In Fresno State’s ‘Wilderness,’ going off to summer camp takes on an entirely new meaning

Ten Things to Know About “Wilderness,” the new play directed by Kathleen McKinley now in its opening weekend at Fresno State:


It is not “Ah, Wilderness.”

Pictured above: Anthony teNyenhuis and Alyssa Benitez in ‘Wilderness.’ Photo: Fresno State University Theatre

Eugene O’Neill’s only well-known comedy, written in 1993, is a perky, sentimental tale set in a small town at the turn of the 20th century. “Wilderness,” written in 2016 by Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger, is a cutting-edge, 21st century play set in a “troubled teens” wilderness-style treatment camp. It addresses some of the difficult issues faced by young people and their parents, including drug abuse, self-abuse, struggling with gender identity and anger issues.


But the show isn’t a downer, and it isn’t really about those specific issues.

“I’m worried that people will feel that the show is going to be terrifying,” McKinley says. “And it’s absolutely not. Each of these issues the kids have are frightening. That really doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But the show’s not about understanding each of those issues.”


It’s more about the community that can arise from an environment in which people can unburden themselves and support each other.


This isn’t your typical camp, of course.

The six teens don’t want to be there. They talk about how they were asleep in their beds, and somebody flashed a flashlight in their face, and the next thing they knew they were on a plane and a car and a van and being driven out into a high-desert wilderness area. They had no idea what was going to happen to them.

These types of “tough-love,” intervention-style camps can be controversial, and this isn’t an endorsement of them, McKinley says. But from a theatrical point of view, the setting and material can be rich.


The camp counselors play an important role. For one thing, they love to sing to the kids.

“These particular field staff are just so doggone musical. They’re the most musical field staff you’ll ever meet. They sing to wake them up. They sing to calm them down. So, I’ve taken advantage of my very talented singers in the cast. And we’ve got a wonderful guitarist, Luke Nothstein. In my research, I saw so many times that field staff were leading singing with the kids with guitars.”


And there’s choreography! But this isn’t an actual musical.

McKinley calls it a play with music and movement. No one is singing their role to the audience. It’s all mostly folk music.

As for the choreography, it’s used in moments when the kids in the show are remembering certain crucial emotional moments, such as when they got yanked out of their beds and hustled off to the camp.


The play is based on real interviews with real people.

McKinley calls the play a docudrama, not a documentary, in the sense that the playwrights created scenes and dialogues among the young people in the camp based on those interviews. But a chunk of the interactions are word-for-word, and those are the ones portrayed by the parents. In the play, those segments are presented on video in the form of Skype calls.

“The script of these parents is word-for-word derived from transcripts of parent interviews. And I know because I was able to get a hold of some of the parent interviews,” McKinley says.

She treated these interviews like mini-films (and collaborated once again with Candace Egan, a professor in the Media, Communications and Journalism Department), featuring local theater educators and Fresno State theater alumni playing the roles.


Combining live performance and videos requires precision.

It’s similar to the way that many theater companies use prerecorded music for musicals, McKinley says.

“The singers have to sing to that music, which is not the same when you have a live orchestra. which might be following the lead singer that might alter the tempo. I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy. But I you know, we have you know, we have worked hard on making it work. And I think it will.”


Many young people will connect with the storyline, even those who aren’t in crisis mode.

“Many young people feel very isolated, very alone, very out of control with their emotions. If you’re a kid in the audience who’s feeling that, you’re not the only one. It’s something that’s pretty common. I hope that they will see that they are not alone. There are other kids who struggle with the same issues they struggle with. There are ways of reaching out to people. There can be hope.”

And parents? Most who have raised kids will find something to relate with, too.

McKinley, whose children are now in their 20s, says she and her friends have all had moments when their teens kind of shocked them. What happened to that adorable little kid we had?

The parents in the show are trying to admit or at least begin to admit the part that parents play in sometimes creating these crises or making them worse. Everyone makes mistakes. We’re all human.

Most families don’t reach the extreme challenges the characters face, but most parents will relate to how helpless they can feel to do the right thing.

“One of the parents in an interview says, ‘I wish I had a do-over.’ I don’t think any parent brings their kids to adulthood and doesn’t say, ‘I wish I had known that. I wish I had a do-over. Parenting is very, very difficult.”


McKinley’s own kids made it into the show.

She used childhood, snapshot-style photos of some of the actors in the show and integrated them into the visual design.

“I happen to have a son and a daughter who are exactly the age range of one of the characters in the show, and he’s talking about his interaction with his little sister, and I had a happy photo moment of them.”


Getting back to (almost) normal has been a joy for director, cast and crew.

Up until a few weeks ago, there was still a threat that because of Covid-19 concerns, the university might still go to distance learning after the Thanksgiving holiday, which would have impacted live performances.

Getting the final go-ahead was golden.

“I just can’t wait to have the audience fill those seats,” McKinley says. “Those John Wright (Theater) seats have been empty for two years.”

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (2)

  • Jackie Ryle

    Thank you again, Donald, for this most interesting, informative and entertaining interview. I love and appreciate how you craft just the right questions to connect with the reader in ways that inspire us to experience the performance. This one certainly does that

  • Joan P0ss

    Thanks for your important work which has become even more viable with the presence of the pandemic.


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