Liberty City’s Fantasy Theatre Factory brings drama to the kids who most need it (includes video)

The days of summer theater camp group rehearsals, audiences packed with parents, and after-show cast celebrations may be over.

On Northwest Seventh Ave. in Liberty City, one camp is holding Zoom classes, requiring campers to make home recordings, and sponsoring small, socially-distanced groups. That is the new reality for kids and parents who enrolled at Fantasy Theatre Factory.

FTF was founded in New York in 1978 by Ed Allen, a magician, and Mimi Schultz, a dancer. The couple moved to Miami in 1982 and have worked with kids ever since. Allen has a year-round circus touring show and Schultz was named the arts educator of the year by Miami-Dade County for 1999 and 2001.

FTF operated solely as a touring theater company until 2016, when it was chosen to operate for the Sandrell Rivers Theater at 6103 NW Seventh Ave. Its mission was and remains to help bring theater to kids and underserved audiences.

Miami-Dade County and the Children’s Trust, among others, have provided grants totaling $24,000 to help kids from families of lesser means to attend. “This allows us to provide many scholarships so that the families do not have to pay, or make the price a fraction of what other camps would charge,” states Larry Fields, Fantasy Theatre executive artistic director.

Fields started working at the theater as an actor in 2006 and “I just got more involved from there!” he said.

Back in May, Fields and others began pondering how they would conduct this year’s program amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the amount of uncertainty as to whether in-person camps would be able to happen, we decided to do a virtual camp,” said Fields.

The first session started June 8 and continued through July 3 and included students ranging from 7 to 12 years old. It consisted of two weeks of classes from dancing to acting and games. Then there were two weeks of rehearsals for an original production called “Virtual Adventures.”

“The kids go through different adventures on the internet, such as Facebook and Instagram, and they see what happens there,” said Rommel Arellan-Marinas, associate artistic director and lead counselor.

One of their adventures consisted of the kids “traveling to the mysterious land of Instagram only to find it was dominated by cats. They have to deal with the cats in order to get back to the real world,” recalled Arellan-Marinas, who has been at the theater since May of 2013.

He helped put the showcase together by recording each individual scene on Zoom, utilizing the break-room option to have one-on-one time with students.

“We really took advantage of Zoom and it was cool because there were no interruptions,” he states.

Arellan-Marinas edited the scenes recorded on Zoom for the play’s final version. The production has now been streamed for the campers and their families.

Maya Azemar, age 7, and Briana Azemar, 11, attended the camp. Their mother, Diane Azemar, said “They incorporated so many different things like crafts and dancing. It’s a little bit of everything. They really liked it.”

After the virtual session ended on July 3, Azemar decided to send both of her kids to the in-person session of camp, which started July 6. “ They were so excited about seeing the teachers and everyone in an in-person setting,” she states. 

“As fun as you make virtual camps, it doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re in front of a computer screen.” Fields said.

The theater managers felt a need to re-open because “a lot of parents are essentially front-line workers. There was a real need to have their kids go somewhere.” When the theater got the all-clear to re-open, managers made sure to follow safety guidelines.

“[We] put down decals on the floor for spacing,” Fields said. “There are regular hand-sanitizing stations, masks are worn at all times, and temperature checks are conducted.” 

Hand sanitizing station and social distancing decals on the floor. (Photo courtesy of Rommel Arellan-Marinas )

Camp space is limited to no more than eight kids per group with two camp counselors and a max of two groups. The groups do not intermingle, and there will be no in-person performance for their showcase. 

COVID-19 prevention sign at Fantasy Theatre Factory. (Photo courtesy of Rommel Arellan-Marinas )

“It is disappointing for us, but we’re adjusting to the times,” said Fields. 

This showcase will follow a similar format to the virtual one, as in the scenes will be filmed with only one kid on stage at a time, and later edited to appear as if they were all together. 

Since the camp cannot do plays that require groups on the stage, managers are “focused on doing individual monologues that have civil rights themes with speeches from great leaders,” said Arellan-Marinas. The speeches come from leaders like Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou. 

All these precautions have changed the ways the theatre operates but the kids are “so happy to be out of their houses and with their peers, that that outweighs the negative,” stated Fields. 

“Even though we cannot look at our smiles [behind masks], we can still portray happiness in different ways,” stated Arellan-Marinas. “And that is what we are trying to do.” 

Angela Rivas is a Miami native majoring in Journalism and minoring in Criminal Justice. She has a passion for writing and dreams of becoming a journalist telling stories about our world.