Nestled in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York amidst the ruins of grand vacation resorts of a bygone era sits Stagedoor Manor. America's premiere theater camp for kids age 10-18 — the basis of Todd Graff's 2003 film Camp — shares Loch Sheldrake with the die-hard survivors of the Borscht Belt and a burgeoning year-round Hasidic Jewish community. Yet while many of the neighboring resorts are closing up shop — the New Yorkers who once frequented them are dying off and their children are choosing to vacation in more glamorous destinations — Stagedoor is thriving like never before.
This is partly the result of specialization: Rather than a generic sleepaway camp, Stagedoor focuses almost exclusively on performance. Each summer, Stagedoor produces 36 full-scale productions. Every camper is guaranteed a role and no audition is necessary to attend the camp (although you do have to put in your application super early and contend with a mile-long wait list). Many of the shows Stagedoor mounts are major Broadway musicals like Sweeney Todd, Evita, or Rent...only with significantly younger actors. "My daughter was Lucy T. Slut," Broadway lyricist and proud Stagedoor parent Richard Maltby Jr. wryly remarked, recalling the camp's production of Avenue Q. "That is what Stagedoor Manor did for my daughter."
Maltby was at the camp to offer some words of wisdom to the cast of Miss Saigon, the 1989 Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil musical for which Maltby provided lyrics. The musical is an adaptation of Madame Butterfly set during the waning days of the Vietnam War. A stage full of adolescent Viet Cong militants looked on in wonder as Maltby recounted the story of the last helicopter out of Saigon. How many high school shows get the benefit of input from one of the original authors?
Truly, Stagedoor's philosophy is that the best way to learn is to do. The campers are cast in productions their first week and then put under the direction of working theater professionals. They move from rehearsal to class all day long, pausing only to eat and learn lines.
"There's a pool?" retorted Alex Boyd when I asked him if he ever made it over to the lonely looking swimming hole in the camp grounds. Boyd played John, an American G.I. who opens the second act with the rousing anthem "Bui Doi." That song was slated for rehearsal the day I visited, during the second week of the first session. Boyd knocked it out of the park, even though the only thing he knew about Miss Saigon two weeks before was that it featured a helicopter on stage.
"We don't even use the word ‘camp' in our brochures," said Production Director Konnie Kittrell as she sat in the audience of the brand-new Forum Theater where Miss Saigon was rehearsing. "We're a training center." The Forum is really a beautiful space. It's technically an outdoor theater, exposed to the elements and sans air-conditioning. Yet it has a roof that extends over the audience, meaning that the show can go on, rain or shine. And that's not the only new theater at Stagedoor. The Oasis, the camp's theater-in-the-round, was built on the site of the neglected indoor pool — certainly a better use of the space for this crowd. "The Samuelsons [the family who owns the camp] pour every penny back into the facility."
Kittrell is a jovial Tennessean who has worked for Stagedoor since 1982. Like everyone's favorite southern aunt, she shamelessly promotes the camp and its campers...er...young professionals. "Sadie...plug your show. It's ok," she reminded Sadie Calvano at the conclusion of our interview.
A Los Angeles native, Calvano is starring opposite Allison Janney and Anna Faris in the new CBS sitcom Mom. "We premiere September 23rd, Monday nights at 8:30," she told me in perfect press-conference diction. Even though she's already a working actress, she couldn't miss her third year at Stagedoor.
Claudia Bellanca has been attending the camp for even longer. This is her sixth year. Bellanca opted to take two sessions at Stagedoor. "Three weeks is not enough," asserted Bellanca, who played Kim, the Vietnamese bargirl who works at "Dreamland," a sleazy Saigon nightclub owned by a Franco-Vietnamese pimp known as "The Engineer."
Dan Hoy played The Engineer in this production of Miss Saigon. Hoy is the most camera-ready of the four campers I interviewed. He's chomping at the bit to be on Broadway and is willing to do almost anything to get there. In fact, he told me that is how he was able to connect to his character, who sings the showstopper "American Dream" about his aspirations to live like a high roller in the states. For this Ohio native ("all the best New Yorkers are from Ohio," concluded Maltby over lunch at a local Greek restaurant), there is no higher aspiration than Broadway.
Stagedoor seems like a pretty logical place to start. Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The House of Blue Leaves) — so many professional actors were once campers at Stagedoor Manor. And it's not just actors: A list of Stagedoor alums reads like a who's-who of industry professionals — choreographers, casting directors, publicists, etc.
If you believe talent can rub off by osmosis, Stagedoor is the place to be. At the very least, by attending the camp you're likely to forge lifelong friendships with the people who will populate the industry in the next 20 to 30 years.