Act 3, Scene 1
Long Lake Camp for the Arts
Long Lake, N.Y
Cost per three-week session: $2,950-$3,450
Cost per six-week session: $5,500
Cost per nine-week session: $7,000
The first hour is spent rehearsing for an off-Broadway production. The second hour rolls around and you're elbow deep in pottery clay. Better clean up quick, because your voice teacher doesn't like smudges on her sheet music…
And so it goes at Long Lake Camp for the Arts, nestled in one of the Northeast's most picturesque settings within the Adirondack National Forest Preserve.
What you find as you approach Long Lake is an impressive array of fieldstone buildings from an earlier time when this was a private estate, and a number of auditorium and production facilities where 10-16 year olds are immersed in almost every type of art imaginable.
Surrounded by forest and mountains, these campers have the option of waterskiing, soccer, horseback riding, and just about any activity you can think of at any traditional camp. There's one important exception… Most are intensely focused on performing and fine arts, and the other activities are merely diversions.
"There are actually quite athletic, energetic kids coming to our camp. If they want to go water skiing or whatever, they can," says camp owner Marc Katz. "In a lot of camps sports are 80 percent, while ours is maybe 10 or 20 percent. I have kids who are in national tournaments for tennis and soccer, but they're coming to Long Lake because they love music, drama, film or something else. They're intense, well-focused kids -- and I'm not saying they're particularly talented. This is what they love, this is what they want to do and they don't get a chance to do it enough or at all at home."
Katz adds that Long Lake Camp has "traditional camping values, we still have camp fires and we promote togetherness."
Katz's father, David, was an orchestral conductor in New York City who started the camp as a "hobby" with his wife Jeannie.
About 14 years ago, Katz laughingly says he "bought the camp in a leveraged buyout" and continued the tradition, while taking the camp beyond hobby to something Katz describes as "very intense and serious."
Interviewing the Interviewer
About 250 campers fill the roster at Long Lake Camp for each of the three-week sessions from June through August. With more than 100 counselors staffing it, the programming is obviously diverse and often individualized.
These 100 or so counselors are professionals in their respective art fields. While one may wield a brush, another a baton, they all have one thing in common -- they're all devoted to their discipline and to teaching kids.
"My photo teacher thinks life revolves around capturing it in pictures -- that's her intensity, that's her love. When she brings that to camp, everyone picks up on that and has a good time," says Katz. "Then you multiply that by 140 people who think that what they're doing is equally as important and fun."
With so much staff, it's no wonder that Katz says it's the secret to Long Lake Camp's success. It's a common thread among camps, but perhaps nowhere is this staff truism more apparent than at Long Lake Camp.
Katz is looking for more than just an intense love for art in its varying forms, but someone who can handle the camp experience. Some may be great directors or musicians, but it takes someone special to fit into the camp mold.
"A lot of counselors who come to our camp ask for references. I'm not so sure that a lot of people would do that," says Katz. "It means they care and that they're willing to go the extra step to make sure they're making the right decision. That's a very mature thing from a 21 year old."
Katz rarely interviews potential staff in person, preferring to use their portfolio and a telephone interview to make his decisions.
"People are looser on the phone. You can get them to spill the beans more when they're not directly in front of you," says Katz. "You're able to make people feel more comfortable when they're not looking you in the eyes. You can probe them better and get to know what's in their heart a little easier when you're not face to face, believe it or not. The phone has a marvelous way of breaking barriers."
The key, says Katz, to the phone interview is to ask very few questions and let them talk. The good and sometimes conniving interview subject knows the right answers before you even ask the question. A good interview in the traditional sense (Where do you see yourself in five years?) does not often translate into a good counselor, at least in Katz's experience.
"I certainly ask them very simple questions that could have some long-winded answers -- why do you want to come to a camp? It's very hard work. Then really, just keep quiet, because people will still keep talking because they're thinking you're expecting them to talk," says Katz. "Also, the person who's there volunteering that information about them is one who's enthusiastic about themselves, their art and about coming to camp, and that's a good intensity to be looking for. Someone who's just sitting there waiting for you to ask a question is not necessarily good camp counselor material. We don't want followers. I want a natural leader for each of those positions."
Leadership is extremely important to Long Lake Camp, as each staff position holds some leadership responsibilities. They also have to be team players as one stage production, for example, can employ a director, assistant director, choreographer, technical director, and so on.
