Giving Campers a Seat at the Table: The Camper Curatorial Council

Jonathan Schmidt Chapman, Artistic Director, Usdan Festival

How does the Usdan Festival get curated and produced? A group of Usdan campers recently found out at the first-ever Camper Curatorial Council meeting. Every year, Usdan offers a range of live performances for campers to experience alongside their hands-on art-making. These performances include a diverse, multi-disciplinary range of professional artists representing the best in theatre, dance, and music. But with a limited number of dates, and a wide range of styles to introduce, how does the Usdan Festival roster get chosen?

This year, new Usdan Festival Artistic Director Jonathan Chapman decided to get feedback and expertise from the most important members of the Usdan community: the campers themselves. Chapman put together a short list of 25 artists, companies and ensembles. Rather than relying purely on instinct and experience, Chapman sought the advice of the Camper Curatorial Council. These campers, representing a range of ages and artistic disciplines, met on Sunday, February 11, to learn more about artistic programming and debate about what makes a piece of art excellent. The group first worked in teams to generate a list of qualities they would use to describe a piece of live performance they would characterize as high quality. They cited “Energy,” “Accessibility,” “Professionalism” and “Innovation” as key components of a successful performance. The group also explored the difference between seeing a performance when you know a lot about the art form of the show, as compared to seeing a performance through which you are being introduced to an art form.

Using these conversations as inspiration, the Camper Curatorial Council shared their own personal favorite performances – ranging from Broadway musicals, to classical music ensembles, to puppetry. They identified Puppet Kitchen, The Chameleons and Voices of Broadway as festival highlights last summer. They then reviewed video clips of a variety of artists on the shortlist for 2018. They provided written feedback on each clip, and then talked as a group about how successful they felt each show would be with the Usdan audience in mind. The campers were really drawn to work by artists that fused multiple disciplines,including a contemporary Mariachi group that fuses traditional music with modern jazz, pop and latin sounds; and a high energy dance troupe that merges tap, jazz and hip hop in their work. With their insights, suggestions and considerations in mind, Chapman will now try to incorporate all of their ideas in constructing the Usdan Festival season…what will make the cut?!

How can young people be more involved in the curation process of the art they are presented? While many theaters and arts organizations across the country program shows for children and family audiences, young people rarely have a seat at the table in choosing this programming or getting the chance to offer their own opinion in the process. With the Camper Curatorial Council, Usdan is forging a new model for fully engaging young people – not just as audience members – with agency in their own arts experiences, incorporating their voices, ideas and experiences.

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