'Theater Geek' School's Real Life Drama

For 35 years, in bucolic Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., Stagedoor Manor has been the place for pre-teen, tweens and teenaged performers to practice their craft. Host Liane Hansen talks with author Mickey Rapkin about the book, Theater Geek: The Real Life Drama of a Summer at Stagedoor Manor, the Famous Performing Arts Camp.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

When schools close for the summer, camps open. For 35 years in bucolic Loch Sheldrake, Stagedoor Manor has been the place for preteen tweens and teenaged performers to practice their craft. A young Robert Downey, Jr. appeared there in "The Diary of Anne Frank" in the late '70s. Lea Michele, the star of "Glee," had to leave her final summer session early for an early workshop of the Tony Award-winning show "Spring Awakening."

Mickey Rapkin, a senior editor at GQ magazine, spent three weeks last summer following three campers in their final productions at Stagedoor Manor. Rapkin was also in some ways fulfilling his own teenage dream of a life in the theater. His new book is called "Theater Geek" and Mickey Rapkin is in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICKEY RAPKIN (GQ Magazine, Author, "Theater Geek: The Real Life Drama of Summer at Stagedoor Manor"): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: Is Stagedoor Manor really a camp or is it a pipeline to the big time?

Mr. RAPKIN: You know, it's both of those things. It has what a summer camp has - trees and fresh air - but then it also has talent scouts coming to see these kids perform and sort of make their biggest dreams come true.

HANSEN: You also describe it as a second home for many of these kids.

Mr. RAPKIN: Well, I think a lot of these kids, you know, they don't feel so comfortable in their own skin back at their high schools. You know, you remember high school is not a great place to be a theater geek. And then you come to this place, Stagedoor Manor in the Catskills, and kids are standing around the piano singing Sondheim songs and kids are walking around in costume for no reason. You think - take a deep breath - ah, like, I'm home.

HANSEN: The alumni list is extraordinary. First on the list is Natalie Portman, who has received an Oscar nomination. We all know who she is. What did she do at the camp?

Mr. RAPKIN: She was in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Co-starred in that with Bryce Dallas Howard, who's in the "Twilight" movie this summer. She was also notably Sally Bowles in "Cabaret."

HANSEN: Robert Downey, Jr., I love it, such a winsome photograph of a young Robert Downey, Jr. And he was in "The Diary of Anne Frank." What part did he play?

Mr. RAPKIN: He played Mr. Dussel, the dentist who is in the attic. And I spoke to one of his costars who played Mr. Frank. And said, oh, Robert, he was 13 years old and he was miscast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Miscast.

Mr. RAPKIN: That was the kind of amazing, only at Stagedoor sort of story.

HANSEN: There are so many only at Stagedoor Manor stories. I mentioned Lea Michele, who's with "Glee." She couldn't get a lead at Stagedoor Manor.

Mr. RAPKIN: Yeah, it was so funny. I spoke to her. By the time she had come to Stagedoor, she had already been in "Les Mis" on Broadway. You know, she was working professionally, and she came to Stagedoor and she couldn't get a lead. And I sort of was kidding with her about it, and she actually said, you know, I didn't want a lead because I was already working professionally, so it was nice to just go to camp and relax and not have that pressure.

HANSEN: You spent a session, three weeks, pretty much like a fly on the wall. Is it as backbiting as show business can be at camp?

Mr. RAPKIN: I think the kids love each other and they're incredibly supportive of each other. But there are some of those backbiting moments, you know, one of the kids in the story who got sick and there was a chance she wasn't going to go on. And there was some really great behind-the-scenes drama, you know, someone saying, oh, I really want my friend to get better but maybe a little bit of her wanted to go on in her place.

HANSEN: Is it a given that some of these kids will go on to professional careers, given that agents and scouts come to see them?

Mr. RAPKIN: I think nothing is a given in this business. It's so competitive for these kids and there's so much talent out there. In a strange way, these kids have a better understanding of that now and so do their parents because they've seen it on TV. You know, they've seen people sleeping out for weeks trying to get on "American Idol." And they know what's out there.

But I think they've got a lot of training behind them and a real understanding of a work ethic.

HANSEN: You are a self-described theater geek. You had a life-changing moment in 1994 when you cried while in the audience of "Les Mis" on Broadway.

Mr. RAPKIN: You had to go there.

HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. Did you aspire to appear on stage when you were a teenager?

Mr. RAPKIN: You know, I did. I was that kid. You know, I did all the high school musicals. And I would grow up on Long Island and I would go into the city by myself to see shows and wait at the TKTS line. Like, that was my high school experience. But the funny thing is I never really had a teacher say to me, if you really want this, you should go for it.

I thought the great thing about this camp is it really told these kids, if you want this, if there's nothing else you think you can do, you should do it.

HANSEN: Did this experience fulfill certain dreams of yours then?

Mr. RAPKIN: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, it was funny, I was nervous, I went up there, I'm 31 years old and I'm going to hang out with these 18-year-old kids and sit in their rehearsals and scribble notes in the corner and eat with them. And I really was imbedded with them. I did not let really a moment go by where I wasn't in the corner hovering. But they took to me and I got to spend, you know, three weeks in the Catskills at a theater camp watching all of the drama go on and the ridiculous stories and the crying and the accomplishments and it really was a thrill.

HANSEN: Not tempted at all to try to get into the chorus of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Into the Woods" or "Sweeney Todd"?

Mr. RAPKIN: I would probably be lying if I didn't say I didn't want it.

HANSEN: Of course you did, of course you did. Well, given the chance that you still harbor a secret desire to be in a Broadway show, we'll let you pick the number we'll go out on. What would you like to hear?

Mr. RAPKIN: Oh, wow. "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

HANSEN: You got it. Mickey Rapkin is the author of "Theater Geek: The Real Life Drama of Summer at Stagedoor Manor." He joined us from New York. Thanks a lot. Break a leg.

Mr. RAPKIN: Thank you.

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