Stagestruck

By Robert Simonson
04 Dec 2006

Campers rehearsing for a production at Stagedoor.
Campers rehearsing for a production at Stagedoor.

The smell of the greasepaint — and the evergreens. Playbill takes a hike through some of the East Coast's major performing arts summer camps.

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As was illustrated in the 2003 Todd Graff film "Camp" — based on the famed Stagedoor Manor camp in the Catskills — not every kid goes away each summer to learn woodworking or how to recognize poison oak. Some leave home to live and breathe a facsimile of The Life Theatrical, to tap, sing, dance, act, direct, write and design. For most of these campers, it is a taste of a life more glamorous or fascinating than that offered by their homes or schools. And for a small percentage it's preparation for what they hope will be a career.

Certainly, many of the campers at Stagedoor Manor, in Loch Sheldrake, NY, see their attendance as Rung One on the ladder of showbiz success. How could they not when confronted with such camp alumni as Natalie Portman, Robert Downey, Jr. and Bryce Dallas Howard?

"At least 70 percent" of the attendees want to make theatre their life, said Konnie Kittrell, the camp's production director/associate producer.



And they don't just come to Stagedoor to hone their skills. They also "make connections, because they work together the rest of their lives." Some, she noted, refer to this phenomenon as "The Stagedoor Mafia."

Stagedoor, which will have its 32nd season in 2007, accepts 270 kids, ranging in age from 10 to 18, for each of its three three-week sessions. A staff of 145 ensures a lot of individual attention. Days are divided between rehearsal, classes and recreation, leading to 12 full-scale shows in seven theatres each session. Campers lodge in what used to be an old Catskills resort hotel (no doubt replete with the spirits of past entertainers).

"The most important thing is we're not a summer camp per se, we're a training center," said Kittrell. "We're committed to the process, not the product."

Taking a different tack is Buck's Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp, which is nestled in New Milford, CT. Founded in 1942 by Ernst and Ilse Bulova — European educators who had studied under Maria Montessori — it is twice as old at Stagedoor. "We're not a theatre grooming school," said co-director Mickey Morris. "The pecentage of kids who stay in theatre are about 10 percent. It's not only theatre kids. It's a real mix of kids."

Buck's Rock puts on 10 plays and musicals every summer. How many of these productions a camper signs up for depends on their wishes — the kids devise their own schedules — and whether they choose to sign up for one of the two four-week sessions, or go in for the whole eight weeks. Kids ages 11 to 16 are housed in a series of cabins, four to a room, and are exposed to the many cultural institutions in the surrounding area, including Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow, Caramoor and the Yale Art Museums. The 350 kids in attendance each session are seen to by 220 staff members.

Buck's Rock collects most of its applicants from the New England area. But Long Lake Camp for the Arts, seated on 200 acres in Adirondack Park, takes children with a strong interest in theatre from all over the world, said co-director Geoff Burnett, an England native who has been at Long Lake for 16 years. "They come from every state in America, and there are international kids. It's the world wide web that does it. Word of mouth is very strong for Long Lake."

Burnett is co-director with Carolyn Goodman and owners Marc and Susan Katz.

The 240 kids who attend each of the three three-week sessions, along with the 120 staffers, put on 30 plays and musicals a season at three theatres. (The large technical department produces a whopping 2,500+ costumes every summer.) Burnett said this is accomplished through "ridiculous amounts of hard work," though each camper can create a schedule of whatever size they want. "The kind of campers we get are hard workers. Being talented is not the number one question for us. They want to explore theatre."

He added that a mixture of ages work together, leading to a cross-pollination of experience and youthful spirit. "They learn a tremendous amount from each other. We did Les Misérables and we'll have a 10-year-old Eponine next to a 16-year-old Jean Valjean."

Teenagers who are interested in the sort of musical theatre practiced by John Doyle — the Tony Award–winning British director who has his cast members double as the orchestra — may want to look into the theatre program offered by the New York Summer Musical Festival at the SUNY campus in Oneonta, NY. The 60-year-old organization has historically focused on music and instrumentalists, but, said executive director Jungeun Kim, "we have really revamped our musical theatre program and started going in new directions about three years ago."

The roughly 50 campers who are accepted into each of the three two-week sessions put together an original 45-minute musical theatre production. The kids learn the fundamentals of writing for musical theatre as every student is encouraged to create their own original material, both individually and collaboratively.

The festival has not forgotten its roots, however; each camper must be proficient in a musical instrument to be accepted into the program.

"Our musical theatre program students, they are serious musicians," said Kim. "We find performing a musical instrument enhances their ability to perform in musical theatre. We feel it's the entire package they need to learn."

If you found one of the above camps on the internet, you may have been using a website called CampFinders.com. Rick Mades started Camp Finders and spent 16 years as a camper and camp counselor before founding his own camp, the Bethel Camp for the Arts in Bethel, ME, just three years ago.

Mades stresses a sensitivity toward the needs of the campers. "There are a lot of kids who aren't into team sports and competition. We have athletic activities and sports, but we don't have team sports and aren't competitive. We don't even audition for shows." A maximum of 130 kids are accepted into each of the two two-week sessions. Each group is offered classes in acting, improvisation and stagecraft and participates in the staging of a one-act play.

Mades plans to keep things on an intimate scale. "Being a small, inclusive community, every kid can feel they can find out who they are. Everyone gets to know each other. In larger camps, kids can get a little bit lost."

Finally, it would only make sense that one theatre camp would be situated in the heart of the theatre capital of America: New York City. This is Camp Broadway, a year-round organization that sees in excess of 15,000 kids pass through its programs every 12 months.

"We're different because at the core of it we're creating something no one else is doing," said managing director Philip Katz. "This is a program for theatre loving — not only a teaching program, but an audience development program. We have taken theatre, and rather than rip it apart, we take theatre as a whole."

Campers, who are divided into three age categories (6–8, 9–12, 13–17), spend a week in Manhattan taking workshops and master classes with theatre professionals. There are opportunities to meet teenagers currently performing on Broadway. And, like any good theatre outfit, Camp Broadway frequently takes its act on the road, bringing its staff to cities across the U.S., where it offers its program to local youths. As in New York, the week ends in a staged performance. In 2007, Camp Broadway will visit such places as Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Buffalo, Providence, RI, Tempe, AZ, Jacksonville, FL, Melbourne, FL and others.

But Katz doesn't just see the teenage troupers solely as potential stage performers. "This is the next generation of theatregoers, and that's critical."

For information on the dates, rates and programs for the theatre camps mentioned in this article, consult the following websites:

  • Stagedoor Manor: www.stagedoormanor.com

  • Buck's Rock: www.bucksrockcamp.com

  • Long Lake Camp: www.longlakecamp.com

  • New York Summer Music Festival: www.nysmf.org

  • Bethel Camp for the Arts: www.maineartscamp.com

  • Camp Broadway: www.campbroadway.com