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Miles Cohen of Stone Ridge, 10, left, and Djuna Cuddeback of Rosendale, 12, wear their costumes and await the start of a high fantasy adventure game to be held that night during the Wayfinder Experience bootleg.

Epic Adventures

Fantasy and swordplay let kids explore their 'shadow side'

By Eileen King Kamrass

Photos by Philip Kamrass

'"YOU ARE ABOUT TO GO INTO a magical, magical world of monsters and heroes and epic adventures," the event director announces to the participants in the circle. Lizzie Neiman, director of this Wayfinder Experience event, then instructs the 74 people in the circle to turn to the person next to them and say, "Thank you for playing with me." All thank their neighbors.

She continues, "Be safe; be well. Have epic adventures together!" Then she readies them for the finale: She instructs them to swing their joined hands forward and backward. At first, they do so haphazardly, but after a moment they move in unison. At this point, she starts a one-two-three count that prompts the entire group to yell, "Let's play!"

With whoops and yells they dash to their subgroups and prepare for the night's adventure: an action game that culminates the day's activities. The entire Saturday event is called a "bootleg," a daylong encapsulation of Wayfinder's longer summer day and overnight camps. In this bootleg, participants are decked out in capes, tunics, hoods and flowing gowns; some have magical powers, most have foam swords and daggers. And they're going to need them. Lord Godrick's evil brother Maldorin crashes the party — along with his pet monster Fang, and an army of the undead — and has managed to kidnap Godrick's newlywed daughter, Almina, and her husband, Jacob.

Expanding its reachWith 65 enrollees for its one-day May bootleg, Wayfinder’s has come a long way from its seven campers during its first weeklong day camp in 2002 at the Center for Symbolic Studies in Tillson. The idea for WFE started in 2001; it sprang from a group of about 20 friends who spent years participating in the Adventure Game Theater at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. They decided they wanted to try their own camp. While there was a certain admitted “naiveté” with the business aspects, they made it work.Now they have about 175 campers a year – with many who attend several events. While most campers come from the Hudson Valley, they also arrive from New York City, Massachusetts, Alabama and California; for the overnight camps in Holmes, there are even several from France. Children as young as 6 can enroll in some summer day camps, but overnight summer campers need to be at least 12.In addition, there are nonaffiliated programs that are run by former WFE staff in Philadelphia and California, called Epic Adventurez and Westfinder, respectively. Last year, WFE even shipped out swords and conducted a party in France. The group of original owners is in the process of “consolidating” ownership with McDonald and Trine Boode-Peterson.Wayfinder is looking for land to call its own, property that is accessible from New York City – ideally a maximum trip of four hours. For now, the bootlegs are in Camp Epworth, and there are summer day camps at various Ulster and Dutchess County locations. Overnight camps are in Holmes.For information, visit wayfinerexperience.com.It's up to the different groups — warriors, mages (wizards), artisans and clerics — to work together, battle the rogues and rescue the newlyweds from certain doom. It's a difficult task considering that Maldorin wields the dark powers of necromancy. By the time the event is over, everyone will have spent more than 12 hours at Camp Epworth, in High Falls, the venue for the monthly spring bootlegs. The day started with games, including Wayfinder's version of capture the flag, which was followed by improvisation workshops and "casting classes" to teach them the rules of magic for the night's game, titled "Your Dying Destiny."

Wayfinder Experience, or WFE, is an 11-year-old Kingston-based company that offers these bootlegs, as well as the summer camps, local after-school programs and birthday parties. The "experience" it provides is an amalgam of group therapy, self-exploration, theater and noncompetitive games. For fun, there are elements similar to "Lord of the Rings," and sometimes even science fiction, to provide a variety of fantastical experiences.


A safe place to create

What it provides for everyone — participants and staff — is a safe place to act, create stories, find identities, learn empathy, solve conflicts, explore alternate identities and work together. Wayfinder's founders and current owners say it creates a space for everyone: kids who are labeled as jocks, video gamers, hippies and theater lovers learn about one another, and to how to work and play with one another.

"I think it changes the world," said Genevieve Casagrande, one of the founders who remains with WFE as an adviser.

It provides a positive outlet for young people to explore what they call the "shadow side" – a close relative to the "dark side."

Instead of ignoring violence in a culture that's "saturated" with it, WFE acknowledges it and provides a safe way for children to interact with it. "Pretending that it doesn't exist doesn't address children's fascination with it," said Corinne McDonald, one of the founders and existing co-owners. "Outside of organized sports, there's no way to deal with these aggressive issues," she noted.

In particular, Wayfinder structures swordplay so that the staff guides the sparring by stressing cooperation. "We play with the idea of combat," she said. The counselors and workshop leaders instruct participants that it's "just play and not something we do with our other interactions."

Participants are coached so that swordplay becomes a "trust system," according to McDonald. They encourage playful interaction and improvisation during the fights instead of keeping track of points to identify winners and losers. The swordfighter who "dies" is encouraged to do so with dramatic flair. "There's never a swordfight without banter," McDonald said.

