Theme Camps – Why and How!

[Affinity, a Burner since 2000, was legally married on the Playa in 2001, and was wedding coordinator and then training coordinator at Burning Man, before becoming the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) Social Media Coordinator and an Advisory Board Member. She interned with the Human Awareness Institute for 10 years, and is a craft dilettante. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Destiny Lounge Theme Camp
Destiny Lounge Theme Camp, 2009

Theme Camps are arguably the cultural lifeblood of Burning Man.  Participants gather their friends to camp together, establishing a common theme on which to base the interaction they hope to engender with the citizens of Black Rock City.  As freeform and wide-ranging as they can be, from the sublime to the ridiculous, Theme Camps create an ambience, a visual presence, and in some way provide a communal space or provide interactivity.  As such, they are very much the cultural engine of Black Rock City.

As part of the Metropol Blog Series, we thought you might like to know more about how Black Rock City’s Theme Camps are formed and how they operate.  So we went to the source and did some interviews with a (wildly broad) representative sampling of camp organizers, including Bad Idea Theater (an entertainment camp), Kidsville (for families and children), Mal-Mart Mega Store (a parody camp), Root Society (a dance camp), and Suspended Animation (an BDSM bondage camp).  We asked them a whole bunch of questions, and we’ll present more in future posts.  Here are the responses we received for the first set of questions:

Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro, 2006
Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro, 2006

What is the purpose of your camp?

Bad Idea Theater: Our stated purpose is “To Serve and Project”. We strive to create a safe and entertaining social space along the lines of a friendly neighborhood tavern. In order to be considered a true “Metropolis”, a city must have at least one gin-joint, and a third-rate moviehouse. We are honored to help fill these vital roles.

Kidsville: The purpose of Kidsville is to provide a unique and fun space specifically for children and their families within the larger Black Rock City community.

Mal-Mart Mega Store:  Our purpose is to satirize and comment on our modern society’s need to consume and spend… two years ago during the 2008 American Dream theme, the Original Mal-Mart was conceived as a way to parody the shopping mall culture by exposing reckless consumerism as an essential part of the American Dream… the dream of peace and prosperity for all has been replaced by greed and self-interest.  So this year, the Metropolis Theme demands that Mal-Mart once more takes a stand against the societal drift and reveals that it is the life of the Big City itself  that fuels humanity’s impending doom!  Through the use of irony, Mal-Mart Mega Store stands for the unity of humanity, the co-operation skills we all have, and the power to create our entire world around us… isn’t it time we started using that expansive power for the good of the many instead of the one?

Root Society, 2007
Root Society, 2007

Root Society: For 8 years we’ve been building something together at Burning Man. Root Society comes from the roots of our friendships. Our team has morphed over time (in fact I’m the only constant for all 8) but the core captains have all been at least 5-6 years. Our core camp has grown from 9 to 100. We lost a captain (doug@49) along the way which has provided spiritual power beyond our tangible playa boundaries. Over the years most of my best friends are captains. And our root friendships with Burners get bigger and bigger.

At our core we are a dance camp…a “large scale sound camp” with our art measured in bass decibels and beat makers. Our structure and lighting show call out…as one burner said “like moths to the flame”.  People come from far and wide to fill their souls with music within our geodesic structures.

Suspended Animation: We are focused on bringing the experience of rope bondage to the playa community. Our most popular events are bondage rides (where we tie up visitors and hang them from the ceiling) and introductory bondage classes. We also do suspension performances, host BDSM parties, and conduct guerilla bondage operations around BRC.  Our goal is to make all of our activities highly interactive. In some cases that means allowing people to experience full suspension rope bondage, which is a very advanced activity that most people don’t have access to at home. In other cases, it simply means teaching people some simple bondage skills that they can use at home.

What things factor into your camp layout and planning, and how do you prioritize/handle them?

Bad Idea Theater:  We are designed with two separate components, the public area and the private area. The public area consists of the Theater, the Bar, and the frontage/patio area. We are open approximately sixteen hours a day with a minimum of two staff members on shift during each of those sixteen hours. We decide early in the year, any changes to the camp and agree as a group what we will undertake and how it will be accomplished.  The focus of the public area is to be as interactive as possible and make sure, as much as is possible, that everyone has a safe and happy experience.  The public area is the focus of the camp, and that takes the highest priority, after that the priority is the comfort and happiness of our servile and oppressed camp members.  The second area of the camp is the private camping area, vehicles and structures are placed to provide protection from the elements and to give camp members a safe and relatively quiet escape from an active theme camp.  Space within the camp is allotted based on need and agreed to, long before we reach the playa.  The camp provides meals and amenities for the members and we all take turns with camp duties. We find by having a solid plan ahead of time, and striving to look out for each other at all times, we can avoid much of the drama that plagues other camps.

