“Into the Woods without regret, the choice is made, the task is set. Into the Woods, but not forgetting why I’m on the journey. Into the Woods to get my wish, I don’t care how, the time is now.”
When Anna first approached me about leading the new Ramah Bamah musical theatre specialty track, I knew immediately that this program would thrive at Ramah Darom. As a former Darom camper (Gesher ’14!) and counselor (Gesher ’17!), a person who found his love for performing at Camp, and now a professional director, actor, and Theatre Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas specializing in the intersections between Judaism and performance, it felt bashert that this opportunity came to me when it did. I have long felt passionate about the connections between Jewishness and theatre, and this was my chance to share those passions with Jewish youth at Ramah.
Before the summer, I met with Rabbi Adam Roffman, my brilliant artistic partner whose role as musical director and Yahadut (Judaics) teacher this summer made the entire thing possible. We started dreaming with each other about what this program could be. We were excited to perform an English-language production for the first time at Darom. We wanted to create a professional theatre environment, one you’d find at summer camps like French Woods or Interlochen, within a Ramah camp. We wanted kids who had never been to Ramah before to come and learn valuable performance skills from professional theatre-makers while also being immersed in Jewish life at Ramah, such as experiencing the unmatchable Ramah Darom Shabbat. We wanted to explore the educational yahadut possibilities of the program, including teaching campers what it means to be a Jewish theatre-maker and using Jewish texts and thought as a method of connecting emotionally and thematically to the play-text we would be performing. And, of course, we wanted to have fun putting on an amazing show. We tossed around several great ideas, but we decided that Into the Woods Jr., written by Jewish composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, would be the perfect first Ramah Bamah production.
“You’ve changed. You’re daring. You’re different in the woods. More sure. More sharing. You’re getting us through the woods.”
The rush of putting a show together in ten days was all I dreamed of and more. We had thirteen amazing campers signed up to perform, plus two more who assisted us as backstage crew. We integrated ourselves into the entire Ramah environment: I’m proud to say that the lead of our show was a camper supported by the Tikvah Support Program, we collaborated with Rosh Drama, Sharona Rubinstein and tzevet drama who we shared the stage, and members of Camp from Rosh Sport to Gesher campers to Tikvah counselors played crucial roles in putting our show on its feet.
By the time we were at Camp and rehearsing, Adam and I agreed that it felt important for us to communicate that theatre acting is, simply, storytelling. We wanted to teach the campers how to be good storytellers, a deeply Jewish value that appears most vividly in our religious tradition during Pesach, where every year we are obligated to tell the story of escape from Egypt as if we ourselves are experiencing it. On the first day of rehearsals, I taught the campers the 4 key ingredients to being a good storyteller on stage: 1) Move on stage with purpose; 2) Plant your feet and stand upright when speaking; 3) Project loudly so you’re heard by everyone; and 4) Enunciate so that everyone can clearly understand you. We practiced these 4 skills in an activity where each camper took a turn walking with purpose to the center of the room, planting their feet, and loudly and clearly speaking the words: “I have something to say!” We repeated this activity again as a warm-up before our final show. We tried to instill the belief in our Ramah Bamah campers that they have stories to share and things worth saying: as Jews, artists, and especially as Jewish artists.
In the end, our priority was to have fun while making theatre as an ensemble, a kehillah (community). I very much believe we accomplished that mission. We played theatre and improv games, rehearsed the show efficiently and with great enthusiasm, and discussed Jewish connections to the play that helped us understand the importance of telling this story to our Ramah community. Campers shared with us at the end of the two weeks that they made friends in Ramah Bamah that they would not have had the opportunity to make otherwise since we spent so much time playing and collaborating together. Campers also remarked how exciting it was to be around people with similar interests in theatre and that their personal interest in the show made the yahadut aspect of the program the most they’ve ever been engaged in Jewish learning at Camp. By the end of the two weeks, campers were barraging Adam and me with proposals for future shows that Ramah Bamah should produce, many of which we thought were excellent ideas…
“And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t known before… Isn’t it nice to know a lot!… And a little bit not….”
“Though it’s fearful, though it’s deep, though it’s dark, and though you may lose the path… Into the woods and through the fear, you have to take the journey”
As I reflect on the last two weeks, I go back to the story that we, Ramah Bamah, told to the rest of Camp. At its core, Into the Woods is a story about people who wish deeply for something, who feel an urgent need to pursue something, and who take the brave act of stepping outside their doors and into the unknown of “the woods” in order to chase those dreams. Along the way, they learn valuable (often difficult) lessons, make many mistakes, and gain meaningful experiences that they otherwise would not have known had they not taken the courageous act of jumping outside their comfort zones.
This is precisely what the cast and crew of Ramah Bamah did this summer. It takes incredible courage and vulnerability to step onstage as an actor, to plant your feet in front of hundreds of expectant eyes and take the stage with a presence equivalent to crying out: “Watch me! I have something to say!” It took courage for us to begin this program, the first of its kind at a Ramah summer camp, not yet knowing what we didn’t know. But I can confidently share that our ensemble learned many valuable lessons along the way: about the program, our Jewishness, our role as artists and storytellers, our standing as members of the Ramah camping organization and the conservative Jewish movement as a whole, and, finally, as humans navigating a world full of unknowns and contradictions, an idea Into the Woods so skillfully explores.
I hope and believe that this was just the beginning for Ramah Bamah and for extended theatrical performance programming at Ramah summer camps. I can’t thank Anna and all of Camp leadership enough for their support, without which this program would have never even gotten off its feet. We’ve set the bar, and our task next year is to raise it: our plan is to be bigger and better and to continue building out the curriculum of learning how to be a great Jewish performer and storyteller. We went into and out of the woods this year, and I already can’t wait to meet everyone who will join us for next year’s adventure!
Learn more about Ramah Darom’s 2-week Musical Theater program. Registration for Ramah Bamah Kayitz (Summer) 2024 opens to new families on September 1.