Dante DeCecio writes about theatre camps and abandoned buildings
Walking through the hilly and forested small towns of Ulster County, you can see the signs of summer everywhere. Trees puffed up with their new leaves, ice-cream stores opening their candy-colored doors, and the humming restlessness of us young folks.
I’m wrapped in the restlessness myself, tapping my foot in the classrooms along with the rest of them. We’ve been counting down since the first signs of warmth, and we are ready, ready for the great escape.
There’s something heroic about being a young person in a small-town summer. Maybe it comes from the ancient Hollywood fantasy of the young and the carefree, James Dean’s pursed lips as he speeds down the highway in a red jacket. Maybe it stems from the teenage need to escape, to destroy and create oneself and destroy oneself again in the fading search for freedom. But mostly it’s the relieved feeling of stepping down the Woodstock sidewalk feeling the absence of a backpack weighed down with textbooks on one’s shoulder.
The Hudson Valley’s vast, and it’s even more vast without a driver’s license. Throughout the summer of 2015, I will be at least a week or two from driving age. I will spend this season an eternal guest, a ghost in the back seat and shotgun, making light conversation. This is the danger of summer. A person with nothing to do and no car to drive might as well be comatose.
This is why camps were created, to take all the late-sleepers and throw them together in the center of the forest in hopes of finding something they can bring home with them. I’ve been to many summer camps, but two stick out in my memory: The Wayfinder Experience and New Genesis Productions.
Wayfinder is not a conventional camp. Its sleep-away sessions are a one-week intimate celebration of strangeness. The camp gives children tunics and foam swords, and for a night or two puts the fate of the realm in their hands. They act out carefully constructed adventures, with conflicts to solve and monsters to defeat. They feel like the most powerful creatures in the universe.
I have fallen in love dying in someone’s arms, covered in bright green greasepaint. I have stayed up late, sitting on the edge of tepid water lit by the sunrise, and talked with people I had just met three days ago about the continents we had conquered and those we had lost along the way. Without its decade of dark woods and grandiose fantasy, I think I would’ve lost something in the transition to adolescence that the Wayfinder Experience let me keep.
New Genesis Productions is a youth theater company run by the Aja-Sawhill family, who have built their own stage, The Little Globe Theatre, in their back yard, right next to their garden. Each year they put on three productions for three separate age groups, as well as a master-class production consisting of the company’s oldest and most committed student actors. The first time I worked with them, I played a child soldier in Shakespeare’s Henry V who was killed brutally by the French. I wore a fleece vest and a cabbie hat. I didn’t speak loudly enough.
When I wasn’t muttering through my lines, I would lock eyes with an audience member and plead with them silently to drag me off stage. I went through a rite of passage of playing the necessary nouns: messenger, knight, hunter. I witnessed murders and insidious plots.
That time is past. What I remember clearly are the people. Someone always had their arm around someone. There is a closeness that develops in the toiling sweat and fear of backstage that couldn’t be found any other place.
In 2011 we wrote messages in chalk to the other companies of the Byrdcliffe theater. They’re still there. Smudged, and embarrassing, but still there.
Free from the strictly scheduled and adult maintained, I will try my best to spend as much time as possible in abandoned places. Their unusual quietness and the rebellious thrill of trespassing in them make them sacred to me. The last abandoned place I visited was a quarry outside Saugerties. There is no signage on the way there, we parked on an empty road, and I was led through the woods until the trees opened up to reveal a wasteland. Small industrial shacks taken off their foundations leaned against foothills, There was abandoned equipment, rusted and graffitied by stoners, and behind that an abandoned factory by the river.
Walking down to the shore the factory’s support beams looked like Greek columns. The shore had been cleared of trees and hills. The sky was bigger than I’d ever seen it. I’ve lived in New York all my life, surrounded by mountains, and to have the sky opened up to me like that, especially in the glow that comes just after sunset, made the world seem smaller and larger at the same time. Maybe that’s the beauty in abandoned things, the feeling of both significance and insignificance. You’re a part of a place that has lived and died and lived again.
The excitement of summer is back, and some of us teenagers (as we have a tendency to do) have turned our plans into a thing of romantic spectacle. We will hike taller mountains, see brighter sunrises, run farther and faster than last summer. There is no doubt that we’ll be disappointed.
Not me. Although I will be attending the Wayfinder Experience and working with New Genesis, I’ve made no other summer plans. I have no dreams of fulfilling the teenage myth. I will not pine for some other reality. I will sit in the humid and sweet air, content in knowing that I’m only a 15-minute drive away from Saugerties’ old and crumbling mills and quarries.