Behind the scenes of optional planning

By Josh Raymer

Mandatory Optionals are a popular part of the evening for both VAMPY and SCATS campers. While it’s mandatory that campers sign up for one of the fun activities, it’s optional which of the many options they choose. Counselors plan the optionals and come up with names that are often silly and don’t make it clear exactly what the optional is about. Campers then get to see only those names when they make their selection each evening. To understand the variety of optionals and the planning that goes into them, we spoke with six counselors.

Natalie May

Natalie May
Natalie May

Hometown: Bowling Green, Kentucky

Education: University of Kentucky

Experience: 3rd year as a counselor

Highlights

Camp Rocks

“We came up with this idea when we were walking around campus and thought, man, we have a lot of rocks here.”

Natalie and fellow counselor Jacob Couch take campers around WKU’s campus for a tour of the various rocks. Campers climb on the rocks, talk about them, and are encouraged to adopt a pet rock and name it.

Antiques Roadshow

The counselors buy random items from Goodwill for this mashup of Dirty Santa and The Price is Right. Once they have the items, counselors create a fake backstory and set a price for each one. The campers are told the backstory of each item and then must cast a ballot with their guess as to the price. Closest guess wins the item or may steal an item from someone else. In the end, everyone goes home with a weird souvenir. (Natalie still has a poodle ashtray from her time as a camper.)

Creative Process
On being ridiculous

“With every optional there’s a certain level of ridiculousness that makes it work. You have to be willing to be ridiculous. The campers’ favorite thing is to laugh at us, and once they buy in and start doing the optional too, they have a really good time.”

On her dream optional

“I’m going to try and do a model making optional at some point. I’m an architecture major and I like making models. We have plenty of artsy optionals, but I’d like to bring in that 3D element and show them that architecture is cool.”


Ellie Hogg and Emily Powell

Ellie Hogg
Ellie Hogg

Hometowns: Berea, Kentucky (Ellie) and Peachtree City, Georgia (Emily)

Education: Emory & Henry College (Ellie) and College of Charleston (Emily)

Experience: 3rd year as counselors

Highlights
CSI: Bowling Green

“We just pulled this one out of nowhere two years ago when we were first counselors. We thought maybe this will work, and then it was really successful.” – Ellie

Emily Powell
Emily Powell

In this optional, campers are junior detectives who discover a “murdered” head counselor (this year it was Taylor Koczot) with strange objects scattered around the body. Campers must work together to come up with a story of how the murder happened before splitting into groups to create their own crime scene and story of how the murder happened.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems, MoMa

Counselors and campers tour Northeast Hall and critique door decorations using “art terms.” They describe how the “door decs” make them feel and wonder about the lives of the “artists” who created them. This one is a hit because neither campers nor counselors get to see door decs outside their halls. There are shouts of “Art! Art!” and plenty of snapping. Everyone is very dramatic and dressed in strange costumes.

Say Maybe to the Frock

“This idea comes from my personal enjoyment of planning weddings. I transferred that joy into a kid-friendly activity.” – Emily

Campers start off this optional by watching an episode of “Say Yes to the Dress” for inspiration. Once inspired, they get construction paper, wedding magazines, glitter glue, and markers and are tasked with creating a dress that matches a ridiculous theme like “British Imperialism” or “Walmart.” For VAMPY, campers will make dresses (or pantsuits) from newspaper.

Counselors Emily Powell (left) and Ellie Hogg laugh while campers explain the dresses they created during the Say Maybe to the Frock optional Tuesday, June 28. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)
Counselors Emily Powell (left) and Ellie Hogg laugh while campers explain the dresses they created during the Say Maybe to the Frock optional Tuesday, June 28. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)

Creative Process
On collaboration

“We have this system of coming up with optionals where I have this really strange idea that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and then Emily uses her organization and rationality to help it make sense.” – Ellie

On the power of confidence

“Sometimes we’ll have an idea but not know what we’re going to do until we’re there. We’re just running on confidence. Last year’s V-Con theme was Conspiracy Theories, so Emily, Taylor Koczot, and I did an Illuminati initiation optional.” – Ellie

“We wore graduation robes, I downloaded Gregorian chant music to my phone, and the lights were off, so when the kids came in it was just weird music and the three of us with our heads bowed. We were making stuff up the whole time. We made them find four triangles in the room to begin the initiation. They had to name four celebrities who were in the Illuminati and we said ‘yes’ to every one. We painted the Illuminati triangle over their eye.” – Emily

On the perks of planning

“This is my favorite part of our job. It’s cool to see how far enthusiasm can go. If you’re enthusiastic about it, they’ll get on board. That’s important in all aspects of camp.” – Ellie


Ben Guthrie

Benjamin Guthrie
Ben Guthrie

Hometown: Bowling Green, Kentucky

Education: University of Chicago

Experience: 2nd year as a counselor

Highlights
Star Wars: Episode 6.5

“Some of my favorite optionals center around the idea of large-scale pool noodle battles, something I tried to do in the backyard as a kid that is much easier when you have 30 campers. You grab some speakers, turn on some background music, and then you have a 30-person Star Wars battle going on.”

