"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.
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