Strengthening Futures at the 2024 Free Arts Theater Camp

Be brave. Share respect. No mistakes in art. Have fun.

Set design created by Theater Camp participants with teaching artist Isaac Caruso.

This year, the Free Arts program expectations deeply resonated with our 2024 Free Arts Theater Camp participants, who incorporated them into several of their creative works and referenced them often.  

Though we refer to them as expectations, they are anything but restrictive. Rather, these phrases aim to set the tone of Theater Camp. The Free Arts expectations create a safe space to self-express and foster a sense of belonging among participants. Not only do they empower the individual, but they build camaraderie. They cultivate a community that utilizes the arts to build meaningful relationships and thereby resilience in the face of life’s challenges.

Making an Impact

The 2024 Free Arts Theater Camp was themed “Strengthening Futures.” This pulled focus toward the outcome facet of Free Arts’ 2024 organizational theme: Cultivating Community, Inspiring Creativity, and Strengthening Futures. This year, Free Arts served 20 participants, ages 13-17. Each participant came from five different partner agencies and from two families who participate in our Family Program. This could not have been possible without the Free Arts camp program team, professional teaching artists, artist assistants, or camp counselors. And it certainly would not have been possible without the 10 Free Arts volunteer mentors who together served a cumulative total of 399 hours in the program.

2024 Theater Camp Counselors
2024 Theater Camp Volunteer Mentors
Free Arts staff and volunteers greeted campers as they arrived to the Herberger each morning.

Myrlin Hepworth of Phonetic Spit shined once again as Camp Director for the second year in a row. Myrlin has served Free Arts as a beloved professional teaching artist for more than ten years. Similarly, Chanel Bragg returned as our theater teaching artist, Vo Vera as the movement teaching artist, Folade as the music teaching artist, Maven as a spoken word teaching artist, and Isaac Caruso as the visual arts teaching artist. This incredible roster of caring and dedicated adults led the teens through trauma-informed art workshops, guiding them toward the powerful works they created and later shared on stage with a sold-out theater of nearly 300 attendees on Friday, June 14 at the iconic Herberger Theater.

From left: Folade (music), Megan (assistant), Vo Vera (movement), Chanel Bragg (theater), Isaac Caruso (visual arts), Maven (spoken word), Myrlin Hepworth (camp director), Daniel (assistant).

Cultural Partner Highlight

Excitingly, this year marked the 23rd year in which Free Arts was privileged to partner with the Herberger Theater Center, where both our camp and its culminating performance were held in June. Mark Mettes, President and CEO of the Herberger said it best when he wrote that Theater Camp is a “heartfelt collaboration” and that it offers an experience “that highlights the importance of the arts as an essential part of our being.” We at Free Arts could not agree more, and we are so thankful for the support of the Herberger Theater and its staff who helped make this year’s Theater Camp such an impactful experience for the young people who participated.

Theater Camp participants spent two weeks in trauma-informed art workshops and later performed on stage at the Herberger Theater Center. This year marked the 23rd year of partnership between Free Arts and the Herberger.

Inspiring Creativity

The artistic works shared by the Free Arts camp participants were insightful, witty, vulnerable, and above all, brave. The culminating performance of Strengthening Futures was one for the books. Works crafted by participants included spoken word, hip-hop, dance, tumbling, singing, percussion, comedic skits, and even a musical theater piece. Participants also created the set design as part of their visual arts workshop.

The audience was brought to tears at times, and laughter at others. At times when performers needed a moment on stage to gather themselves and take a breath, the audience snapped in support. Several attendees later stated that they were still processing the emotion of it all.

Cultivating Community

Backstage was a flurry of energy among the young performers, counselors, staff, and volunteers. For many of the participants who shared their work, it was the first time they had ever performed anything on stage, and for some, it was the first time they had ever been offered a supportive platform to voice their story. When a participant hesitated, or needed to leave the stage believing they could not continue, their peers were right there waiting for them with warm hugs and words of affirmation that ultimately encouraged them to return to the stage and continue their performance.

Vo Vera and Greta the Shark
Showing that sharks can drum, too.
Greta the Shark lives at the Free Arts offices and joined in on the fun at the Herberger. Greta provided regulation support for campers and became a big star.

Strengthening Futures

Participants built community and friendships during their two weeks at camp. This was illustrated when it came time for the bow on stage. As they began their chant of “Show love, get love” (a Free Arts tradition), they forgot to include the audience in a call-and-response style finale. Instead, they hugged and chanted with each other in a heartwarming triumph.

Show love, get love!

Witnessing the celebration of their accomplishment was an incredible sight to behold. The teens stretched their comfort zones, were brave, and ultimately crafted and curated an original performance together. We are so proud of the young people who took a chance on the Free Arts Theater Camp program and a chance on themselves.

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