There’s a particular mythology surrounding theater camp. It’s romanticized as a sanctuary where young artists can find communion and freedom. In the blur of makeup, sweat, and lakeside air, attendees hope to start their performing arts career on the right foot.
These spaces aren’t perfect, but they hold a promise that inspired Tony winner Ben Platt to write Theater Camp with childhood friends Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, and his fiancé, Noah Galvin. Theater camps are where kids, including Platt in this youth, learn from industry titans. With vast industry networks and good standing, they can be stepping stones to eventually securing gigs.
The film, which Platt, Gordon, and Lieberman also produced, is a mockumentary about the AdirondACTS camp in upstate New York and the eccentric staff who bands together to keep it afloat. Theater Camp started as a short film reminiscent of work by Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) that was uploaded to YouTube in early on during the pandemic. It has since earned a cult following among theater lovers and those who attended similar summer camps.
Platt plays Amos, an alum who has spent a decade teaching at the camp with his best friend and creative collaborator Rebecca-Diane, played by Gordon. Together they write what could be their last musical after the beloved camp owner falls into a coma and chaos ensues around them.
Below, Platt shares what he looks for in collaborations, his thoughts on playing Amos, his love for the theater, advice for the next generation of young performers, and more.
Note: This interview was conducted prior to the start of the SAG-AFTRA strike.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve shown versatility in music and movies, but what about theater drew your attention first?
I found my love of performing in general through musical theater. There’s nothing that can beat the live experience. It’s a very pure thing. Even with the pandemic and everything, so many things have changed and shifted, but the experience of seeing a piece of theater is untouchable. I’ve always loved that immediate response. Theater is always my first love, so this film is very special because it’s like a crossroads.
The movie reads like a labor of love between people who care deeply about musical theater and each other. What are the most critical aspects of a collaboration for you, and what does it bring to your creativity?
The nice thing about this film is that I worked with my closest friends and fiancé, and we have such a shared language and sensibilities. We have the same things that make us laugh and cry, and we were on the same page creatively about what we wanted this film to be. When you’re collaborating, especially in a movie like this that’s very small and scrappy, and you only have 19 days [to film], and there are children, you have to improvise. It’s a challenging undertaking because so many variables and things are going wrong and constantly changing. To have that shared language and be able to fall back, knowing that the people I was working with always knew what I was thinking and had the same priorities as me, is what allowed it to work. This film couldn’t have been made any other way, and it’s really a product of our longtime friendship.
Theater Camp dives into industry nuances, and we see how they affect Amos. At what point could you take some of the not-so-great aspects of the business and, rather than let them paralyze you, make art from them?
That’s a lot of what this movie represents to me in the sense that it’s the first time I’ve gotten to create something and write it from scratch with people in my life and with the people closest to me. Being an actor in the business, you’re sometimes at the mercy of other people and other people’s ideas and roles that have already been created and things that are pre-existing. Creating something for ourselves and making the story that we want to make is this little loophole that allows you to make the kind of art you want to make. I don’t take it for granted; that’s a tough thing to do. We’re fortunate that we got the opportunity to do it.
Amos learns through the film that what he does is so valuable and that he doesn’t have to wish for more because he’s supposed to wish for more because that’s what the industry wants. You’re supposed to aspire to certain things.
The sometimes dreaded “what’s next” after you wrap a project.
Exactly! He realizes that what he does as a teacher and working with the kids is enough and important, and that that’s what he’s really good at and special at, and that it fills him up. It’s wonderful to play a character who comes to that realization.
The idea that time is short and the imperative to create while you can are prevalent throughout the movie. Where do you think that comes from?
To me, that comes from the fact that a show is different every night, and it’s ephemeral, and it changes, and then it goes away. It feels extraordinary and pure, and you have a lot of time to rehearse, which I love, rehearsal and finding things slowly.
In youth theater, those experiences are so high stakes and intense and special because they come and go quickly. You pour your heart into something, and then it’s two shows, and then it’s gone, and then you cry, and when it ends, you’re bereft because it was so special. That’s not just theater. The pandemic has helped us all to remember that that’s just true of life in general, and you have to seize things when you can when nothing is promised. I knew that [a project like Theater Camp] was something that would not happen every day, and I had to take in every moment of it, and I think you can feel in the movie that we were trying to soak up every second that we could.
What do you wish you had heard as a young, aspiring musical theater performer that could help the current generation of performers?
Just how lucky I was to be there. I had the most wonderful time, and I made some of my best friends, like Molly. But when you’re a kid, you sometimes are tired, bored, or like, “I want to go act in a real show,” or “I want to go eat dinner.” You don’t always appreciate the program you’re in, and I think I would have just told myself to take it in because it will go so quickly, and then nothing is as special as that time. I’ve had the opportunity to do wonderful pieces of theater as an adult, but nothing is quite as special as those youth musicals.