Fun at Kidsville
Fun at Kidsville

Kidsville: We generally do not offer shared resources such as a communal kitchen, communal showers, electrical generators, etc.  Residents of the village do however set up and share all manner of fun things to do, such as multiple trampolines, a ball pit, outdoor movies at night, a dome structure which occasionally transforms into a Mini-Thunderdome.  There are also individual camps within the village that offer excellent activities such as Sock Monkey Camp. The Village is divided into 4 quadrants, one of which is designated for families with babies and toddlers, and another is designated for families with teens – these are not strict designations, just helpful designations.  There are 2 broad ‘streets’ that form a cross-shape in Kidsville; the center is the hub of activity within the village.  Camps that have activities to share with the larger BRC community are placed at the perimeter of the village, along the BRC streets.  We set up a visible perimeter around the village – flag poles with neon safety ribbon strung between them – so that children can readily determine the boundaries of Kidsville.

There is an online sign-up list on Yahoo Groups that opens several months before the event each year, for camp placement within Kidsville.  The Mayor of Kidsville makes every effort to include as many families as possible within the village, even those who arrive on-playa without providing any prior notice, however in recent years we have had to turn some families away because the village was full.

Mal-Mart Mega Store:  The camp design is always the most important factor to consider… with our camp being cramped to capacity 2 years ago, we have learned the vital importance of the organization required for the layout… from allowing our camp members to use the space how they wanted (which lead to a camp space without much usable space) to now creating a firmer design that allows for easy parking and access for the vehicles and RV’s, as well as organized space for those in tents.  Toughest factor in the planning is figuring out the layout without the official word from BRC about how much space we are actually getting… two years ago we had to turn camp members away… this year we wish to attract more, so our space planning is one of our biggest priorities.

Root Society: Our camp is really 2 parts. A public dance space which is controlled by the footprint of our 90 and 60 foot domes.  And then we have a communal living in 27 Tipi’s. We sleep 100+/- with a 30 foot dome common eating/meeting zone.

We plan our space with the idea that we’ll grow 15-20% annually. We provision our camp so food, water, shower, bathrooms are all taken care of with a $150.00 camp fee. This fee sort of covers our food and water. We become a volunteer army to set up, cook, wash, moop, work security, moop and tear down.

Suspended Animation:  Before we even start on the site plan, we get a lot of details worked out. There’s plenty of snark out there for camps who measure to the inch and plan every stake, but we’ve saved ourselves some real grief by working out things like how far out from our structure the guy line stakes need to be. When we draw our site plan, it includes things like where the stakes are, how long the ramp for the truck will be, prevailing wind direction, how much space car doors need to open, and so on. This prevents those oh-duh moments when you realize that someone’s tent door open straight into a support pole, or guy line goes through the shower.
The key is that we fully expect to redraft the site plan once placement is announced. How many streets will we border, and where are they? Can we actually get a car off the site without driving through the evap? Maybe we asked for 200′ x 200′, but got 150′ x 250′. The process is exactly the same: double-check the details, get the big elements in place with a good street presence, work out the proximity.

Then, the final step: draw up an arrival plan. This is the part that requires a bunch of up-front planning but makes things go smoothly. We have actually built what we call measure-o-trons: models of our big structures made out of cheap rope, so when our advance team hits the ground they can quickly survey the site and figure out where the pavilion, residential shade structure, truck, and cars go. This is key: the truck will be able to drive up and park right where it’s going to live for the entire week, plus it’s convenient for unloading. Cars have a place to go as they arrive so they’re not in the middle of everything. We also work out a place to stage all our construction materials so they’re not in the way while we’re building, and have a place for our tents to go before they get moved under the residential shade structure.

About the author: Affinity


Affinity, a Burner since 2000, was legally married on the Playa in 2001, was wedding coordinator and then training coordinator at Burning Man, before becoming the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) Social Media Coordinator and an Advisory Board Member. An attorney, she served on the Board of Directors of the Western Pension and Benefits Conference. She interned with the Human Awareness Institute for 10 years. She writes about how art is envisioned, produced, created, installed and its afterlife.

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