Based on the video game Star Wars: Battlefront, campers work to capture certain points of the courtyard near Northeast Hall while battling each other with pool noodles. Ben and fellow counselor Andrew Brown, meanwhile, run around in full costume with lightsabers battling off groups of campers and evening out the game if needed.

Counselor Ben Guthrie serves pie to a camper during the Tau is Greater Than Pi optional Tuesday, June 28. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)
Counselor Ben Guthrie serves pie to a camper during the Tau is Greater Than Pi optional Tuesday, June 28. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)

V-Con Conspiracy

“I get some ideas from optionals that happened when I was a camper. The last optional I ever did as a camper was a murder mystery where we were walking into the lobby and one of the counselors dropped dead. We were given information and had to play Clue to figure out what happened. I thought it would be cool to adapt that optional as a counselor.”

Last year, Ben and fellow counselor Will Walters designed a huge logic puzzle that ran during V-Con. Campers had to run to other activities, gather clues, come back to the control room, and piece together the clues to solve the logic puzzle and figure out who the villain was. Surprise, surprise… it was Ben. Once the villain was discovered, Ben and Will had an elaborate lightsaber battle on stage before Ben was defeated and good triumphed over evil.

Tau is Greater than Pi

“Sometimes we even have academic optionals if the campers is interested in that.”

In honor of National Tau Day (6.28, or pi x 2), campers learned from Ben and Andrew about the growing movement that argues eliminating pi in favor of tau would make mathematics simpler, easier, and even more beautiful. On the fun side of things, campers also enjoyed apple and cherry pie, and competed in a circle drawing contest.

How to Be a Princess

Coming next week, this optional involves more political cunning and real-life duties of an actual princess.


Jacob Couch

Jacob Couch
Jacob Couch

Hometown: Elizabethtown, Kentucky

Education: University of Louisville

Experience: 2nd year as a counselor

Highlight
Cribz

For this spinoff of the popular MTV show Cribs, campers tour counselors rooms – which have been meticulously prepared ahead of time – and then fill out ballots ranking counselors based on what their room is like. A picture of a girlfriend could help or hurt the counselors. Board games are universally panned, Legos are adored, and matching your comforter with your sheets is a cardinal sin (as Ben found out last year).

Creative Process
On the time commitment

“If I had to describe my thought process, it’s like 50 simultaneous train wrecks. When it comes to planning optionals, I tend to just wing it. I come up with a lot of ideas in 30 seconds for hour-long optionals, so my profit margin for time is really good right now.”

On being adaptable

“One time the campers didn’t like our (Jacob and Natalie) original idea. I took them out for a walk to interrupt other optionals with pool noodles, then we came back and they designed their dream optionals. Natalie got some face paint and we painted their faces. Even when optionals go bad, they never go terribly.”

On the source of his ideas

With many of my ideas, I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, reach for a pen, and scribble down an idea. Like here I have ‘Street Magic,’ which is Magic: The Gathering, but we play outside. Here I just have ‘Garbology.’ Don’t know what that is, but it’s a name. The study of garbage, maybe? Another one I wrote down a few nights ago was ‘The Atrocity Exhibition.’ I will go to Goodwill and buy all the stuffed animals I can, cut off all their limbs, give the kids sewing needles, and let them create their own stuffed animal they can take home to their parents. Their own atrocity.”

On spur of the moment inspiration

To Natalie: “I think we should come up with a diorama optional that blends our passions.”

Andrew: “Would you call it Diorama-Rama?”

Jacob: “I was thinking Explosive Diorama. You know what, I’m actually going to write that one down.”

On being adored

“I like that I can get a group of 13-16 year-olds to think I’m cool for an hour just based on some dumb idea I had.”


 

Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown
Andrew Brown

Hometown: Central City, Kentucky

Education: Princeton University

Experience: 1st year as a counselor

Highlights
American Ninja Warrior

This optional involved a relay race that ended with campers ringing a bell. The only problem? The counselors had no bell. Undeterred, Andrew ran back and forth taunting campers with song lyrics like “Hit me with your best shot” and “Can’t touch this” while they tried to hit him with a ball. When they finally did, Andrew, serving as the bell, would ding. While it sounds easy, the campers had to spin spin around on a pool noodle before lining up their throws. “I’m not that agile,” Andrew said. “But when there’s two of me, I’m very agile!”

Ministry of Silly Walks

As a fan of the Monty Python sketch “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” Andrew had to work this optional into VAMPY as soon as he could. Campers perfected their silly walks and then, in the VAMPY tradition of interrupting other optionals, Andrew’s group went around telling other groups that their walks weren’t silly enough in ridiculous British accents.

Creative Process
On loving the name

“I think my process is more about making a name that sounds fun and building an optional around the name.”

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