By Dawn Van Osdell
This summer across the Bay Area, Lynn Johnson will be spreading a compassion revolution. You won’t find her holding up protest signs or rallying for her cause. Instead, you’ll see her on- and backstage with the more than 600 young girls aged 6 to 14 who are enrolled in her two-week Go Girl! theater camps, held everywhere from Palo Alto and Sonoma to the East Bay.
As co-founder and CEO of Glitter & Razz Productions, the company behind Go Girl! Camps, Johnson, along with her life and business partner, Allison Kenny, strives to bolster these girls’ social and emotional skills and embrace their “girl power” through the creation of their own plays—writing them, creating sets and costumes, and ultimately performing them before an audience. Many of these girls have never before set foot on a stage.
“We help girls develop skills they need to love and respect themselves, to keep themselves safe, to be more empathetic of others, and to make bold and brave choices in their lives,” says Johnson. To do this, she aims to help them to understand and embrace their often confusing, sometimes negative feelings; and appreciate their differences—all qualities and skills Johnson believes will address the compassion deficit she sees in the world. By extension, she hopes to help girls avoid disruptive behaviors, like bullying; and ward off anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders that are often the effects of low esteem.
The power of theater to do this may seem anathema to some but it’s always been apparent to Johnson, a self-described drama geek since age 5. She moved around the Northeast with her parents before settling outside of Boston when she was in the eighth grade. One of only a few African-American students in her new town, she quickly learned what it meant to be different. But she was always at home on the stage, having acted in her first play, called “The Dollmaker’s Shop,” when she was in the first grade; and she found that theater was a way to celebrate differences and to build a better sense of belonging. “Theater gave me a way to fit in and be part of a peaceful community when I felt like an outsider in every other aspect of my life,” she says. Throughout her school years, she continued to embrace the power of theater “to transform lives,” and has been committed to it ever since.
After studying theater and women’s studies at Northwestern University, Johnson founded a multicultural teen ensemble in Chicago— TurnStyle Teen Theatre—and also performed stories and poems written by children as part of a national tour company called StreetSigns. When the director moved the company to North Carolina, Johnson moved, too. For three years she directed community-based educational programs in Chapel Hill while continuing to perform, until she developed an itch to live in a more urban environment; and she headed west in 2002. “A lot of my friends were moving to Los Angeles, and I thought I’d go, too,” she says. But her plan was derailed when, instead, she took a job teaching summer theater camp in Northern California to be near her brother and sister-in-law, who had just become first-time parents—and met Kenny, a fellow teacher and actor. “She and I fell in love, practically at first sight, and I moved to San Francisco to be with her,” says Johnson.
Eager to continue her work with kids, Johnson worked as a trainer for the Bay Area non-profit, Community Network for Youth Development (CNYD), advising on youth programs in San Francisco while continuing to teach theater with Kenny. With little more than shared experience and a passion for improving young lives, the couple decided to venture out on their own and in 2003 created Glitter & Razz Productions LLC, a theater production company aimed at social change. “We wanted to focus on the impact theater can have on kids, to see what would happen if we helped kids create plays and put themselves in them,” Johnson says. They didn’t need much money to get the company started—they ran it out of their home. Johnson relied on non-profit consulting work and organizational coaching workshops to keep the business afloat, while she taught herself how to run and grow a business. In 2007, the couple moved the company to Berkeley, then again to Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, where they settled in and became a community center of sorts. They offered summer camps and programming after-school and during school breaks; and they also hosted birthday parties. “We were women artists who wanted to give kids a connection to each other,” says Johnson.
They also wanted to create something that would bring financial security. Glitter and Razz was popular, but not lucrative. To stay afloat, they shifted their focus to the most successful, most passion-centric part of their business: their two-week summer camp for girls. “We needed to prune the roses,” says Johnson. “We had a social mission and when we focused on the part we were most passionate about, our business grew.”
It was clearly the right move. Johnson and Kenny have steadily added locations for Go Girl! Camps, which now totals seven; and they saw their enrollment double in the last year alone. ”There’s a real need for social change,” says Johnson. “We care so much and we see our camps truly changing girls, changing their lives.” This year, they’re partnering with Camp Reel Stories, a popular media camp for teens, to offer a more advanced, behind-the-scenes program aimed at tween and teen girls. This program gives rising fifth and sixth grade girls a chance to produce, direct, edit, and star in their own short films. They also offer a Go Girl! Leadership Team, giving rising seventh, eight and ninth graders an opportunity to mentor younger camp participants, fostering their leadership skills and becoming effective role models for younger girls.
Last fall, in the midst of planning for their biggest camp season ever, Johnson and Kenny became parents to a 6-year-old girl they are in the process of adopting. Johnson admits that the uncertainty of business ownership can be especially stressful for a parent, but says that parenting has made her a bolder businesswoman and conversely, entrepreneurship has made her a better parent. “The skills and the confidence you develop when you build something help you in all of life, including parenting,” she says. “They give you a sense of worth that is so empowering. “ Turns out, Go Girls! Camp, isn’t just about boosting confidence in young girls, but in its founder, too. “I wish every woman could start a business, build something that belongs to them,” says Johnson. “It’s amazing and truly empowering to do what you believe in.”
For more information on Go Girl! Theater Camp, visit Gogirlscamp.com.
Photographs by Matt Mimiaga/stage photo courtesy of Go Girls! Camps