Every summer since 1975, precocious kids with dreams of Hollywood and Broadway stardom have descended on Stagedoor Manor — the theater camp in the Catskills where Natalie Portman, Robert Downey, Jr., and a host of other well-respected and well-known actors got their start. Mickey Rapkin, a senior editor at GQ, tells that story in his new book Theater Geek (just published by Free Press).
Here, in a Powells.com exclusive, Rapkin chats with Stagedoor Manor alum Bryce Dallas Howard, star of this month's Twilight installment, Eclipse (and daughter of Oscar-winning director Ron Howard), about her summers at theater camp.
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What do you remember about the first day at Stagedoor Manor?
I grew up in Connecticut. I drove with my parents. And I remember distinctly: when I showed up, there were people tap dancing and stretching in the halls. I'd been to academic camp at Vassar for two summers —
Wait, what's academic camp?
It's an institute for the gifted. It's where nerds convene! It was a bizarre transition. I went from this group of nerds at academic camp to these extroverted performers. Everybody at Stagedoor looked so put together! They had their personalities already defined. And they were preparing their songs for the auditions. I didn't know what to sing. I'd done Little Shop of Horrors at school.
Were you the star?
No, I was the homeless lady in that play, and I'd had a one-second solo. I was like, "I'll sing that!"
What was your first show?
I played Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream with Natalie.
Natalie Portman, yes?
Side note: It's a long play and she was completely off book within one week of rehearsals. I mean, she was brilliant.
There's a great photo of the two of you from that show, dressed in costume.
I remember taking that photo. When I look at it now, we were so young. But we felt so old! That's the thing about Stagedoor: you grow up very quickly because you're with kids who are extremely savvy. I joked about their personalities being defined, but they kind of are.
Why is that?
I think it's because the people who go there are a little left of center, and they need to define their personality to feel grounded in the world. They didn't quite fit in at their schools, for whatever reason. It's like a camp of little grown-ups terrorizing one another. And it was fantastic. It's funny: there were two pay phones in the lobby, and the entire camp had to wait in line to talk on the phone. Now, the impression I got from these kids was that they were worldly. They knew what they were passionate about. They were jaded about things in life. But I'd see them in line waiting to call their parents. And they'd cry when they didn't reach them. I thought, "Oh! We are all kids!"
Well, sort of. Theater kids. Stagedoor had an indoor pool. Did you ever use it?
Your father, Ron Howard, came to Stagedoor to see you perform. Were people handing him their headshots? Was there any of that stage mom mentality?
There was some of that. I was very innocent and a bit naïve. I remember there were mothers on the first day. They said, "Become friends with her, her dad will put you in a movie." That's been everywhere. But it was more heightened at Stagedoor. That energy is always weird. My instinct has been to retreat. Natalie was very protective of me. She told me, "Hang with this group. This group is very real. They're not going to try to use you."
Natalie was already working in film at that point. Did the kids make a big deal out of that?
This is one of the great things about Natalie. I found her to be very private about her career. Not in a secretive way. One time she had to go into the city to meet a director who wanted her for a project. We talked about it. I said, "How was it?" She explained it to me. But she didn't make it seem overly precious. She was at camp. She was acting professionally, and going to a performing arts summer camp. Which seems counterintuitive. But she enjoyed it!
I love that. You played Catherine in Pippin at camp. What was that like?
I lost my voice!
We had to perform at Kutshers — a hotel near camp. This is a seminal moment for me. I have a tendency to be a perfectionist. I was the girl who always had the script with me. I can go deeper! I can do more! But I got sick and completely lost my voice. Within 24 hours, I had nothing. I went to the director and I was weeping. I said, "I don't know what to do!" He said, "Honey, you have to act it. That's all you have." It was terrifying. And it took a lot of courage. And it's the first time I can remember needing to tap into something real. Because I didn't have my instrument. I couldn't obsess about the quality of my voice, or my vibrato. I had to feel something. Before that, I'd memorize my lines perfectly and say, "It works." But I'd never connected deeply with a moment of feeling or character.
Wow. Had you been a theater geek? Did you have a lot of cast albums?
I wasn't. But Stagedoor Manor turned me. From that point on, I had Playbills up on the wall. Most teenagers in high school would sneak out at night. But I was going into the city to see Corpus Christi by
Wait — the Terrence McNally passion play? Where Jesus and the Apostles are gay?
I'd go to the city to see plays by myself. That's what I was into!
You seem very down-to-earth for a Hollywood starlet. What did you make of the accommodations at Stagedoor? What did you make of the facilities?
It's funny. There's so much pompousness in Hollywood, a place where — aesthetically — everything is pleasing. But there's no content. It's the opposite at Stagedoor, where there's an abundance of content and no pretension. But the aesthetics...
Funny. Your first summer at Stagedoor, you were rejected from the Our Time Cabaret — the camp's touring troupe of talented kids. Were you upset?
No, because I didn't have any expectations.
That's not unique to this experience. My dad is always stunned. Whenever I'm in a movie that bombs, I'm like, "It was a wonderful experience!" He's like, "How are you not miserable?" But the competition and talent level at Stagedoor was high. I went in wanting to have a good time and make some good friends. And I did.
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Mickey Rapkin is a senior editor at GQ magazine. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, TimeOut New York, The New York Post, Entertainment Weekly, and other publications. His first book, Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory, was published in 2008 by Gotham Books. He graduated cum laude from Cornell University in 2000. He lives in Manhattan.
Books mentioned in this post
Mickey Rapkin is the author of Theater Geek: The Real Life Drama of a Summer at Stagedoor Manor, the Famous Performing Arts Camp