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Today's Family Magazine

Discover the magic of theatre at the Mandel JCC

By Mary Flenner

The Francine & Benson Pilloff Family Performing Arts Camp (PAC) at the Mandel JCC has been inspiring a love for theatre and delivering magical summers to children for over 25 years. 

Emma Miller, current PAC Director, attended the performing arts summer camp from second grade through 9th grade and then worked at the camp through college, where she studied theatre direction. Now she lives in New York City, where she directs theatre professionally and teaches arts education.  Emma says that the Mandel JCC Performing Arts Camp absolutely was the spark that started it all.

“The Francine & Benson Pilloff Family Performing Arts Camp was the foundation that built me. It’s been the catalyst for everything I do both personally and professionally. As a person who went through the program, I can’t recommend it enough.”

“I started at the camp when I was seven,” Miller recalls. “I had been to every day camp under the sun and my parents had given up. I had a lot of separation anxiety. My parents were trying creative things to do with me during the day so they gave it a try.”

The Performing Arts Camp is split into two 4-week sessions, from rising kindergartners through ninth grade. Campers of every age take music, dance and drama; then based on the camper’s age, can also take additional “classes” such as playwriting, directing, miming, poetry, theatre tech and more. Campers in grades 3-8 can opt out of the on-stage performance to join the tech crew, which also takes field trips to local theatres for exclusive behind-the-scenes tours.

But Miller says the theatre camp isn’t just for kids with an inclination toward theatre or who are seen as budding thespians. The PAC creates a fun and safe atmosphere that, “makes being goofy in front of other people cool and acceptable. You learn about trusting in a group and building confidence,” she explains.

At the end of each session, they put on a camp-wide show with original plays. The shows include things like music reviews, mashups, Broadway, and pop culture and are tailored to each age group and feature characters that they’re familiar with.

“Every kid has a line and every kid has a solo. We don’t do regular casting. We give everyone the chance to speak into a microphone… to grow and shift.”

With play rehearsals only lasting about an hour, Performing Arts campers also spend lots of time outside getting active with sports, swimming, playing games, doing arts and crafts, eating popsicles… enjoying typical summertime fun activities.

Emma shares how the staff works uniquely with each child and that the atmosphere is more like a family than a summer camp.  “We have a hyper-nurturing staff. Our primary focus is making kids feel safe, and doing things in a way and style that makes them feel safe. It’s about catering the experience to the child: who they are and how they arrive in the beginning in the summer.”

Miller notes the powerful way that the arts can offer an escape from the rigors of school and the pressures of social media: “It’s a unique opportunity to escape all of that. Put away your phone. Invest in this project and invest in the group.”

Campers have said, “I wish I did this all year… I’m a version of myself that I don’t get to be during the school year.”

“We have kids who may have trouble making it through a school day without an aide, so we find it really gratifying to hear parents comment, ‘I had no idea my kid could do that!’ when they see them thriving and performing,” Miller says.

The Performing Arts Camp runs from 9:00AM to 3:50PM, but goes by quickly with a day full of activities. Before and after-care is also available through the JCC.

For more information please visit MandelJCC.org.

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