“Summer arts camp is a funny thing,” says Alexandra Silber (Fiddler on the Roof, Master Class), an alumna of Interlochen Arts Camp. “There you are, 11 years old and a total weirdo back home, and you get to spend eight weeks with a handful of other weirdos just as passionate, talented, and freakishly informed about a single art form as you are.”
Like Silber, for many performers and creators who currently inhabit the Great White Way, theatre summer camp was a place to uncover latent talent and establish long-lasting friendships within the industry—Silber and two-time Tony-nominated director Michael Arden met at summer camp and remain close friends to this day.
Places like Stagedoor Manor and French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts, both located in the Catskill Mountains in New York, are known for notable alumni like Lea Michele, while other camps across the country boast famous graduates such as Anthony Rapp, Tina Fey, and Celia Keenan-Bolger. Here we break down what distinguishes five of the top performing arts summer camps across America—plus childhood memories from your favorite Broadway stars.
Stagedoor Manor, Loch Sheldrake, New York
Opened in: 1976
Famous alumni: Skylar Astin, Zach Braff, Robert Downey Jr., Beanie Feldstein, Lea Michele, Julia Murney, Adam Pascal, and Jeanine Tesori,
About camp life: Stagedoor serves theatre kids ages ten to 18. Located in the heart of the Catskill Mountains on a former resort, each day is broken up into two blocks of rehearsal, three classes, and two blocks of recreation; campers choose a total of six performing arts-related classes per session that alternate days. Campers come from 24 countries and 46 states to enjoy Stagedoor Manor, which produces 14 full-scale shows every three weeks. A truly intimate setting, Stagedoor accepts about 290 campers, matched with 160 staffers—who are all in university-level or professional theatre. Unlike other programs, Stagedoor features Dramafest, where students write and direct their own theatre. What’s more, Stagedoor is often the site of premiere productions like the world-premiere of Disney’s High School Musical and the pilot production of Rent School Edition. Stagedoor Manor was the inspiration for the 2003 screen comedy (and cult classic) Camp and the 2010 novel Theatre Geek. More details here.
Beanie Feldstein (Hello, Dolly!, Lady Bird)
“Stagedoor Manor is magic. It is a place overflowing with passion, friendship, canteen snacks, and Audra McDonald references. My favorite moments in my seven perfect summers there are not specific shows I performed in or classes I took, but the flashes I remember of my best friend Andrew at 13 smiling backstage with his braces lighting up the wings or a hug from a friend that mended my broken heart or watching my roommate brilliantly perform a monologue I ran with her over and over on her bunk bed late at night. It's a place for people who care about theatre, but what makes it magical is it's a place for people who care for each other.”
Adam Pascal (Rent, Something Rotten!):
“I was the youngest camper there. I was also the most homesick. Even though my Aunt Linda was the swim instructor and my cousin David and my sister Lauren were also there, I was grief-stricken. That is, until they figured out that the only way to stop me from crying was to put me in a show. And that my friends, is how I learned my most successful audition technique!”
French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts, Hancock, New York
Opened in: 1970
Famous alumni: Jason Robert Brown, Andréa Burns, Melissa Errico, Adam Kantor, and Benj Pasek.
About camp life: French Woods welcomes campers ages 7–17, split into groups ages 7–9, 9–11, and 11–17. Over the course of the summer, campers at French Woods choose three-week majors in areas such as dance, technical theatre, musical theatre, music, circus, magic, and more; and minors they choose each morning at breakfast. Campers can study anything from audition technique to music theory, beginner tap to advanced ballet, rock band to yoga, leathercraft to lighting, horesback riding to stained glass art. In addition to training in their major for the summer, campers also take part in the process of mounting several full-scale productions during their three weeks. More details here.
Adam Kantor (The Band’s Visit, Fiddler on the Roof)
“In my admittedly brief stint at French Woods, I remember being a shy kid in the ensemble of Man of La Mancha. I remember being in awe of the level of talent all around me. Flash-forward 15 years: Betsy Wolfe and I perform a concert version of The Last Five Years [which they performed Off-Broadway at Second Stage] at French Woods to the most enthusiastic crowd we’ve ever had. Flash-forward another few years: A big group of campers came to see The Band’s Visit and we did a talkback for them after the show. I was again awestruck by their passion, their aptitude, and their savvy questions. I felt real proud for having been one of them.”
