Backyard Summer

By Carol Roh Spaulding
Web Exclusive – June 13, 2008


girls putting on a playSince my son turned school age, I have paid for art camp, theater camp, dance camp, culture camp, fiddle camp, science camp, even living history camp. Every year, as I fork over the money for their summertime enrichment, I think back to my own childhood. What happened to the days of Kool-Aid ice cubes on toothpicks, make-believe forts of cardboard and poster paints, leathery-skinned toads hopping across your palm? Sure, day camps are valuable experiences. But part of me suspects there’s not much that happens there that our own parents couldn’t have managed on their own.


Last year, when I wanted to achieve a better balance between career and family, I asked for reduced hours at work. Reduced hours meant reduced income, and reduced income meant no theater camp. Summer stretched before us like a wide, smooth ribbon of days—it wasn’t long before “there’s nothing to do” became the refrain. If necessity is the mother of invention, perhaps boredom is the parent of imaginative fun. So what if we had to skip theater camp this year? We could do summer stock in our own backyard.


I confess I have no particular training in the dramatic arts. I’m not great with arts and crafts. I don’t even have much experience with groups of school-age children beyond helping out at Sunday school and birthday parties. What I did have going for me was the desire to recreate some of the homespun fun I remember from my own childhood. I wanted high imagination and low pressure. I drew up a basic plan that had enough structure to keep us focused for a week, but enough openness to allow for a little magic.


Here was the original invitation:


First Annual Backyard Theater


Funky fairytales? Ancient legends come to life? Stories from around the world? Who knows what ten creative kids might cook up this summer!


The Kruse family would like to invite you to participate in a backyard theater program this summer where the kids plan, produce, and perform a play using a few props, simple costumes, and a lot of imagination. We hope to keep it simple but also have fun. On the night of the performance families, can bring lawn chairs or blankets and cold picnic food. We will provide lemonade and dessert. Grandparents, friends, neighbors, and others are welcome.


Because lots of you have day camps starting soon, we thought evening hours would work best. We will provide a snack and drink for participants. (We hope to have about ten in all, and will include younger kids, if they wish to be involved in the performance).


Thursday brainstorm ideas through improvisation exercises 6:30-8:30 p.m.


Friday create a play, make a set and costumes “wish list” 6:30-8:30 p.m.


Saturday practice the play and design the costumes 3:30-5:30 p.m..


Sunday practice the play and design the set 3:30-5:30 p.m.


Monday rehearse the play 6:30-8:30 p.m.


Tuesday performance! 6:30-8:30 p.m..


We would like you to make a commitment to coming to every session you can, so that the play is a success. We would also appreciate donations of set and costume items from our wish list. (Every item with a name on it will be returned).


We really hope you can join us!


Parents: Let us know if you would like to be involved.

We ended up with six boys and eight girls in all, including two younger siblings who participated part-time and two children who could not be there on the night of the performance, but who still wanted to be involved in the production. The children came from various walks of our life—church, school, work, and neighborhood, and ranged in age from four to almost fourteen. Of the group, two were teenagers with acting and babysitting experience. We could not have pulled off the week without them.


Day 1: Improvisation Games


We began with circle time, introducing ourselves and doing icebreaker activities. We created a basic set of ground rules, and I stressed the importance of supporting one another. Justine Jones’ and Mary Ann Kelly’s Improv Ideas: A Book of Games and Lists proved a terrific resource. Although the book is intended for all ages, most of the games are suitable or adaptable for children 12 and under. After our snack, we went to the back deck that would later be transformed into the stage. The children sat on the grass and practiced being appreciative audience members as they took turns on stage with improv activities, such as “If I were a skunk” and “I’ve got a secret.” These games really did aid us in basic theatrical concepts, such as voice projection, looking out toward the audience, and using big gestures and movements. Even better, the selections I chose were hilarious fun. At the end of the two-hour session, we got back into a circle. I thanked the children and asked them to come back with an idea for a play.


Day 2: Choosing a Play/Creating a Wish List


We took a vote, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs won. Although it wasn’t my first choice, this play has two advantages: both boys and girls get fun parts, and the children know the story well enough to do without a script. Some parents are justifiably uneasy about the gender stereotypes of the passive maiden, the wicked step.m.other, and the knight in shining armor. My own compromise is to encourage critical awareness in children even from a young age. “Do you think Snow White liked waiting for Prince Charming a hundred years?” I asked them. “Does this mean that all step.m.others are bad?” I also offered the option of doing a revised version of the fairytale, but perhaps because most were familiar with fractured fairytales and The Stinky Cheese Man, the children preferred to get back to basics.


After snack-time, I hung a sheet of poster paper, and we created a wish list of set and costume items. Children then wrote down on a take-home sheet the items they thought they could bring. Meanwhile, the teenagers and I made plans for costumes and discussed the script and set. Their school theater experience proved our very best resource.


