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6 Stage Vets — and Michael Ian Black — on the Joys of Theater Camp

From Interlochen to Stagedoor, Jason Robert Brown, Julia Murney, Alexandra Silber, and more recall the highlights of their formative summers.

For most kids and young adults with their sights set on the lights of Broadway, the ideal spot to spend the summer is theater camp. There, they can hone their talents and hang out with other like-minded kids, sing showtunes, and even get a first shot at performing. You never know who the campers will go on to become. Organizations like Stagedoor Manor, French Woods, and Interlochen Arts Camp have served as breeding grounds for future artists like Jason Robert Brown, Julia Murney, Michael Ian Black, and many others. Here, seven vets of theater camp recall their favorite memories.

1. Jason Robert Brown
Composer and lyricist, The Bridges of Madison County
Camp: French Woods
"This photo is probably from 1983 or 1984, a few years before the catastrophe described." — Jason Robert Brown
(photo provided by Jason Robert Brown )

Before I even arrived at French Woods in the summer of 1986, it had been assumed and essentially determined that I would play Pirelli in Sweeney Todd, because up until that point, I was known for having a preternaturally high tenor, singing well into soprano range several years past the point at which most other boys' voices have broken.

But to everyone's surprise, including my own, I got to French Woods with a range that was about an octave lower than it had been the previous summer. And it was getting lower by the day. Nonetheless, I squeaked my way through the auditions and was cast as Pirelli — at which point I basically lost my voice.

I croaked through rehearsals, compensating for the notes I couldn't hit by ACTING as LOUDLY as I COULD — but my own private agony involved the trunk.

[spoiler alert] Pirelli is murdered in the middle of the first act and his body is hurriedly stuffed into a trunk. Due to the way the show was staged at French Woods, that meant that once I was killed off, I was stuck inside the trunk for about a half hour.

It was summer.

There was no air conditioning in the theater.

There was no ventilation in the trunk.

And I discovered something I'd never known before — I'm claustrophobic!

So at intermission every performance, the audience could see two counselors come and remove me from the trunk as I babbled deliriously and wobbled, unable to walk or hold myself upright.

And that was exactly the moment I decided I was not going to be an actor.

2. Samantha Massell
Actor, Fiddler on the Roof
Camp: Stagedoor Manor
Samantha Massell, a former camper at Stagedoor Manor.
(© David Gordon)

I know that I speak for every Stagedoor alum I know when I say that the yellow buildings at 116 Karmel Road in Loch Sheldrake, New York, will have a massive place in our hearts for the rest of our lives. Besides making lifelong friends and (finally!) meeting people my age who also aspired to memorize every single word to the entire musical-theater canon (no, seriously, try me), I learned so much in my nine summers at Stagedoor. We put up shows at a whip-crack pace, and to this day, I'm always secretly amazed at how much rehearsal time professional shows "need," because at the age of nine, I put on Starmites in a week and a half and I'm pretty sure it was exceptional.

Something magical is cooked up in the air when you combine talent, drive, passion, and heart with teenage hormones, and I loved every second of it. I learned how to be a team player, how to be humble, and how to rise up to challenges and shine when it was my turn.

3. Julia Murney
Actor, Wicked
Camp: Stagedoor Manor
Julia Murney as Mazeppa in Gypsy at Stagedoor Manor.
(photo provided by Julia Murney )

Since I was nice and young when I went to Stagedoor Manor, the memories are plentiful and got cemented before the rest of life came along. The first show I ever had lines in (at camp or anywhere) was Chicago, where I was cast as the Judge. I was thrilled. Then the girl playing Hunyak had to leave camp for some reason, and they bumped me up. I now had even more lines, and they were all in Hungarian. I was even more thrilled. I still know that monologue to this day. The high I felt, the bond I felt with the cast, it cemented my desire and love for this art form. Also, if you had told 14-year-old me that I would eventually work with and be friends with John Kander in the future, I never would have believed you. Thank you, Stagedoor, for everything. And for preparing me for several roles in which I also had to dance in my underwear (evidence of which is in this shot, from a summer, when I played Mazeppa in Gypsy — so inappropriate, yet so right).

4. Steve Rosen
Actor, Guys and Dolls
Camp: French Woods
Steve Rosen, a former camper at French Woods.
(© David Gordon)

I attended French Woods just about every summer for nine years. My time there had a profound impact on my life then, and still does today. Most of my closest friends and artistic collaborators are people I met there when I was a teenager. You could do all the traditional camp stuff like waterfront and tennis, but you also could take classes in magic, circus, or join a rock band. There was also a ton of theater.