These characteristics are brought out in the interview, which is less interview and more soliloquy. Though Katz says that he can't pinpoint why staffing has been so successful, it has.
Consider that almost 85 percent of the staff will return this summer and that only two counselors left last summer because they weren't the right fit for camp.
Perhaps another piece of the staffing puzzle is allowing the staff programming creativity, while keeping the consistency and focus of the overall program direction.
"I have different art personalities that make the atmosphere at camp refreshing, if you allow them to do that. You can't stifle the energy that the people have as long as it's good, healthy energy," says Katz. "The core is there -- you have your same head counselors, directors and department heads for 15 years. We usually bring them in from within. If you're going to have a new waterfront director, you want to bring someone who's been there before. Our head of fine arts was the ceramics teacher five years ago; our head counselor was the drum teacher 10 years ago. You're trying to bring the best of the people you have up in the ranks, retain them, and keep them forever."
Retaining staff is a universal struggle, and though Katz has had an excellent track record, this year's return rate of 85 percent of its summer staff is almost twice what it normally is, and Katz gives a simple thank-you letter at least some of the credit.
"For the last 30 years we've sent out a letter to staff saying that we'd like to duplicate the same success we had last summer, and to please come back. I don't necessarily get a good response from that, but this year we tried something different. I thanked them," says Katz. "I told each staff member in a letter that they made a difference, and that we take compliments every day from parents and kids that this camp was heaven on earth for them, and their counselors were the greatest. Instead of just telling everyone that camp was great and they should come back, telling them that they made it great, that we need them, and we hope it was good for them has generated tremendously better response.
"Is that because I thanked them, and told them that they made a difference? I don't know. Some people don't think they make a difference, but let them know they did. Of course that's bad for me when they come back because it means a much higher salary. I can't win no matter what," says Katz with a laugh.
This ultimately pays dividends for the campers, who return the favor by returning themselves and referring others to the camp. Those who return help maintain the atmosphere and spirit of the camp. This high percentage of returning staff and campers is a potent combination.
"Half of our art studios have different personalities in them each year. You may have a ceramics person who this year is a ceramics sculpting person, but next year it's a potter using a wheel," says Katz. "The drama program is the same stable of directors, but you move the kids into different directors. I have directors on staff who have very traditional, Broadway-type productions. A camper can be in their show, and the next year you put them with a director who does very avant-gard experimental theater."
An important way Long Lake Camp keeps the programming fresh is to constantly poll its campers before, during and after camp. A survey is given to each camper and most are followed up on by full-time staffer and drama director Stacie Lambeth with a phone call.
This active pursuit of camper input not only keeps the program fresh, but contributes to the camp's high return rate. The input has lead to some fairly substantive changes that, though they created some intense work and acclimation, fulfilled the mission of Long Lake Camp.
"I got rid of baseball. I'm a baseball lover, but you know what? Our kids don't want baseball or get enough of it already. There I was spending $40,000 on maintaining a great sports field and getting great baseball counselors, but the kids don't want it," says Katz. "We also had to reformat our whole drama schedule to allow them to be in more than one drama production at once, which is very tough, but we did it. Kids could be in drama, dance and in the circus and take music. Now they want to be in two drama productions and still do all of that. That was a difficult process, especially for our drama directors and dance teachers. We had all had it nice and easy until last year, where all of the sudden we were doing double the work, but the kids are worth it."
With camper and staff input, Katz, his wife Susan, Lambeth and head counselors Carolyn Goodman and Geoffrey Burnett put the pieces of camp together in a cohesive unit, and it's on with the show.
The show, for the campers, begins by making sure they sample all Long Lake Camp has to offer. They'll go through activities as diverse as silk screening and film for a few days, then fill out a schedule that best squares with their interests.
"I actually want them to come to camp with a clean slate, and not preordained into programs, because hey, things change. A 14-year-old who signs up today may have somewhat different interests in six months," says Katz. "When they come up to camp they meet the fashion design teacher, for example. They actually make something, then they're free to choose."
With the combination of creativity, freedom and traditional values, Long Lake Camp has become very much the "artistic oasis" that Katz envisions.
"People tell me that our camp is a heavenly place because it is the right combination of an artistic atmosphere, but it's not flaky," says Katz. "You have to have the right balance of the creativity, and yet be real."