Summer is fast approaching and New York City parents will soon be faced with the challenge of finding a camp for their children. Sports camps are a popular choice, but what if you have a child who prefers playing the piano to playing tennis, singing rather than swimming?
Look no further. There’s a summer camp in your backyard that will tap into your child’s creativity. Now in its 29th year, Creative Arts is a welcoming oasis for 250 children, ages six through 15, from all over the city who long to perform, whether that involves singing, dancing, playing a musical instrument, or helping to put together a show. Besides the performing arts, the camp offers numerous classes in studio art, everything from photography to producing a graphic novel. If your child fancies himself a mini-Spielberg, he can write and produce a mini film, music video, or a video game. For those who want some athletics in their day there’s TaeKwonDo, fencing, and basketball.
Each day there’s a noontime show where the children have the chance to perform, sometimes with guest artists. Wynton Marsalis grabbed his trumpet and performed with the camp’s Grove Band, while, on another occasion, Jimmy Buffett (above) danced around the stage barefoot singing Cheeseburger in Paradise, also accompanied by the Groove Band. Then there was that goose bump moment when a young camper sang “Defying Gravity” to Wicked’s star Indina Menzel, or the time Jim Dale read from Harry Potter to a spellbound audience. Others who have visited the camp include Kevin Kline, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ann Reinking, Savion Glover, Ben Vereen, Cliff Robertson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Dominique Dawes, Carey Lowell, Alan Cumming, Jimmy Smits, and many others.
Creative Arts is not your run-of-the-mill camp, due, in large part, to its energetic director, Suzanne Walsh, whose affection for the children and her enthusiasm to bring out the best in each one defines the atmosphere. Staff members are known to return year after year to work at the camp and many former campers later return to work as counselors.
Although Creative Arts is housed in two independent schools, Convent of the Sacred Heart on East 91st Street, and Nightingale-Bamford on East 92nd Street, the camp draws children from all over the city. Monies raised through fundraising events and private donations go to the camp’s scholarship fund. The camp’s diverse population results in a true sharing of experiences and talent. Friendships formed among campers are known to last through high school, college, and beyond.
Suzanne grew up in Manhattan where her father, Peter Clifton, was assistant headmaster and director of admissions at Saint David’s School. She attended Marymount School, transferred to Greenvale on Long Island, when her father moved there, then attended boarding school at Noroton, part of the Sacred Heart network.
She left Connecticut College in her sophomore year when she was unable to arrange a dual major in education and theater. “I knew I needed to find an educational theater program,” she said. Without the current access to search engines, Suzanne hit the library, researched her options, and decided to attend NYU. Although she missed the campus at Connecticut College, she was thrilled with the NYU program. “The department had just been founded and I found these fabulous people, this husband wife team,” Lowell and Nancy Swortzell as well as Nellie McCaslin. “Big names in the field of educational theatre,” she said. “It changed my life.” She moved around the city, doing workshops, one day in the Bronx, another in Chinatown. After finishing her B.A., she went straight into earning a master’s degree, including a summer of study in England.
Fresh from her experience in Britain, she put together a workshop on medieval theater for sixth graders at Sacred Heart. The headmistress asked Suzanne to develop something for the seniors and she soon found she was employed. She produced an arts fair, a street festival, and directed a production of Godspell that is still talked about at Sacred Heart.
Summers, however, were a problem for Suzanne. “I was one of those weird teachers who thought it was boring to have three months off in the summer,” she said, “I wasn’t married yet so I thought I should do a summer arts program.”
When Suzanne was a student at Connecticut College, she worked in the Charles River Creative Arts Program (CRCAP) in Dover, Massachusetts. Run by Priscilla “Nissy” Dewey, now 85, the Charles River program has been a model for more than 75 programs in the U.S. and beyond. Priscilla’s daughter, Kippy Dewey, is director of the Creative Arts at Park Program in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Photo above shows, left to right, Suzanne, Priscilla, and Kippy). Suzanne brought what she learned at Charles River to Sacred Heart, receiving permission to start a small summer program. In the first year, Creative Arts enrolled 25 children and operated more like a mini-conservatory. “Then it started to grow, and I really used the CRCAP model,” Suzanne said.
