by Kelly Pollock, feature writer Buzz Cafe
Gigi Hudson discovered her passion for acting in college and has been teaching theatre for almost thirty years. This year, she is celebrating the ten-year anniversary of The Actors Garden which originally launched out of space shared with Musikgarten on Harrison Street which was generously offered by Amy Pappageorge. Four years ago, she moved to her current location at 909 S. Lombard Avenue in the Oak Park Arts District. Gigi chose the name of her business partly to pay homage to Musikgarten but mostly because her philosophy is that, “It’s about the process not about the product.” As Gigi states, “It’s not my goal to produce Broadway actors but to develop audience members who understand what it takes to put a production together. It’s about planting the seeds of interest.”
While The Actors Garden offers classes and workshops throughout the year for both adults and children, it is the summer camp that really helps to lay that foundation. A unique aspect of the program is that the productions are original works by Gigi’s husband, Dave Hudson, who is an award-winning musical writer. When she started working with children, Gigi produced the “junior” versions of Broadway musicals. But she was frustrated that she couldn’t find shows that “didn’t talk down to kids.” And she wanted to “spread the wealth on stage” rather than focusing on just a few lead roles. Dave was already writing for adults and offered to have a go at writing for children.
Now thanks to their collaboration, The Actors Garden summer camp rotates through seven different musicals that have been written by Dave and are customized to Gigi’s needs. “The seven-year rotation is perfect for us because our campers range in age from 8-15 so that’s the typical length of time that they spend in our program.” And each child has an opportunity to speak, to sing, and to dance. “They all have a moment in the spotlight,” says Gigi.
The summer camp is a huge undertaking with a staff of thirty made up of counselors and professional guest artists. Although The Actors Garden studio is on Lombard, the camp takes place at Dominican University. Seventy-five campers register for each of the two sessions. Camp runs Monday through Friday from 9-3 for four weeks and is followed by a weekend of six performances. Each production is triple-cast so that each camper performs twice over the weekend.
Camp sessions involve much more than staging and rehearsing the show. Camp is run like “middle school” with campers rotating between activities every forty minutes. Many activities are theme-based around the current production. This year’s show – “Off to Olympus!” – is a story about Greek gods and goddesses so one activity is a “purpose workshop” with River Forest resident Susan Lucci who is helping the campers to discover what makes them powerful.
For younger children, The Actors Garden started offering a mini camp last year that runs in the mornings for two weeks. Designed for campers ages 4-7, the mini camp runs in “blocks” like the regular camp, and the eight campers put on a short performance for family and friends in the Lombard studio on the final day. This year’s production is “Super Summer: Superhero Squad!” and there are a few openings left in the second session that begins on July 29.
Gigi says that she has “the greatest job in the world” and parents are equally enthusiastic about her and The Actors Garden. “Gigi puts the young people first and the theater second. Our daughter has grown into a confident young person willing to risk a little to achieve something even bigger,” says Stephan Benzkofer whose daughter Audrey is a current camper.
Lacey Sikora, whose daughter has “aged out” of camp but is hoping to return as a counselor, says, “After seven summers, my husband and I agree that enrolling Kiki in Gigi’s camp was the single best thing that we have ever done for our daughter. Gigi and her counselors provided something that can be so rare in programming for kids: they see the whole child and help each child grow and be the best that they can be.”
This summer’s performances of “Off to Olympus!” will be the weekends of July 12-14 and August 16-18 at the Dominican University Performing Arts Center. For more information about The Actors Garden, visit their website at www.theactorsgarden.com.