Additionally, the foam swords – known as boffer swords – act as a hook for the company's programs. McDonald noted, "The swordplay is a thing that gets kids excited ... it's how we trick kids into forming lasting relationships and community."

Parts of the program also benefit children and teens in other ways. The games bring "physicality" to young people who would otherwise sit and play video games, Casagrande said. Instead, they move around while acting out battles.

And while many of the games have evil characters, at other times there are simply "opposing forces" who have "opposing beliefs" from the main characters. Sometimes in the games "good" characters are magically reborn to the opposing side. This changed perspective, they contend, can change people.

"They come out feeling a lot more confident, a lot more comfortable with themselves," said Leah Glennon, an office worker at High Meadow School in Stone Ridge; High Meadow is one WFE partner school. Glennon has two sons who participate in the after-school programs at High Meadow and in other WFE events.

The children and teens who are active in Wayfinder are passionate about it. Djuna Cuddeback of Rosendale attended her fourth or fifth bootleg in May, about a week before her 12th birthday. Even before she started, the program seemed a natural fit, according to her father, Dan, as she often creates stories and then acts them out. After she attended a free session in New Paltz, "she loved it immediately," he said.

Djuna knows what she likes best about the program. "It's just fun and you get to do a lot of improvisation," she said. "You just get to act out how you feel."

At a recent bootleg, she and her warrior group created their own character names and back stories to prepare for the night's concluding game. In the group circle, Djuna explained that she is a warrior named Wolf who became a knight after winning a tournament. But even a great warrior has fear; for Wolf, it is "losing everyone I love most."

Along with other forces of good, Wolf traversed the land to combat Maldorin and his minions to rescue the newlywed couple. Wolf is combat-ready with a face that is painted gray and a faux leopard-skin hat (complete with ears). Finally, Wolf's sword has a red blade and is embellished with a skull and crossbones near the hilt.

Slater Hanna of West Hurley, 10, does battle with a foam sword in a high fantasy adventure game during the Wayfinder Experience bootleg.

Tuned-in staffers

While part of Djuna's love of the program comes from her proclivity for storytelling, her father also credits the counselors and staff. "The guys that run the program are so tuned into the kids' energy and bring it to a high level," Cuddeback said.

To coordinate the day's efforts, Wayfinder relies on a number of staff including counselors, community leaders and staff-in-training; they facilitate the workshops and act their parts during the final game. Most were participants in WFE camps and bootlegs before their employment there. These teenagers and 20-somethings are the "lifeblood" of the company, according to McDonald.

The game is always the climactic activity, whether it's at a bootleg, or day or overnight camp. While they refer to it as a game, it is based on a loose narrative; the writer includes names and certain events, but the campers decide what to say and how certain scenes play out.

Most are set in medieval times, but some writers provide their own twists. Last year, Mike Phillips, 19, put a sci-fi element into one of the games. As part of his role as staff member and game writer, his game started as "high fantasy" with knights and the other usual characters, but a trip to the woods led to the discovery of a portal where aliens and "space marines" invaded wearing futuristic armor and wielding Nerf guns that had been painted to glow in the dark. The kids loved it.

"It blew their minds," he said. "All of their jaws dropped."

There's a common pattern, or story arc, for most bootlegs. They usually start with a gathering, followed by a challenge from one of the subgroups. After this, the other groups split up on a quest to find an object, or element that is "bigger than they are," according to Trine Boode-Petersen, co-owner. As part of this step, they meet the archetypal "wise old wizard" who helps them. After obtaining the necessary person, force or talisman, they reunite with the other groups to solve any outstanding, or new, problems. The greater the struggle, Boode-Petersen noted, the "more powerful" the victory will feel to everyone at the end.

After a rally and instructions, they clash with the opposing group for a final, mass battle. "Most times, it's important that the good group wins," she said.


And they lived happily ...

The end of Lord Godrick's tale is a happy one: His forces have discovered and harnessed the power of elemental magic — powers derived from earth, wind, fire and water — to overpower the dark forces. They fight a final epic battle in the moonlight to finally defeat the necromancer and his army. Godrick's daughter and son-in-law are rescued; Malidor is vanquished and order is restored.

They meet back at Epworth's dining hall for another circle; this time it's for closure. Parents filter in, observing the closing events, as each camper and staff member takes 10 seconds to recall what was best about the game.

They thank the night's game writer; she emphatically thanks everyone else. It's after 10 p.m. and the bootleg is over, but only until the next one for many. "They come for the swords and stay for the community," McDonald noted.

Djuna plans to return. "I feel excited every time when I come and excited for the next time, when I leave."

Otto Jeckerbyrne of Stone Ridge is almost sure to come back. The 11-year-old and his twin, Emmet, have attended Wayfinder events since the fall. "I like the people here," he says as one friend comes over and gives him a bear hug.

"It's OK. I'll see you again," Otto says to him.

Eden O'Clair of West Hurley, 16, plays Lilly, a necromancer, during the game portion of the Wayfinder Experience bootleg, a 12-hour one-day event at the Epworth Center.

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