If Rachel Sklar is putting on a show, you’d probably find yourself asking, where do I sign up? The co-founder of Change the Ratio and The Li.st, a “visbility” network for professional women, has a knack for rallying colleagues. The same is true for motivating campers. This summer, after an 18-year hiatus, she returned to her beloved Camp Winnebagoe to direct two plays and assist with the Ontario-based camp’s overall Drama program. We chatted about what it was like to get back to a summer of sing-a-longs and s’mores, and the life lessons Rachel’s learned on the campground.
Why do you love camp?
Camp was a huge part of my life growing up, and a huge part of shaping me into who I am today. I spent 12 summers at Camp Winnebagoe — four as a camper and eight as a staff member. Camp was the locus of all my early creativity — it was my musical theater school, my songwriting lab (I wrote the opening summer theme songs, all day program songs) and gave me intense training in interpersonal skills. It was an incredible memory up until this summer, when it became my new reality.
What made you decide to go back?
I was scrolling through Instagram in May when I saw a shot of Ben & Jill Lustig, the founders of Winnebagoe, camp directors of my youth and beloved figures in my life. One of their daughters lives in New York and had Instagrammed a photo of her parents out at dinner. I immediately left a comment saying I’d love to see them. Turned out they were in town for their grandkid’s birthday so I hopped in a cab and was delighted to see that the current camp director, their other daughter, Ilyse Lustig, was there too. They sat me down with a giant piece of cake and said, “So, Rach, what are you doing this summer?” The cake was delicious – they knew how to get to me. It took a few weeks of figuring out the details – I really, really wanted to debut “Hedwig and the Angry Inch – For Kids!” – but eventually we figured it out.
The camp is in Canada?
Yes, three hours north of Toronto in the beautiful, leafy, lake-dotted Muskoka region. Most of the families that send their kids are based in Toronto. Many of them are legacy families — they went there as campers— often meeting their spouse at camp! Now they send their kids. My path was a bit different: I moved to New York after law school to become a lawyer, then a writer (now a writer/entrepreneur) so the return for me was not just a chance to reclaim some of the mojo of my youth but also to re-immerse in a community that I mostly only get to interact with on Facebook.
So what’s it like being the 40-year-old lady returning to camp?
41-year-old lady! Being back was a trip, but maybe the trippiest thing was how normal it felt. I walked into the dining hall and it was truly like I had never left. Of course, to the kids (and staff members), I looked like the parent who had stayed too late after visiting day, but they got used to me pretty quick. There’s a tradition at Winnebagoe of former staff members returning to direct plays. Camp was where I learned that you could do basically anything in a week and a half, since the average turnaround time for a show was 9-10 days, from auditions to opening night. They do five shows a summer. It’s a grueling schedule but if you do it right, it comes together. Sometimes barely, but as I am fond of saying, it only has to go right once!
Do campers have to go through auditions?
Everyone auditions! Auditions are where meet your cast for the first time, as performers, and where you push them to see what they can do. It’s also where you realize that every single kid in camp knows all the words to “Let It Go.” One of the most surreal – and delightful – moments was auditioning the Inters (the 8-9 year olds) for their show, “Little Shop of Horrors” — a more grown-up selection than usual — and they just killed it. I still marvel at how fantastic they were. So many of the kids who auditioned had familiar names — turns out I had gone to camp, high school, college etc with a ton of their parents and it was a real trip seeing their parents so clearly in their little faces. Three of the girls were the daughters of close lifelong friends of mine — none of whom had been interested in drama at all back in the day — and hilariously, each mom had privately emailed me to let me know that their child was actually really talented and I should just give them a chance. I let them know that I was incorruptible as a director, but it was extra-delightful when their girls really were terrific and I could justifiably cast them. To be able to get to know them by working with them and watching them come to life onstage — wow. It was incredibly meaningful.
I imagine not everything went so seamlessly…
Ha. Not quite. There was a stomach bug going around at one point and one of my leads puked onstage during rehearsal — this was the day after I’d pulled off a sweatshirt to stanch a nosebleed. We shepherded him off to the Health Center and brought the kids out to the theater steps to rehearse the rest of the scene. A quick mop and nothing was left but a stain that I was proud to see remain for the rest of the season. A theater needs battle scars. Also, in West Side Story my Chino shot Tony and then tore offstage to puke, missing his cue to come back in so Maria could demand his gun. “How many bullets in this gun, Chino?” is a little hard to pull off without a Chino. But it wasn’t so bad. The kids were fine and the shows were great. All that matters. (In that order.)
Was Winnebagoe your first camp experience?
No, I attended another sleepaway camp that shall remain nameless. Fun, but didn’t hold a candle. When I first went to Winnebagoe, I cried all the way up to camp because my mean parents had pulled me from that other nameless camp… My older brother had switched camps and my parents had switched me along with him. I got off the bus, miserable, and he was there to greet me and promise me I’d have a great summer. By dinnertime I had friends, a bed next to my favorite counselor, and a boy who liked me. It worked out fine.
Favorite camp song?
I can’t pick favorites! My iPad’s most-played are selections from Little Shop of Horrors and West Side Story, plus “Timber” by Pitbull feat. Ke$ha. That was the camp’s favorite song this year, by far. They went bananas for that in the dining hall. Don’t listen too closely to the lyrics though.
Favorite camp activities?
When I was a kid, waterskiing. I was a little demon on a slalom ski, flying off the dock onto the water every chance I got. (My older brother was Head of Ski so it was a family thing.) I was all set to do it this summer when my dad reminded me that I was 41 and that I’d be annoyed to be on crutches all summer. Pretty sure I could still make my flyer though.
What are some of the key life lessons you’ve learned from camp?
- You can do anything in a week and a half (or, an all-nighter).
- Kids are smart — treat them like it and they’ll blow you away.
- When you lose your voice you sound meaner (sometimes useful).
- If you need someone to sweep under the stage (and if you actually want it done) that someone will be you.
- You can turn a bunch of teenagers into Jets and Sharks just by spray-painting a few t-shirts.
- You can keep up, but you’ll feel it in the morning.
Any camp romances?
As luck would have it, there was another old-timer back at camp to direct a show. It was very nice to meet him! And, I am typing this from his apartment.
Do you go completely or partially “off the grid” at camp?
I loooooved being off the grid! There was wifi at the office and I was able to do “real world” work when I needed to, but while I was there, my most important tool was my iPad and that was because I needed to play music and take photos. Well, and Instagram.
I did miss the news. I was getting most of my news from quick glances at Facebook and that is just not a useful way to keep up, particularly when the news cycle went bananas this summer. Facebook is no substitute for Brian Williams. One of the reasons I chose to take this leap this summer was to break the cycle of email overload and insta-responding, which had really taken over my life. Wow did it feel good to mark up a script again. In pen.