Andréa Burns (On Your Feet!, In the Heights)
“[Back then] if you wanted to sing or play music from your favorite Broadway musical on a piano, you could only buy the “vocal selections.” At camp, I had diehard friends who had saved their pennies to buy the rare and expensive entire piano/vocal scores of their favorite shows. Those full scores were like treasure maps. I could hardly believe it the first time I saw the opening number to Company laid out right in front of me! Over the summers, a group of us would gather late at night in the rehearsal studios and pore over those scores, each kid choosing a harmony line, giddy and excited by the fact that, (sonically, at least) we were miraculously bringing [cast] recordings off the pages, to life. This kind of joy could not be found alone. This was the ultimate team sport. And I’d found my team at French Woods.”
Jason Robert Brown penned this song, “Hallowed Ground,” about the experience of returning to French Woods to drop his daughter off as a camper:
Interlochen Arts Camp, Interlochen, Michigan
Opened in: 1928
Famous alumi: Michael Arden, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Anthony Rapp, and Alexandra Silber.
About camp life: Interlochen Arts Camp welcomes campers grades 3–12, divided into three groups (3–6, 6–9, 9–12). Summer Arts Camp is just one of the many arms of the year-round Interlochen Center for the Arts. Every summer, about 2,500 students from all over the world flock to Interlochen to train in various areas of the arts, with 15 fields to choose from including music, audio production, dance, theatre design and performance, and visual arts. These classes mix in with traditional camp sports and activities, from tennis to sailing. Set on the picturesque Lake Michigan, campers also enjoy off-campus field trips and excursions from museums to hikes at Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes. For high-schoolers, Interlochen curates nightly concert lineups with renowned artists (past appearances have included Josh Groban and Jewel), film screenings, dance concerts, and more. More details here.
Alexandra Silber (Fiddler on the Roof, Master Class)
“[I met] Alex Michaels, known today as Alexis Michelle of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 fame. We were auditioning for the intermediate summer operetta. Alex and I both sang excerpts from Show Boat, geeked out over one another’s talent and a shared obsession with Rebecca Luker. Santino Fontana was my first-ever scene partner! We met the summer of 1999 in Advanced Acting Technique. He’s been one of my friends and artistic allies ever since. Michael Arden and I met the same summer, and he was also in that Advanced Acting Technique class (that class was… obviously… fairly promising…). We instantly bonded, singing together at every opportunity, joined at the hip as budding artists and humans. At the yearlong academy, we literally did almost every show opposite one another (he was the Charlie Brown to my Lucy [in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown], the Georg to my Amalia [in She Loves Me], etc). Michael is, without exception, the artist with whom I credit with forming my capacity early on. Like a chess or tennis player who had the world’s best opponent to make their skills all the sharper, acting opposite Michael constantly made me better, and I owe everything I am today to that start.”
Upper Darby Summer Stage, Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania
Opened in: 1976
Famous alumni: Tina Fey, Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk, Jeremy Morse, and Josh Young.
About camp life: Approximately 750 campers ranging from ages 11–28 come to Upper Darby Summer Stage each summer to develop their artistic talents excluisvely through theatrical production. This program is rehearsal-based, whether as junior campers grades 4–7, three-week children’s shows participants grades 7–12, or the professional Mainstage for attendees 18 and over. Youngsters involved in the tech program enroll for all six weeks and build sets across all seven productions, children and Mainstage while learning skills in carpentry, stage management, and more. The productions at Upper Darby serve over 30,000 ticketholders each year. More details here.
Josh Young (Amazing Grace, Jesus Christ Superstar):
“[Upper Darby Summer Stage is] very much a social training ground. I remember I was playing the role of the Gryphon in their production of Alice in Wonderland. I must have been 13. I guess I'd been dating a girl who was working in the costume shop (or the 13-year-old equivalent of dating) and we broke up. The next day I went with one of her best girlfriends to see matinee of Mrs. Doubtfire or something. Fast forward to me finding myself playing the Gryphon wearing fishnet stockings and rainbow felt feathers while the rest of the cast had near-Broadway caliber costumes. Lesson learned.”
Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts, Kenosha, Wisconsin
Opened in: 1955
Famous alumni: Jessie Fisher, Jesse Kovarsky, Eileen Barnett
About camp life: Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts welcomes youth age 7–18 for either a one-week session, a three-week session (either the Pageant revue or the full Musical), or both three-week sessions. Half the day is spent in theatre classes, the other half in activities (which can include theatre-related disciplines like stage combat and stage makeup). Campers ages seven to 18 can experience an exciting summer of musical theatre training combined with sports, theatre electives, and fine arts classes (creative writing etc.), special night-time and weekend activities, with each session culminating in full-scale performances in Harand’s professional theatre. More details here.