Long-running theater camp urges youth to reach for stars

Staff Writer

 Theater campers appear triumphant in a production of “Newsies.” Theater campers appear triumphant in a production of “Newsies.” EDISON — As a child, when all the other kids were playing Little League, Michael Taubenslag was performing in theater productions with his family.

His father, Elliot Taubenslag, was the first professional children’s theater director in New York City and the founder of Taubenslag Productions, according to Michael. The company began its residence at the Jan Hus Theater in New York City in 1964.

For his efforts, Elliot Taubenslag was awarded the Dorothy Mullen Arts and Humanities Award for Best Children’s Program in the U.S.

“It was a family business,” the younger Taubenslag said. “Instead of putting us with babysitters, he put his kids in the shows. So when we did ‘Peter Pan’ in New York, my father was Captain Hook, my sister was Wendy, my brother was John, and I was little Michael.”

 Young thespians perform a dance number during the Theater Camp’s production of “Annie.” Young thespians perform a dance number during the Theater Camp’s production of “Annie.” It was inevitable that Taubenslag would learn a lot from his father. So when his father had a heart attack two weeks before his theater camp was set to start one year, Taubenslag stepped in to keep the program going.

“I was just doing what Dad did,” Taubenslag said.

The elder Taubenslag is currently retired, but his son continues to walk in his theatrical footsteps at Theater Camp at Middlesex County College. The camp kicked off its 25th year under Michael Taubenslag’s direction this past Monday.

Campers learn original musical comedies written by the Taubenslags, many of which are based on familiar stories such as “Peter Pan,” “Pinocchio” and “Willy Wonka.” A different show is featured on a weekly basis.

They use a simple formula to keep children coming back: Never talk down to the children, always keep a fast pace and visually stimulate their imaginations.

“I use theater arts to build self-esteem, and I get more out of it that way,” Taubenslag said. “We don’t work with scripts. I tell them what to say, and it’s their job to memorize the lines. If they forget their line, it’s okay to make up a new one.”

The camp’s motto is ‘When you try your best, you can do anything.’”

Taubenslag brings the theater arts program to national colleges and schools in the tri-state area throughout the year, but he doesn’t get to know his students as well as he does during the eight-week summer program at Middlesex County College.

“It’s really nice to watch them grow and become more confident,” Taubenslag said. “They know they are there to succeed — to better themselves, to break out of their shells, to overcome their shyness and fear of getting up in front of an audience. No child is ever left behind. The children realize when they do try their best, they really can accomplish anything.”

This year’s program, which started on June 23, runs eight weeks, divided into two three-week sessions and one two-week session. Children are welcome to start at any point in the program.

“Our prices are very fair,” Michael said. “We’re only $1,795 for the whole summer — for all eight weeks, full day — and that includes a trip to see a Broadway show. Last year, we went to ‘Matilda’; this year, we are going to see ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ ”

Every week, the children produce an elaborate musical production on the main stage of the Middlesex County College Performing Arts Center. They rehearse 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday, and present two one-hour shows to parents and the public on Friday mornings. All children get a part in the show.

“When the curtain opens, we can have 120 children onstage,”

Taubenslag said.

They also have colorful scenery and costumes, along with special effects, some of which are created by the campers.

Afternoons are filled with a variety of activities, including swimming, scavenger hunts, charades, singing, relay races, indoor and outdoor games, theatrical workshops and more.

Many campers return annually, and teen programs are also offered at the camp.

Jackie Nuzzo, a professional actress living in New York City, began attending the theater camp when she was 6 years old, and continued until she was old enough to become a counselor in 2006.

“The 11 summers I spent at Theater Camp are still to this day some of my fondest childhood memories,” Nuzzo said. “As I watched my campers discover the joy of performing, forge relationships, and begin to grow and find themselves, I realized that that is precisely what my 11 summers had done for me.

“I credit my passion for theater to Michael Taubenslag and the wonderful program that the Taubenslag family has been offering the community for decades. I can safely say that my summers at the Theater Camp instilled in me a love for theater and performing that I will never be without.”