In the early days of Creative Arts, Suzanne continued to teach drama and speech at Sacred Heart. Now, running the camp is a fulltime yearlong job. Her to-do list is long, tapping into her many talents. Applications for scholarship aid pour in and she and her staff must make decisions about which students to accept into the program. She must hire a staff, including younger counselors called C.I.T’s, counselors in training. The course list, this year offering more than 80 different classes, is constantly fine-tuned. Each year the entire camp goes to see a Broadway musical and Suzanne arranges a pre-theater appearance by one of the stars. Last year, the students saw Billy Elliott and one of the Billy’s, Alex Ko, came to the camp. (Photo above, Suzanne’s son, Conor, Suzanne, Alex, and Suzanne’s husband, Peter Walsh). This year there are plans to see Memphis.
Where Suzanne truly shines, however, is in the networking department. The walls of her office offer visual proof of the many contacts she has made to promote the camp. “I’m just not afraid to be told no,” she said, explaining how some of the celebrities on her wall became part of the Creative Arts family. “Max Casella, his wife taught at Sacred Heart, Lourdes Benedicto was one of my students, Moira Kelly, was a babysitter when she was a Marymount student.” Bestselling author, Adriana Trigiani, and her husband, Tim Stephenson, the Emmy Award-winning lighting designer of The Late Show with David Letterman, are big supporters of the camp and have helped Suzanne add to her list of contacts.
Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates sent their children to the camp. The Klines have remained fans of the camp and that connection has led to other stars, Alan Cumming, for example, supporting Creative Arts. (Photo above, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Suzanne, and Stanley Wayne Mathis).
Suzanne has no reluctance approaching people because she’s not doing it for herself. She’s doing it for the kids. She feels passionately about the Creative Arts scholarship program, lobbying relentlessly for the “Sponsor a Camper Program.” The first-ever contribution to the Creative Arts scholarship fund came from Cliff Robertson, whose daughter, Heather, was one of Suzanne’s students at Sacred Heart. “I told him the plan for Creative Arts and the scholarship fund, and he said that was essential,” she said. “He’s a real humanitarian. He wrote a `modest check’ which, in effect, was the first donation to our Scholarship Fund—he is our angel!” After Spiderman came out, Robertson visited the camp to talk about the film.
For 25 years, Creative Arts sponsored a Hatter’s Ball, a black tie event where prizes were given for the best hats. On April 30, there will be a Spring Fling, with raffle prizes that include a trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica, and stays at two Mandarin Oriental Hotels, one in Boston, the other in Miami.
Celebrities quickly get the message that Creative Arts is all about the kids. Parents often clamor for admittance to the noontime show, particularly when a celebrity is expected. “I don’t think Jim Dale would’ve come and I don’t think Jimmy Buffett would’ve come if he had to deal with the parents,” she said. At the same time, Suzanne needs those parents in her corner, particularly the donors who agree to sponsor a scholarship child. “I need the people whose kids go to the camp to support the camp,” she said. That she manages to walk this line, keeping everyone on her team, says a lot about her negotiating abilities.
As a concession to parents, this summer Creative Arts will sponsor a Noontime Show in the evening, charging a small price to attend. There will be a bake sale, including confections by Broadway star Stanley Wayne Mathis (The Lion King, Wonderful Town, Kiss Me Kate).
Suzanne has been married for 25 years to Peter Walsh. Their three children, Conor, a senior at Connecticut College, and twins Dana and Alice, students at the College of Charleston, all attended Creative Arts. Peter’s restaurant, Coogan’s on Broadway in Washington Heights, has long been a gathering place for New York politicians. On Sunday, March 6, the restaurant will sponsor Coogan’s Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks, a 5K New York Road Runner event. Following the run, a yearly event, the runners gather at Coogan’s for brunch.
Shortly after that event, Suzanne will be packing her bags for Abu Dhabi where she will teach two drama classes at the United Arab Emirates University. “It’s a real challenge,” Suzanne said.
Creative Arts, however, remains her main focus. She enjoys receiving emails from parents and campers who tell her how the camp changed their lives. She added, “I love what I do and I don’t want to do anything else.”
To learn more about Creative Arts, please go to www.creativeartsnyc.org
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