Outrage builds as ‘Art of Drag’ weekend camp encourages kids as young as eight to ‘create their own drag personas’

The Young Actors’ Theatre Camp just hosted its first-ever weekend camp for three days and two nights in the mountains of Northern California that taught children as young as 8 years old the “Art of Drag,” billing it as a safe place for campers to “create their own drag personas.”

The Santa Cruz theater group recently received an unspecified donation that allowed it to offer a “Pay What You Can” amount to attend the weekend. The donation permitted many to attend the “very special weekend camp” for free. Children from 8 to 18 were reportedly in attendance.

The camp, which was not announced until last week, began on Friday, March 31, and went through April 2. Students were reportedly taught about drag history and participated in character workshops. They were encouraged to come up with performance ideas for a final show in front of friends and family.

There was outrage and intense backlash concerning the event online. Users on social media called for parents to be arrested and branded the camp as “disturbing.”

The event’s organizer, Shawn Ryan, ignored the outcry. He chose stars from shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “American Horror Story” to take part in the camp’s festivities.

“We have always been inclusive and always taught our kids that love is love,” Ryan told a local LGBTQ outlet this week in an interview.

He blasted recent legislation that has been passed in states such as Florida barring such events as “transphobic.” Ryan started the group in 2021 and told the gay forum how he and other faculty members planned to “educate” youngsters during their stay.

“Through the last 22 years [of the camp’s history] this is not the first movement of homophobic or transphobic legislation we’ve seen,” Ryan told the Bay Area Reporter in an interview.

“But as camp directors, we find this is what we can do for the future. The children literally are the future. The more kids see that expression and creativity, and however you present on the spectrum should be welcomed in this world, the better,” he asserted.

Ryan also spoke to the online theater publication Broadway World, telling them that “drag nights” had been held for years where adult actors perform drag shows in front of young children.

“About a decade ago, when we first started our Drag Night at camp, we had one parent who wrote a very hate-filled Yelp review and it really got under my skin,” he told the outlet.

“In the review, he stated, ‘I’m fine with it for skits and plays… I mean I loved Mrs. Doubtfire… but teaching (the art of drag) to kids?’ My blood really boiled,” the angry parent told Ryan.

“Why is it admirable when Robin Williams does it – and flawlessly I might add – but all of a sudden it’s off the table when your child might want to put on a costume that has been previously known for the opposite gender?” Ryan asked in a statement.

He went on to insist that the modern concept of drag goes all the way back to the days of William Shakespeare when female parts were played by male actors.

Ryan also pointed to films such as 1982’s “Tootsie” and 1996’s “The Bird Cage” as being indicative of the “art form” being alive as it is today and therefore should be taught to young, aspiring actors. He went on to contend that drag is no less a part of theater than melodramas or musicals, alluding to drag reality stars and shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The star of that show, Nina West, is one of the camp’s faculty members.

“We’re known as the place for all the Drama-tweens and Drama-teens to come each summer,” he stated. “By creating a safe and supportive environment where anyone can express themselves without limits and without fear, in a supportive peer group – that’s what’s special. And it’s something that many kids have said is missing from their daily school lives.”

“Inspiring kids to express themselves through the performing arts and encouraging them to get out of their comfort zones to try something new and maybe even slightly scary. You can only achieve that if they know that they’re safe and not going to be ridiculed for taking a chance or making a bold choice,” Ryan added.

Others who took part in the camp include “Parks and Recreation” actor Jim O’Heir, who played Jerry Gergich on the long-running sitcom, and Naomi Grossman, best known for her role as Pepper in the second and fourth seasons of the “American Horror Story.”

“There must be a place for our youth to feel that they can explore the arts without judgment,” Ryan concluded.

Blowback over the camp was intense:

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