Tampa's own long-running theater production: the Straz camp at Metropolitan Ministries

On Broadway, shows like “The Phanton of the Opera” and “Cats” have become legendary for lengthy stage runs.

Tampa has its own long-runnnig theater production. For more than 15 years, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts has put on a spring break theater camp for children and teenagers living at Metropolitian Ministries, a Tampa charity helping the homeless. 

This year’s camp draws a record 84 participants, including children from a program Metropolitian Ministries runs at Mango Elementary. Students from kindergarten through high school spend a week learning and rehearsing music, dance and acting. The theme for this year’s camp is “Under the Sea” and the week culminates with a Friday cast party and a performance of scenes from “The Little Mermaid” for parents and families. 

“As part of our arts education partnership program, we work with community partners and schools to bring them performing arts and other opportunities that they might not otherwise have access to,” says Emma Trapp, community engagement manager for the Straz Center. “We can come in and create a specific curriculum for each partnership that is just for them. So every program that we partner with has a program and instructor specifically for their needs.”

Trapp says the one-week camp has a long-lasting positive impact on many children. 

“It really helps confidence building,” she says. “The kids do better in school. It helps with attention span. They also have that outlet to express themselves in a way that doesn’t make them feel as vulnerable. Because we are able to express ourselves through the arts in a way that talking doesn’t always convey.”

Nicole Boone, the associate vice president of education services at Metropolitan Ministries, says the camp brings fun and hope to children who have been dealing with tough times.

“Kids love this,” Boone says. “It’s an opportunity for them to express themselves that they would never have had. The kind of partnership we have with Straz and Patel (Conservatory), who gets to do this? When I was a kid, this was not available to me. So for our kids, who do not have all of these phenomenal opportunities, to be able to come in after months of instability and insecurity and be exposed to the arts, they start to feel like life isn’t going to be so bad because their imagination is enlightened. They’re dancing, singing and acting, just having fun as a kid. It gives you hope and it sparks inspiration. You even forget for a minute where you came from and what happened to you. Instead, you start to turn a corner. So you wouldn’t think something like this could change the trajectory of someone’s life. But something like this, these little steps, are exactly what changes a person’s life.” 

Aaron Washington, a drama teacher in the camp, says he was in a similar theater program as a child in Ohio. It sparked a lifelong interest in acting. 

“That’s how I was bit,” Washington says. “I was introduced to it by happenstance. I had no idea what the arts were about. Once I was introduced to it, I couldn’t stop.”

Washington says the children and teens in the Straz camp have also had an enthusiastic response.

“They all are open to it,” he says. “They are very, very responsive. You have a couple that it takes a minute for them to warm up to it, but they’re great.”

Elijah Seay started in the camp at age 7, when his mother took a job at Metropolitan Ministries. Over several years, he was part of productions that includes scenes from “The Jungle Book,” “Wicked,” “Grease,” "Annie Get Your Gun” and more. 

 “This is why I wanted to become an actor,” Seay says. “This led to many auditions.”

Today, Seay is still a part of the camp, working as a therapeutic specialist at Metropolitan Ministries as he pursues a master’s degree. 

Boone says the performance that caps the week might not earn any Tony Awards. But no Broadway show will match the enthusiasm of some of the performers.

“I always tell people, ‘Have you been to Broadway and seen those amazing shows? Have you been to Cirque (du Soleil)? Yeah, it’s not going to be that. But what it’s going to be is the most excited and completely into it that you have seen little kids throw themselves into a performance.’”
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Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.