Learning to Start Small: An update from the Usdan Summer Camp for the Performing Arts

Usdan Summer Camp students at the 2017 Parade

Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts sounds just a little bit like paradise for artistic kids.

For fifty years, the nonprofit summer camp has brought world-class teachers and visiting artists—actors, directors, playwrights, painters, sculptors, musicians, composers, dancers, poets and novelists—to teach and collaborate with campers age 4 to 18. Their wooded 140-acre Long Island campus gives students the literal and metaphoric space to explore their existing talents and delve into new ones. With nearly 70 classes and 1,500 students each summer, every camper from beginning to advanced is guided on a path of individual creative growth by a team of artists and talented arts educators.

Students head to class along one of Usdan’s wooded paths

When Lauren Brandt Schloss was hired as Executive Director in 2015, however, she knew that some changes were needed, and that change would be difficult for an organization that had been doing things in very much the same way for a long time. The camp had had two directors in the course of 48 years, the most recent serving for 32 of those years. The sense of “this is how we do things here” was strong. In addition, with a limited year-round team of 15 people and a seasonal summer community of about 2,000 staff and students, planning for significant changes during the off-season was a challenge.

Lauren reached out to EmcArts, and over the course of the next year, Managing Director Melissa Dibble worked with a Usdan team of staff, artist faculty, board members and other partners on an adaptive planning and prototyping process. Together they developed and tested new, innovative, adaptive strategies to address their stated complex challenge:

To create an environment—cohesive and consistent throughout Usdan—that encourages every child to remain an artist in any endeavor throughout their lives.

The “small experiments with radical intent” tried out through this process were all over the map—in the best way. They included leaving musical instruments and art materials out on tables during lunch, building miniature “villages” for magical creatures around the campus, having students introduce the plays they were performing in, and much more. The diversity of experiments embraced the principle at the core of the prototyping method: try everything, see what works and what doesn’t, then use what you learn to guide what you try next—all with the aim of making programming more student-centered and student-driven.

Two years later, some of these experiments have been left behind, while others have blossomed into established programs and traditions at Usdan.

The Artist in Residence program began with small experiments. They started out by inviting artists to come see the campus and the students in action, then offered short-term residencies for a few of them to research and develop an idea in partnership with students. This new idea worked so well that it has now turned into an important part of the camp program. “It can take time for artists to develop good ideas,” notes Jillian Greenberg, Director of Education. “This structure allows for time to do just that, while adding a new, exciting element to the summer camp community.”

Student work created as part of Artist in Residence Padro Lasch’s “Dreaming in the Woods”

The Parade on the last day of camp was the largest of the initial experiments, in that it involved roughly half the camp (the younger campers, or juniors). It was optional, but of all the changes and new ideas that season, it was the one that everyone seemed to love (and they were vocal about ones they did not). Key to this experiment was that students were the ones who took the idea and ran with it, creating and driving the process with faculty guidance. Even rain on the day of the parade was taken in stride as a prompt for further creativity, and it was such a success that the event was repeated the following year, adding a Carnival for the senior campers.

Specific experiments and their outgrowths are not the only lasting impact of the Usdan’s work with EmcArts, however. “The most important step in the process for our community has been that of questioning assumptions, which allows us to open up ways of thinking that we felt locked into,” Lauren says. “We’ve really embraced the notion of ‘small experiments with radical intent,’ thinking about long-term change by starting with a baby experiment, learning from that, and then deciding if we go bigger.”

The camp has also rewritten their job descriptions to reflect a renewed focus on fostering a cohesive and consistently student-centered experience for campers, and to focus on the culture they hope to create—one of growth, embracing new ideas and reflection. Several members of the Innovation Team that guided the adaptive planning work have also since taken on leadership roles in the organization.

Student art created as part of Lasch’s “Dreaming in the Woods”

There’s still work to do. As the internal culture at Usdan shifts, parents and students are adjusting as well. The camp also faces the challenge of increasing student enrollment in an ever more crowded and specialized summer camp market. Still, the feeling of change is in the air. The first big works of the Artist in Residence program will be rolling out in the summer of 2018, and more experiments are in the works.

Change, especially the kind of change that comes with embracing an adaptive culture, always brings uncertainty, but it also brings huge opportunities. “Starting small but ‘with radical intent’ has stuck with us in many ways,” says Jillian. “From the AIR program, to having lunch delivered for faculty, to workshopping ideas for new classes, starting with an experiment has proven to be very helpful in testing new ideas with low risks.”

Ben Sachs-Hamilton is the External Relations Coordinator at EmcArts.