"I got bullied a lot in elementary school and middle school, and when you come here, you're accepted — no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter what you feel, you're accepted," explained first-year counselor Rae Rosier, 19, who came to French Woods Festival from Florida. "I heard a camper saying the other day about another camper, 'I go to school with him, and he's so not cool at school, but at French Woods, he's the coolest.' That's the kind of place it is. The weirder you are… [Like] from the musical [ Shrek] — 'Let your Freak Flag fly.' That's the type of place this is. It's magical to me — just magical."
Two-and-a-half hours outside of New York City, theatre kids from across the country are flocking from around the world to French Woods Festival, where they are challenged to mount a full-scale production — complete with sound, lights and a full orchestra (mostly composed of all campers) — in less than three weeks. They are greeted with warmth, acceptance and, naturally, a personalized show t-shirt.
Counselors also flock back to the Catskills. After all, they say it's their home away from home.
"They are a family," said counselor Tiger Brown, "and they always will be a family for you no matter what." Brown recently returned from the national tour of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and she said, "Coming here after five years of working, I feel like I never left. It's the same — it feels the same, it smells the same."
Brown, a camper from 1998-2006, is back as a choreographer this year at French Woods Festival, where she worked on the camp's midsummer production of Sweet Charity, which ran alongside Bat Boy, Anything Goes, Once on this Island, Crazy for You, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty and the classic Gypsy, among others.
"This place is like a haven for artists and artistic people and people who are from all walks of life," she continued. "It doesn't matter who you are, what you do — it's always appreciated and always welcomed. It's almost like an artist commune for children. The amount of shows that you put on within a two-and-a-half week period — it's an experience that you will never experience anywhere else. For me, as a professional performer — [where] you get in a rehearsal room and you have two weeks to put something up — it is normal. It is normal to be in that kind of a setting. This is more close to real life [and] actual timing than anything is. It definitely prepared me [for] being a professional."
When the students are not rehearsing, they are encouraged to take classes of their choice. As one student heads to dance, another walks across the large French Woods campus for an audition-prep workshop, while some take a break from singing and dancing in visual arts, where students craft their own t-shirts and show posters.
"I come here for the art, really," admitted 14-year-old camper Sophie Davidovich. "I mainly do silkscreen [printing] — which is where we are now — all day, every day. It's my favorite activity. I just like that this is a new experience because a lot of this I don't get to do very often. I had no idea what most of this stuff was before I came to camp… I look forward to improving my skills and learning new things. I look forward to making friends. I love spending time with these people I get to meet and just talking and hanging out and working on things like this." Her takeaway from French Woods? "I definitely learned that if you put your mind to it, you can really do some impressive things," Davidovich said. "And, I learned that you can express yourself in a multitude of ways."
Rosier works at the silkscreen printing station alongside counselor Victor Legrá, 21, who runs silkscreen yearly at French Woods and prints thousands of t-shirts and posters that feature original designs for the dozens of summer productions.
"This is my first year as a counselor," said Rosier. "My very first session at camp, which was seven years ago, before I even turned 12, I went home saying to my mom, 'Mommy, I want to be a counselor there one day, so I can make a kid feel as good as I felt.' That was my dream, and now I'm living it."
Gabe Greenspan admitted, "I discovered who I was [at French Woods]… I was a very different person in middle school, when I started coming — a person I didn't want to be, and I couldn't figure out how to stop doing that — then I came here… The theatre program at my school was very small, so I was very much the 'theatre guy,' until I came here and everyone was the 'theatre guy.' It couldn't be who I was anymore."
Now, Greenspan works on the theatre staff and circus staff at French Woods. (Aside from theatre and dance, FWF also offers a plethora of activities, including cirque classes, where students learn tricks and stunts à la the Tony-winning revival of Broadway's Pippin.) Brown said that when she was a camper, "I came in solely as a dancer, and people were like, 'Tiger dances.' But I was able to do these other things, and I was able to explore myself as a performer in other aspects. And, as a person — as a human — I learned what it means to make an incredible friend and how to keep that friend and keep in touch. I have friends all over the world and all over the country from this place that you will never find anywhere else and relationships with people that you never even knew were possible."
Why did Brown return after a year on the road with Beauty and the Beast? "This year," she said, "doing the national tour, I met a lot of kids along the way who want to be in theatre. They always come to the stage door, and they're so excited to see theatre or say, 'I do theatre at home.' So when I realized, 'I don't have a summer job right now,' [and] I was submitting and nothing came through, I thought, 'Okay, I'll come back and be with the kids.' I love this place, and I love the kids. I love to teach. I thought, 'Now is the time to be back. It's time to say hello.' It puts you back in touch with a side of yourself as a performer that you sometimes forget about."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)