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Setting the Stage for Future Stars

At the Stagedoor Manor summer camp theater, kids from all over the world put on 13 full-scale productions in three weeks.

Summer camp for teens launched some of Hollywood's big stars

Among the many specialty summer camps in the U.S. are drama camps, where youngsters learn about theater and put on a play.

There is a summer camp in Loch Sheldrake, New York, that has nurtured some well-known Hollywood actors.

Intense experience

The campers who attend Stagedoor Manor have an intensive introduction to professional theater. They perform 13 plays. The talented teenagers love to sing, dance and act, and are willing and able to endure the long hours of training and rehearsal.

Actress Natalie Portman is a Stagedoor Manor summer camp alumnus.
Actress Natalie Portman is a Stagedoor Manor summer camp alumnus.

A re-designed hotel in a Catskill Mountain resort town two hours north of New York City seems an unlikely place to find tomorrow's Broadway and Hollywood stars.

Journalist Mickey Rapkin was curious to discover what this camp is all about.

"I heard about this summer theater where kids would come from all over the world and put on 13 full-scale productions in three weeks and Hollywood casting directors would come to see the productions." he says. "I just didn't believe that place existed."

He discovered that it does. Stagedoor Manor'a alumni include well-known actors like Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mandy Moore. The camp, which opened in 1975, holds three 3-week sessions each summer. About 280 teens sign up for each.

'Theater Geek' follows three Stagedoor Manor campers.
'Theater Geek' follows three Stagedoor Manor campers.

Last summer, Rapkin joined them. He spent long hours attending classes and workshops, following the campers during their free time and watching them rehearse.

"What separates this camp is they challenge those kids by casting them in really mature roles and sort of seeing what they can pull off," he says. "The idea of teenagers doing Sondheim festival might sound scary. Stephen Sondheim musicals are very difficult and harmonies are complicated. You can't believe they can do this in three weeks, but they do."

'Theater Geek'

Rapkin tells the story of Stagedoor Manor, and three of the campers he met there, in his new book, "Theater Geek."

"The first of those kids, Harry Katzman, grew up mostly in London and went to theater all the time by himself as a kid, and just fell in love with the theater," Rapkin says. "He ended up moving to the U.S., to South Carolina. He makes his way to Stagedoor Manor and has this completely transformative experience there where he is really pushed and challenged to perform and to work on his skill level and his talent."

'Scrubs' actor Zach Braff performed 'Godspell,' at Stagedoor Manor.
'Scrubs' actor Zach Braff performed 'Godspell,' at Stagedoor Manor.

Harry Katzman was only 14 when he attended Stagedoor Manor for the first time. Hungry to learn more, he says, he returned every summer for the next 3 years.

"Really, I felt like it was the right place for me," he says. "The best learning you can do is by doing and by performing a show, memorizing the lines, getting it done and watching your peers around you doing the same thing and realizing their talent. It just makes you want to be better. So you're constantly trying to improve yourself. I think that it's just impressive to see the amount of people who do really have talent, that do care about this profession as much as I do."

Katzman says the skills he developed at camp laid a solid foundation for his future. He is now studying musical theater at the University of Michigan.

Nineteen-year old Natalie Walker, a theater major at New York University, still remembers how she learned about Stagedoor Manor. It was featured in a movie called "Camp." She was in 8th grade.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I wish there is a real place like this.' Then, you know, in the credits of the movie, it's like this camp is based on Stagedoor Manor," she recalls. "I went to my computer, entered Stagedoor Manor into Google search and it came up. I saw the pictures of all those shows that they are doing and I'm like, 'Sign me up for the entire time.'"

Head first

Walker says she was amazed at the camp's pace and approach to learning.

"You audition the first day of camp, you get measured for costumes," she says. "You get thrown in head first into the deep end and you really have to work hard. There is so much pressure, but you know that teaches you a lot. The big part of the training was to put everything together in such a short amount of time."

To be able to perform in 13 full-scale Broadway shows in just three weeks, kids need to be well prepared. And they are, says New York theater director Raymond Zilberberg.

"We rehearse twice a day for 4 hours," he says. "And then between those rehearsals, we have classes: dance classes, vocal technique classes and various acting classes as well."

Zilberberg teaches an audition technique class.

"They all come in with their music prepared and we go through every single student and work with them on the song they are choosing to audition with," he says. "What's the meaning of the song, how to better deliver it, how to enter a room, how to compose themselves. So it's about giving them the best possible opportunity when they walk into an audition space."

Each Stagedoor Manor session ends with an awards ceremony, and a lot of hugs and tears, because camp is over.

But for many, the end of camp is also the start toward realizing their dream of becoming a star.

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    Faiza Elmasry

    Faiza Elmasry writes stories about life in America. She wrote for several newspapers and magazines in the Middle East, covering current affairs, art, family and women issues.  Faiza joined VOA after working in broadcasting in Cairo for the Egyptian Radio and Television Corporation and in Tokyo for Radio Japan.