When I was 7, I played a slave in the first scene of The King and I. I'd never been onstage before. I wore a little grass skirt and no shirt, and all I had to do was come onstage, get down on my knees and bow, then stand up and walk offstage. Well, I'd never worn a skirt before and the first performance, I kneeled down and bowed as planned, but when I stood up, I inadvertently stepped on my skirt and pulled it down. So there I was, chubby 7-year-old Stevie Rosen, standing in my tighty-whities on the stage of the Pavilion. The audience started to laugh, of course, but instead of running offstage in terror, I did a little boogie in my underpants and the crowd went bananas. My parents claim it was the day I became a "kosher ham." I love that place.

5. Jonathan Marc Sherman
Playwright, Things We Want
Camp: Stagedoor Manor
Jonathan Marc Sherman as Dauntless and Mike Brodsky as the King in Once Upon a Mattress at Stagedoor Manor.
(photo provided by Jonathan Marc Sherman )

A treasured memory of Stagedoor Manor is my earliest: I got dropped off by my father in the summer of 1982. I was 13 but looked young and short and scared, because I was. I had never spent a night away from home without a family member. Before saying goodbye to me and driving back home, my father pulled aside a college-age music director named Jeanine Tesori and asked her to "keep an eye on my boy." (She did, and still does.) I telephoned home late that night from the camp's office, crying, asking dad to pick me up. He was advised to give it a day or two by Carl Samuelson, the camp's late, great owner. Dad reluctantly and nervously stayed at home, by the phone.

When I next called him, a day later, I told him not to come, and also nonchalantly asked him to sign me up for the next summer as well. I went to Stagedoor for four life-changing summers altogether, until they kicked me out the summer before I started college. I met some of my best friends to this day. I met a Cuban magician named Jack Romano who made me believe in myself, and finally met girls who didn't find a short, skinny, big-nosed, big-eared kid who talked too much unkissable. Thanks, Dad, for dropping me off, and for (against your nervous instincts) not coming back later that night and picking me back up.

6. Alexandra Silber
Actor, Fiddler on the Roof
Camp: Interlochen Arts Camp
Alexandra Silber and Michael Arden in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown at Interlochen Arts Academy.
(photo provided by Alexandra Silber)

Interlochen Arts Camp is located between two freshwater lakes in northern Michigan and was the magical location of the majority of the lasting relationships I still cherish as an adult.

Summer arts camp is a funny thing — there you are, 11 years old and a total weirdo back home, and you get to spend eight weeks with a handful of other weirdos just as passionate, talented, freakishly informed about a single art form as you are.

Three of those weirdos for me: Alex Michaels, known today as Alexis Michelle of RuPaul's Drag Race fame. Little baby Alex and I met the summer we were 10 and 11. The day we met, we had to audition in front of the entire group of fellow middle schoolers vying for a role. Alex and I both sang excerpts from Show Boat, geeked out over one another's talent and a shared obsession with Rebecca Luker, and never looked back. Santino Fontana was my first-ever scene partner! The scene was a John Patrick Shanley classic that I only now realize as probably mildly inappropriate for teenagers, but we were really into it and, dare I say it, kind of good. When we made our Carnegie Hall debuts together in 2013, it was pretty special to realize that we'll always just be those kids from Advanced Acting Tech. Michael Arden and I met that same summer and instantly bonded. Michael is, without exception, the artist whom I credit with forming my capacity early on. Like a chess or tennis player who had the world's best opponent to make their skills all the sharper, acting opposite Michael constantly made me better, and I owe everything I am today to that start.

Camp. Magical.

7. Michael Ian Black
Actor, Wet Hot American Summer
Camp: Stagedoor Manor
Michael Ian Black, a former camper at Stagedoor Manor.
(© David Gordon)

For a kid like me who had a fixed notion in his mind that he'd like to become an actor, but only a vague notion of what that meant or how to do it, it's impossible to overstate the importance of my Stagedoor summers. To be among other kids who not only wanted the same thing as I did, to see the work required, the discipline, and to hold myself up against all of that talent — all of it made such a deep impression on me. What separated Stagedoor from all other creative experiences I'd had to that point was that the entire endeavor was set up to treat us as the professionals we wanted to become instead of the dopey kids we were. When somebody treats you like a professional, you begin to carry yourself like one. We treated our work as seriously. I don't think I ever went swimming at camp. Or played tennis. The rooms were crappy, the food forgettable. They were the best summers of my life.