Huffpost Arts

Stagedoor Manor, A Sleep-Away Drama Camp Where Hollywood Stars Are Born

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LOCH SHELDRAKE, N.Y. — It's a glorious late summer day in the Catskills Mountains, perfect for a nice dip in the water. But the large, inviting swimming pool at one sleep-away camp is untouched.

This is Stagedoor Manor, where days and nights are spent furiously learning dialogue, taking classes on stagecraft, tackling show tunes and practicing choreography, not lounging about. By summer's end, 867 campers will have starred in some 40 full-scale productions.

It's a place where campers in "Jersey Boys" T-shirts ask each other: "How many pairs of fishnets did you bring?" Or are overheard wondering, "Do we have Makeup and then lunch, or lunch and then Makeup?" On bus trips to the movies or the mall, they are known to proudly sing Stephen Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch" instead of "99 Bottles of Beer."

"Nothing about this is normal," says Konnie Kittrell, the production director who is celebrating her 30th year at Stagedoor. "They would be offended if you said they were normal. They let their freak flags fly."

Stagedoor alumni include Natalie Portman, Jon Cryer, Robert Downey Jr., Lea Michele, Mandy Moore, Zach Braff, Adam Pascal, Michael Ian Black, Todd Graff and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Agents have been known to make the two-hour drive from New York City to scout up-and-coming talent.

"Arriving at the camp was like being dropped into `Fame,' every Broadway musical ever written, `Glee' and `Meatballs,'" says Cryer, the "Two and a Half Men" star who attended for four summers between the ages of 13 to 17 in the late 1970s.

He saw campers going from being part of a theater geek subculture in their hometowns to being in a place where that subculture was the whole world. "It was an absolutely life-changing experience for me," he says. "It was such an amazing, vivacious place to be that I couldn't imagine not doing it for the rest of my life."

This summer, Stagedoor campers put on everything from "Phantom of the Opera" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" to the intimate Holocaust play "Letters to Sala." Stagedoor Manor prides itself on attracting kids who have no interest in either kiddie theater or coddling. It's a place where "Equus" is performed by 11-year-olds.

"They don't just want to be pushed. They want to be shoved," says Kittrell. "We like to think that when they leave there, they're work ready. They can go into an audition anywhere and not embarrass themselves."

Lily Kamp, 16, from New York City, has been coming for five years and calls it "contagious." On one recent afternoon, she was wearing a pink 1950s-inspired dress to play Miss Jones in "How to Succeed in Business."

"In the real world, I'm very paranoid about what people think about me, I'm very scared of being judged by everyone else," she says. "Here, though, it's so competitive in terms of performance, that feeling kind of goes away and I feel that I'm most myself here."

Each summer is broken up into three three-week sessions, each of which costs $5,545. Campers prepare a song or a play scene and a committee of four veteran staffers start the session by casting all the shows for the benefit of the kid first and the show second.

"We never consider what the director wants," says Kittrell with a smile.

The first two weeks are spent in rehearsal and the third week is performance at Stagedoor's eight on-site theaters. There are also classes on topics such as stage combat, vocal technique, writing and directing. A staff of 160 means plenty of one-on-one help.

Admission, which this year included campers from across the country as well as 19 nations including Thailand, Lebanon, Russia and Saudi Arabia, is not based on talent but simply on a first-come, first-served basis.

"You do not have to be talented to be successful here. You're judged on work ethic and not superiority of performance," says Kittrell. "The biggest trophy you can get here is for most improved."

The camp, open to kids from 10 to 18, has reached a space limit with 289 students per session. It had some 300 people on a waiting list this summer, but Stagedoor staffers fear intimacy will be lost if the camp's population grows any larger.

"We keep building theaters but we made a conscious decision not to take more kids," says Kittrell. "If we were any bigger than what we are now, we wouldn't be who we are now."

Todd Roberts, who leads the eight-person costume shop, proudly shows off a mini-empire of rooms filled with costumes and bins of shoes, many donated from Broadway shows. He's survived his ninth summer at Stagedoor and says the experience is hectic but rewarding.

"If you can do a show here, there's nothing anybody can throw at you that you can't handle," he says. "You have to bring your A-game when you walk in the door and if you don't have it, you're going to have it by the time you leave."

Stagedoor, which was started in 1976 by Carl and Elsie Samuelson, has gotten a boost from the popularity of "High School Musical" and "Glee," which made theater cool. Kittrell has seen male applicant numbers recently jump, which has created its own dilemma.

"I cannot stand to turn the boys away. Because truly once they make that step and decide they're going to put themselves outside their comfort zone and go for it, I just can't stand to say no to them," she says.

Stagedoor, which has been invited for the past few years to participate in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, has also become a proving ground for new and specialized works.

The camp is where school versions of "Rent," "Phantom of the Opera," "Aida" and "Miss Saigon" have been perfected. When Macy's wanted to create the new musical "Yes, Virginia," it went to Stagedoor. The camp even inspired the 2003 independent film "Camp," which lured Sondheim to stay a night on campus. (A moment commemorated with a little plaque.)

Stagedoor alumni have spread out into every part of the entertainment business, and revealing a connection to the camp is akin to sharing that you also attended the same Ivy League school. "You can't mount a Broadway show, make a film or do a TV series without running into somebody from Stagedoor," says Kittrell.

One alumna who looks back with great fondness on her years at Stagedoor is Rachel Antonoff, an up-and-coming fashion designer who pours her innate theatricality into bold outfits inspired by things like Alfred Hitchcock or "The Addams Family."

Antonoff, 31, attended for several summers starting when she was 12 and created powerful bonds with her fellow campers that she still marvels at today. She recalls her fellow actors doing insane feats – like learning to play the piano or, in her case, figuring out how to tap dance for "42nd Street" – in just a few weeks.

"It meant the world to me. I loved Stagedoor. I can't say enough good things about it," she says, quickly taken over by a wave of nostalgia. "Stagedoor was when theater was always fun and never scary."

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Online:

http://stagedoormanor.com

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Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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