A Moment in the Woods: Aspiring Performers Tackle La Cage, Sweeney Todd and More at French Woods Theatre Camp
By Michael Gioia
French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts is molding children into artists and nurturing theatrical creativity in the western Catskills of New York State. Playbill.com spent a moment in the woods at the famed theatre camp, where students are challenged to mount a full production in less than three weeks.
Two-and-a-half hours outside of New York City — the Mecca of professional theatre and stomping ground of legendary performers — children ages 7-17 are training to become the next generation of theatre professionals at French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts, the 43-year-old camp that ushers arts education to the forefront.
As hundreds of children from around the world shuffle onto the French Woods campus — a large campground comprised of five theatres, a circus pavilion equipped with trapezes and aerial silks, an indoor skate park and, of course, various rehearsal spaces and dance studios — the audition process begins.
"That's almost our favorite day," explained 16-year-old camper Crawford Horton, who comes from Milton, GA, and starred as Anthony in the French Woods production of Sweeney Todd.
"This is the highlight of the year for many people," added Roberto Morean, 18. "The night of casting, I just eat and eat because I'm so nervous. You walk in, and you sing for all the directors, and if you want to do a drama, you audition for a drama… Based on your audition, they give you callbacks, and you have different callbacks for about four hours. It's like 12 hours [after callbacks that the cast list is posted], but it's the longest time you'll ever wait!"
Once the cast list is posted, over a dozen shows go directly into rehearsal for a three-week session, in which students will rehearse for approximately two hours a day for less than three weeks to mount a full production — completely costumed, staged, choreographed and backed by a full orchestra.
"It depends on how you go into it," said Morean, who hails from Miami, FL, and starred as Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin's Tony Award-nominated comedy Deathtrap (while simultaneously rehearsing for La Cage aux Folles, in which he will play the cagelle drag queen Angelique, and The Dream of the Burning Boy, the David West Read drama that played Roundabout Underground's series in 2011). "If you go into it with a mindset like, 'It's not going to be a problem,' it's going to be tough. You need to be prepared. You go in with your lines memorized. If you go in ready to work with an open mind — ready to take in everything [the directors] give you — you'll be perfectly fine. It is a challenge…"
"We live for it though," Horton interjected.
To say that the students at French Woods "eat, sleep and breathe theatre" would be a fair assessment. "All my free time [at camp] was me cuddling my script," admitted 16-year-old actress Olivia Dei Cicchi, who came from West Palm Beach, FL, for her fourth summer at French Woods and was starring as Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett the night Playbill.com was in attendance (and rehearsing for Kiss Me, Kate in the morning).
She continued, "It's really exciting because I don't get to do this at home. Mrs. Lovett and Lilli Vanessi [in Kiss Me, Kate] are totally different parts, so going back and forth between that is really fun. I get tired now and then, [but] I kind of just slap myself in the face and wake up! My dream is to be on Broadway, and I hope that one day I really can be. This is great preparation because I know when you're working in the city, you may be [performing] eight shows a week, all day rehearsing [and] always on your feet… And, I'm ready for that."
Dei Cicchi, a young Patti LuPone in the making — embodying Mrs. Lovett with the proper amount of quirk, lunacy, eccentricity and wit — began her journey with French Woods (and musical theatre) at age 12, when she played the title role in Mame. Although she's landed lead roles throughout her years at summer camp, Lovett was "the dream."
"It's my dream role, and it has been every since I found out what musical theatre was, and it's been a dream come true," she gushed. "Normally, at French Woods, in one session, you get three weeks to put together a show, but Sweeney Todd was actually a carry-over [show, which gives campers additional rehearsal time]. Putting together Sweeney Todd in three weeks was definitely a lot of hard work and dedication, but it was such a blast."
A carry-over show at French Woods is for students who are "carrying over" into the following session. When they are cast in a carry-over, they are given an additional few days to rehearse, and instead of opening their show at the end of a three-week session, they are the first to perform in the following session. They are given additional performances (whereas in-session shows are given only two performances), and new campers who are just arriving are given a taste of what to expect from French Woods upon their arrival.
