What do Natalie Portman, Robert Downey, Jr., Zach Braff and Mandy Moore have in common? Before they were stars, they were campers at Stagedoor Manor, the premier summer theater camp for children and teenagers.
When Mickey Rapkin, a senior editor at GQ and self-proclaimed theater fanatic, learned about this place, he fled Manhattan for an escape to upstate New York. At Stagedoor, he tracked a trio of especially talented and determined teen actors through their final session at camp.
Theater Geek leads readers through the triumphs and tragedies of the three senior campers’ final summer in an absorbing, thought-provoking narrative that reveals the dynamic and inspiring human beings who populate this world. Through the rivalry, heartbreak, and joy of one summer at Stagedoor Manor, Rapkin offers theater geeks of all ages a dishy, illuminating romp through the lives of serious child actors.
This review comes with a warning – it will not be fair and balanced. It will not be unbiased. It’ll probably be gushy and completely over the top, borderline annoying. And it’s really long. And for that, I apologise. But, Mickey Rapkin’s Theater Geek? I’ve lived it.
I don’t just mean that I love theatre – I’ve got to go a step further than that. I spent two of the most magical summers of my life at Stagedoor Manor, the setting for Mickey Rapkin’s 2010 book on the New York summer camp.
SDM is a performing arts summer camp that’s been run by the Samuelson family for nearly forty years in the tiny town of Loch Sheldrake, NY. Summer camp is a great American tradition, as anyone who watched Bug Juice on Channel 4 as a kid will know. But Stagedoor is different. For starters, they cast 13 full-scale theatrical productions every three weeks in eight on-site theatre spaces. Kumbaya is swapped for perfect renditions of Seasons of Love from Rent, canoeing for tap classes and the camp talent shows are of a whole other level. Some of these kids have never performed in their life, others have come straight from Broadway, but they share one thing – in the real world, they all feel a little out of place. They’re the weird kids. They haven’t figured out where they fit yet. And they really love theatre.
Over the years, it’s provided magical memories for thousands of kids, some of whom have even grown up to be mega stars, like Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr., Two and a Half Men’s John Cryer, Zach Braff, Glee’s Lea Michele, Mandy Moore and many, many more.
Around this time of year, as the Stagedoor campers arrive for another summer of competing for the best part, getting put on voice rest and trying to figure out what’s on offer in the cafeteria that night, I get all misty-eyed and, well, irritating as I reminisce about those incredible 20 weeks I spent in Loch Sheldrake. Unlike the children tailed by Rapkin for Theater Geek, I was there working, an arts and crafts teacher – a professional friendship bracelet-maker essentially. After my first year in 2008, I was hooked, and returned in 2010 for more. The staff, the beautiful mountain setting, the incredible amount of talent that manifested itself within the camp’s boundaries and those kids – Stagedoor Manor was perfect. Like so many before me, kids and staff alike, I was in love.
And lucky old GQ editor Mickey got in there first and wrote a book about the place. For Theater Geek, Mickey headed into the mountains for a three-week session at Stagedoor. During his time, he followed three kids – theatre obsessive Harry Katzman, Rachael Singer, the little girl with the big voice and Brian Muller, an unusual being at theatre camp because he liked sports too.
It was their last summer at the camp, each having graduated high school and heading to college – or a tour of Little House on the Prairie in the case of Brian – in the autumn. With Mickey watching on, the kids go through the highs and lows of their final summer as children. You can feel really Harry’s fears to live up to everyone’s expectations as he takes on the role that was ‘made’ for him. A nasty bug hits the camp (which was, in later years, referred to wistfully as The Plague), threatening Rachael’s final performance as Mrs Lovett in Sweeny Todd. You watch on as Brian struggles to connect with his character in Into The Woods. Mickey has crawled right into the heads of these teenagers, capturing both the child and miniature adult in each. (And it’s really weird for me, because I’m 99% sure I’ve screamed at at least one of them to sit down on the bus to the movies.)
As Mickey documents the pressure of being an ambitious young performer, he also delves into the camp’s history, how it all began, the colourful characters who’ve appeared along the way and catches up with some former campers and even campers’ parents, such as Courtney Love. Lea Michele admits that she never had a lead part at Stagedoor, despite having already appeared in Les Mis on Broadway. She left early in her third year to take part in the workshop of Spring Awakening – where she had the main role.
Theater Geek offers an honest, amusing and touching insight into the theatre world and where it all begins – as a dream for bright-eyed kids. If you’ve ever dreamt of life in the spotlight, know every word to the works of Stephen Sondheim or simply believe that you and Shakespeare are kindred spirits, this is the book for you. There will be parts where you scoff, where you roll your eyes and think, “That could never have happened!” But trust me – it absolutely would have.
For those of us who’ve been lucky enough to have been there, done that and bought the T-shirt (or been handed it on the last day of staff orientation), Stagedoor really is the happiest place on earth. Mickey Rapkin has done every crazy, beautiful, talent-soaked inch of its sprawling grounds in the Catskills complete justice.