That night, it took me several absorbing hours to script the stage directions—time not everyone wants to spend. I recommend choosing a play already scripted for school-age children (Try or


Day 3: Costumes


The children returned with feather boas, Harry Potter glasses, heels, fedoras, lipstick, face paints, Mardi Gras beads, animal costumes, and even a Ronald Reagan mask. The evil queen would be decked out in elaborate bling-bling, while the seven dwarves would wear a different brightly colored T-shirt emblazoned with a word that hinted at their identity. One of the participants suggested that we double-up roles with the forest creatures who would wear a simple prop to identify them. The actors would wear basic black underneath, so that they could quickly change from their dwarf T-shirts into their animal costumes backstage. The dwarf/animal roles made it easy to include the youngest children. All they had to do was follow along when the dwarves marched or the animals frolicked in the woods.


That night, I spent about $50 at the arts and crafts store on paintbrushes and washable paints, glitter glue, gemstones, pipe cleaners, and other sundries. My husband transformed our wet vac on wheels into a well, complete with a handle and simple wooden canopy, which we decorated with fake ivy and fronted with cardboard, painted to look like brick. This is where the resourcefulness and imagination really kick in. The stage curtain was four old window curtains hanging from a sturdy wire my husband strung across the front edge of the deck. Plastic flowers graced Snow White’s bed.


Day 4: Set Design


We had so much to do that I didn’t start with circle time and games. However, this simple ritual had set the tone more than I realized. Perhaps it was jitters, or the novelty was wearing off a bit, but the children seemed less focused. The weather was hotter, too. But the show must go on. I had four production stations set up:


    • The queen’s bedroom, on the upper level of the deck, overlooking the stage


    • The woods, located in front of the curtain painted as a forest scene


    • The dwarves’ cottage, made with play bricks for walls, a table, chairs, and an old rug


    • Snow White’s bed, a cot draped with a decorated gauze canopy


At each station, I had prepared a tote bucket with designated arts and crafts supplies and a few simple directions. For example, the queen’s mirror (a cardboard oval) needed to look royal and extravagant; the cottage, purposefully untidy.


There was a lot of work to do. Some of the children announced “Finished!” a bit too quickly. A few became dreamily absorbed in their tasks, while others complained they were doing all the work. Perhaps our sense of purpose lagged a bit. Worse, I had forgotten about break time. Had I gotten in over my head? We had not yet actually rehearsed, our set was not ready, and the performance was in two short days.


That night, I decided we ought to have a soundtrack. To my husband’s job titles of stagehand and set construction engineer, we added that of sound technician. I included some Disney favorites, but also a few songs to make parents smile, such as the Byrds’ “To Everything There Is a Season” as the small ones twirled around onstage with cardboard cutouts of the seasons. And for an upbeat marching song as the dwarfs came out to take a bow, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” It made for a long night at the last minute, but the soundtrack ended up being one of the crowning glories of the play. My son has listened to it again and again, singing and dancing around the kitchen all winter long.


Day 5: Rehearsal/Dress Rehearsal


Getting ten small bodies to move when you tell them to and to keep still when they’re not supposed to move is hard enough once, much less asking them to do it all again (and again). Calm and poised, the teenagers explained to the little ones backstage the importance of being quiet on the set.


I have to admit I had a case of the jitters. The set looked like a few items thrown together, save for the fabulous piece of plywood the children painted to look like a brick cottage fireplace. People were coming for an actual performance. Sure, they knew it was just their kids in someone’s backyard, but could we even live up to minimum expectations? That night, I added a few flowers here, a few touches of paint there, double-stapled where masking tape proved unreliable. I made rainbow ribbon streamers for the kids to wave when Snow White awakes (a big hit, and the children took them home as souvenirs.)


Day 6: Performance


I kept party preparation to a minimum. We filled two ice chests with bottled water and lemonade and set out a few yard chairs for grandparents or others who didn’t want to sit on the ground. There were, of course, details I’d forgotten. No matter how imperfect, I just had to let go of my expectations.


We somehow we got the eager actors through costume and makeup and out to stage left. We were about to make magic. As the opening music played, the quiet on the set felt almost reverent. I stepped through the curtains, said a few words to the families about our week and thanked them for sharing their children with us. And so the play began.


Of course, the Woodsman tripped over his shoelace, upsetting the basket of poison apples. Autumn forgot to “turn, turn, turn” along with Summer, Winter, and Fall. And Doc had his “Open Wide” shirt on backwards. Our play was highly imperfect, and yet perfectly charming because we were laughing with neighbors we didn’t see often enough, and with old and new friends. These are our children, and there are only a few precious years of ice cream pops, make-believe and fireflies in a jar.


It was a week of old-fashioned, homemade fun. Parents brought snacks and helped out backstage. Children of different ages took responsibility for one another in ways that are much less common in same-age classrooms and camp groups. And I am pretty sure that—from the improv games to painstakingly gluing strips of silver yarn rain onto glittery, paper clouds—the kids had fun, too. This kind of make-believe never goes out of style. We may not be theater professionals, but we’re the experts in our own backyard.


Day 7, 8, and 9: