Budding Thespians Take to the Stage

Youth Program Builds Confidence

Heidi Prokop Nov 1, 2017

It’s morning announcement time at the University of Utah’s Youth Theater Teen Camp. When the program’s director reminds participants that they’ve reached the fourth and final week of camp, the teenagers respond with a collective sad sigh.

During July, the budding thespians identified one of eight companies to join, auditioned for roles, and memorized their lines, music, and choreography. The camp culminated on the stage at Kingsbury Hall, where the companies performed a range of short works — from “The Bully Plays” that examine the problem of teen bullying to “Damn Yankees” with reversed gender roles to Act 1 of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”

In a few short weeks, nearly 300 young actors ages 5 through 18 discovered confidence, humility and teamwork.

Kids Discover Their ‘Tribe’

“We get various types of students — shy ones whose parents want them to open up, rambunctious students who we teach to apply their energy to the performance, and everyone in between,” says Penny Caywood, who has served as artistic director of the program since 2006. “It’s important for kids to feel like they have their own tribe of people where they belong, regardless of where they fit in at school. Here they end up finding a second home where they can be exactly who they are.”

Helping young actors feel comfortable has been a focus of the theater program since it began as a summer youth workshop in 1982 under the direction of Dr. Xan S. Johnson. Now part of the University of Utah’s Fine Arts Division, it is a multisession year-round theater arts training program (

In addition to the teen camp, summer sessions include a three-week, full-day preteen camp for students entering third through seventh grades as well as an introductory program for kindergarten through second grade.

“The teachers make it easy,” says 10-year-old Johnny, who played the role of Hamlet with his Shakespeare preteen company last summer. “They help us understand the language of the Bard and why it’s important.”

Experience in Front of an Audience

The after-school drama program convenes during winter for children 5 and older. This school year, they will work together on a “School House Rock Live!” production slated for March 22 through 24 at Kingsbury Hall. Over the course of three days, they will perform the musical five times before a combined audience of nearly 6,000 people, including two sold-out matinees for local elementary students.

Standing on stage singing and reciting lines in front of so many people can be daunting for young actors. But Caywood sees it as an opportunity to “cross a fear off a student’s list.” She has seen students transform over the course of the programs into more confident people.

“We work with them and give them some experience getting up in front of others so that they’ll be ready down the road when they have to make a PowerPoint presentation in front of a class,” she says. In fact, many of the skills they learn are transferrable to situations such as working with others, learning how to take constructive criticism from a director and understanding that “the show must go on.”

While several alumni have advanced to become professional actors, Caywood is equally satisfied when former students attend medical school or pass the bar exam, then return to the program to visit and reminisce. 

Theater Exposure for Community Kids

Community outreach is an important component of the program’s mission. This summer, high school actors offered 13 interactive performances at Salt Lake County libraries through the Zoo, Arts & Parks Summer Arts Program. During the school year, program directors worked with local public schools to develop curriculum-driven acting experiences. Last year, 47 classrooms were involved in performances that included Greek theater, Shakespeare, musicals, and even science plays based on the water cycle and gravity.

Photos courtesy of University of Utah's Youth Theater Camps

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