniature theater productions

An audience gathers to enjoy a toy theater production. Credit:

You’ve heard of the Big, Bad Wolfbut how about the Big, Bad Pig? He wears a bowler hat and suspenders, a monocle wedged in his pudgy pink face, and runs a nuclear power plant on the side — that is, according to campers at In The Heart of the Beast Theater’s Fractured Fairy Tales Toy Theater Camp. The camp is a collaboration with the Loft Literary Center, inviting children to take traditional fairy tales and ‘fracture’ them in satirical and imaginative ways, before challenging them to create a toy theater performance for family and friends at the end of the week. 

A long tradition

Toy theater, as In The Heart of the Beast’s Education Director Bart Buch explains, is a unique and intimate combination of art and performance that allows artists complete control of the production. Originally sold as kits of popular plays in the 19th century, a typical toy theater sits about a foot or two tall and looks just like a miniature stage. Inside the theater, puppets cut from cardstock and paper, and suspended by strings or small sticks, dance and twirl at the whim of the puppeteers. 

“It’s a little like pre-TV, or primitive TV. That’s how we explain it,” says Buch.

In the Heart of the Beast Theater (HOBT) prides itself on repurposing old materials, and discarded cardboard boxes provide the perfect frame for a make-it-yourself toy theater, upon which endless sets, paints, tiny curtains, and ornaments may be placed. 

“[Toy theater] gives the kids an overview. They can create an entire theatrical production, including the set, the costumes, and the puppets. It gives them an immersive design and performance experience in a way that they have control of almost all the variables in a show.” 

Building skills

In a spacious though cluttered room, edged with heaps of craft supplies, seven children between the ages of nine and 11 immersed themselves in the process of bringing their fractured fairy tales to life. The campers clearly embrace the creative freedom they are given, enthusiastically warping traditional fairy tales to reflect their wry sense of adolescent humor, often informed by surprising observations. No longer does Jack dutifully climb the beanstalk to steal golden eggs and provide for his mother, but instead spends his days nose-to-screen, playing video games on his cell phone.

Campers Siri and Sanna, who together wrote and built ‘Jack and the Beanstalk — NOT!,’ featuring the lazy Jack, both enjoyed imagining and creating the characters. “It can be kind of complicated,” says Sanna, referencing the problem-solving involved in the whole process, but said also that she has enjoyed herself during the week. Her group partner, Siri, nodded agreement. 

“The campers took the images they wrote out, and figured out how to represent them in artwork,” says HOBT counselor, Lynette LaRue. “Then the challenge is to make it 3D after that. They had to reconfigure, scene-by-scene, what the action is, and that’s been a really fun challenge for them to work through.”

Watching the campers, it is evident that creating a toy theater production requires more than just the writing of a fun story. Considerations of size, such that puppets fit properly in the small theater, was something each of the three small groups worked through uniquely. Campers chose instruments to create a range of sound effects — just what sound does a teleporter make? — and did vocal exercises throughout the week to perfect the performance of each character’s unique voice. They also learned various literary techniques to help in their writing. 

Linda Back McKay, the counselor from the Loft Literary Center who helped primarily in the writing of the fairy tales — but could be seen assisting in the construction of the characters and sets — spoke of the writing process: “We had each of them write their own ideas…and I did some editing. We talked a lot about similes, metaphors, and images and tried to include some of those concepts in all of the pieces we wrote.” 

Working on a production that spans such a variety of art forms — the children wrote, sang, acted, painted, and drew throughout the week — allowed for the campers to learn new skills, but as well delve into areas they already held an interest in. Buch emphasizes the collaborative element that goes into creating each production. “There’s a place for kids that are shy, there’s a place for kids that aren’t shy, there’s a place for kids who just want to make, so you’ll see them take different roles. [The counselors] split them up into groups of two to three, and then a lot of times one person takes a more theatrical lead, and one person takes a design lead.” 

Evan, Elliot, and Oliver, the brains behind The Big, Bad Pig, exemplified this division of creative work. Elliot, who has a propensity for “taking things apart and putting them back together,” as he put it, easily stepped into the roll of set designer, deftly gluing and cutting to create buildings and props. Evan was busy drawing, shading, and detailing the three little wolves, and Oliver added the finishing touches to the monstrous, pink pig. 

“What was really beautiful was when the children started making their own stories and ideas come to life by drawing the characters, and then figuring out their voices and having it all happen and come to life on stage,” says Back McKay of watching the campers throughout the week.

Future plans

As this collaborative camp was a new endeavor for both The Loft and HOBT, Buch recognized that the format of the camp might change in the coming years depending on what worked and what needs adjustment. Though the element of toy theater will remain the primary focus, Buch looks forward to working with a variety of literary forms and genres. “We’ve done haikus with toy theater before, which is a really great thing, because it leaves a lot of room for interpretation,” says Buch.