Busy-bodied young boys scamper across the stage while a young girl learns to belt out the lines to a song. Director Trish Lindberg laughs aloud in approval when they finish – but only for a moment. Then it’s time to rehearse the song again. And again.
Opening night is a week away, and Lindberg knows there is a lot of work to do. But the students will be ready, just as they have been for each of the last 30 years at Kearsarge Arts Theatre.
But this summer is different. It’s the 30th and final season for the summer program known as KAT, a theater and arts day camp for kids ages 8 through 18.
It feels like time to move on, Lindberg said, citing a number of reasons: She’s busy with other theater programs and her job as a professor at Plymouth State University. The demographics of the area have changed, leaving fewer school-aged children to participate. There are more summer activities for children to choose from than there were 30 years ago. KAT’s location at Kearsarge Regional High School in Sutton is a long drive for many families.
But Lindberg, 57, doesn’t talk about the end.
“It’s bittersweet, but joyful,” she said.
She focuses on the thousands of children she’s worked with for three decades and the more than 70 pieces of original music they’ve created. She remembers the international students who traveled to the United States to attend KAT and the trips she’s taken with American KAT students to foreign countries, where they performed for and collaborated with local children.
It all began in 1982, when Lindberg was working at Colby-Sawyer College in New London as a residence director and student activities coordinator. She was earning a salary of just $3,000 in addition to room and board, but she wanted to begin a summer theater program for kids. With a $500 loan from the college’s provost and the help of a few Colby-Sawyer students, Lindberg founded KAT and worked with seven children.
“It’s funny to think about it now, because I’d be playing the piano and then directing and then running down and helping with this and helping with that,” Lindberg said. “And I don’t even really play piano, so I hate to think about what it sounded like.”
At the end of the summer, Lindberg’s seven students put on a show. After paying back the $500 loan, she earned about $30.
“But one of the things about KAT is it’s never been about making money,” she said. “It’s about the kids’ experience.”
From that first season, KAT grew into a nonprofit organization. It’s always had the same structure: For four weeks, students take visual and performing arts classes in the morning and rehearse for a show in the afternoon. Later, Lindberg added a cabaret show for teenagers, who spend just two weeks rehearsing before their first performance. The camp has been based at Kearsarge Regional High School for more than 20 years.
This year’s show features 16 of KAT’s original songs, for which Lindberg wrote the lyrics and worked with several different composers. Fifty-seven students between the ages of 8 and 17 will perform in the show, and more than 100 take arts classes during the morning sessions. In the past, KAT has had more than 200 participants.
Kyle Trumble came to KAT for the first time as a middle school student. Lindberg was the first person he met when he walked through the doors on his first day.
“She always knows everyone’s name, and I feel like she helps create the web that surrounds these kids and makes us feel welcome,” Trumble said.
Trumble, 22, has returned every year – “they can’t keep me away,” he said. This year, he’s on the staff as assistant technical director.
“I’ve been to a couple theaters, and you meet the kids and they’re just snooty and stuck up. . . . And at KAT they’re not like that,” he said.
Paula Northridge, Lindberg’s sister and the theater’s managing director, said she thinks children and parents value KAT because Lindberg finds a role for every child, no matter his or her talent level.
“They may be a little irregular, and at school they’re not really accepted,” she said. “And at KAT, they are. . . . And that’s again coming from Trish.”
Lindberg doesn’t take the credit for her work, instead thanking her staff members and students for creating the so-called “KATmosphere – a kid coined that awhile back,” she said.
KAT’s international focus began in 2002, when Lindberg reached out to schools around the world and asked students to submit writing about how to make the world a better place. She pieced their thoughts together into song lyrics for a show called A You and Me World, and invited students from 17 different countries to stay with host families in New Hampshire and perform in the show.
That year, Lindberg began traveling with KAT students to foreign countries after the camp ended. They’ve performed street theater in Dublin and in venues across South Africa and England. They collaborated with local children to create shows in small towns in New Zealand and Lithuania.
One of Lindberg’s favorite KAT memories was during the last international trip four or five years ago – the group’s second trip to South Africa.
Trumble, who was one of the students on the trip and was in high school at the time, remembers the tour bus pulling into one poor village. He said he looked out the window and saw makeshift houses with holes in the walls instead of real windows.
When they arrived at the village’s school, the KAT students were ushered into a trailer filled with children, where Lindberg said there was hardly space to perform.
She remembers the South African children’s faces as blank, void of all emotion. They didn’t smile or speak English, but when her own students began to perform, “it was so moving to watch our kids just give and give and give to try and thaw that and make a connection with these kids,” she said.
“And when we got to the end of the show, all my musicians were crying,” she said. The kids “just melted into the South African kids, hugs, tears. It was so emotionally moving to see how much those kids gave to those other children that they knew needed that. And I think that’s the thing – if anybody can remember anything about KAT, I hope it’s that they remember just to value so much your relationships with others.”
(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)