When Dei Cicchi is not performing Sweeney Todd, rehearsing for Kiss Me, Kate or spending free time at the gym (the activity she chooses from dozens that include arts and crafts, cirque classes, rock climbing and more), she is practicing with her peers in French Woods' Cab Troupe, an extracurricular activity at camp (in which students have to audition for) that performs a medley of Broadway tunes for groups off campus. This year's theme is "Brits on Broadway — Musicals from the West End," and the students are exploring tunes from West End musicals such as Mamma Mia!, Matilda, Children of Eden and more.
"Cab Troupe is a group of musical theatre kids who want to work together as an ensemble," said Zachary Eisenberg, 18, from Miami, FL. "It's about being role models in the community. There are no stars. It's about connecting with each other, connecting with the audience and showing what you love to do."
With numerous performances and rehearsals, campers — much like seasoned professionals — are faced with maintaining proper vocal health and sustaining their stamina.
"In my rehearsal, there's a girl in How to Succeed… [who] plays Smitty and [is currently the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd], and she kind of lost her voice in the show, but she's still performing very well," explained Jennifer Fritz, 16, from Voorhees, NJ. "At rehearsal [for How to Succeed…], she hasn't been singing at all. You have to make a sacrifice. Even though she has the lead in my show, she's sparing her voice and making sure she can still put on a great performance [of Sweeney] and still learn all of her lines [for How to Succeed…]."
Morean added, "Last session, my voice was gone for about a week because I overused it. We were doing Chess: In Concert, and vocally, that's really hard! So I decided to really control it [by] not talking. It's just part of the career. And, it's good because we're learning a lot about ourselves — what we can do, when to stop and when to take a break."
Aside from learning about themselves, students are also learning about theatrical staples that they would not have the chance to explore in a high-school setting. French Woods owner and director Ron Schaefer admits that he is not afraid to expose students to challenging and edgy material, evident this season with the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein award-winning musical La Cage aux Folles and other seasons with groundbreaking musicals such as Rent, Next to Normal, Parade, Blood Brothers, The Crucible, A New Brain and Avenue Q.
"I was very surprised when I got cast as [Angelique], a cagelle [in La Cage], because I've never done anything like this. I've never worn heels. I've never been a drag queen," said Morean with a laugh. "What I think is special is the fact that we get to do it, but the best part is that we get to do it here, which is such a safe environment. I would never do that in Miami because of bullying. But here, you tell people that you're in La Cage playing a drag queen, [and they say], 'Oh my God, I can't wait to see it!' In Miami or anywhere else, you'd get made fun of because you're a guy playing a drag queen."
"People respect each other here," added Noah Singer, 15, who came from Jupiter, FL, and had very little theatrical experience before French Woods. "I only did a sports camp before I came here, so when I came here, I got to experience a theatre atmosphere… Even if you don't want to do this in your life — I'm somebody who's not really looking into doing theatre for a career — you can be able to say when you're older, 'Yeah, I was in shows when I was younger. I was able to perform with people who will be on Broadway one day.'"
Notable alumni who went on to perform on Broadway or have a successful career in the arts include Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown (13, The Last Five Years, Parade), Andrea Burns (In the Heights), Melissa Errico (Passion), Gideon Glick (Spring Awakening), Remy Zaken (Spring Awakening), Zooey Deschanel ("Almost Famous"), Adam Levine (lead singer of Maroon 5) and Adam Kantor (The Last Five Years, Rent) — who recently visited the camp with Last Five Years co-star Betsy Wolfe to perform the Jason Robert Brown musical, which was seen at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre ("It was so amazing," said 16-year-old camper Eli Elman about the concert performance) — among many others.
"When I left camp, I cried from here to Newark airport," admitted Morean, who will attend New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in the fall. "You just learn so much, and you really grow — not only as a person, which is a big factor when you audition for college… but also as a performer."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
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