Summer camp can be intense. You’re away from home. The schedule is jam-packed with activities from crafts to sports. And you’re navigating new friendships and rivals. And if that summer camp happens to be a theatre camp, then expect some drama.
In the new movie Theater Camp, which opened theatrically July 14, all that summer camp angst isn’t happening amongst the campers, though. It’s the camp counselors who are GOING THROUGH IT.
When Joan, camp director of AdirondACTS summer camp, falls into a coma, Amos and Rebecca-Diane, the resident acting and music teacher are left to run the camp and put together an original musical with the students. Meanwhile Joan’s non-theatre-kid son, Troy, tries to save the camp from financial ruin.
Amos and Rebecca-Diane are played by Ben Platt and Molly Gordon, who co-created the film with Noah Galvin and Nick Leiberman. The foursome is close, with Platt and Galvin currently engaged, and Platt and Gordon friends since childhood. In fact, video footage of Platt and Gordon performing together as children at The Adderly School, a children’s musical theatre school in California, is used in the film to create a similar lifelong friendship for their characters Amos and Rebecca-Diane.
Platt looked to his own childhood experiences, both at The Adderly School and at his Jewish summer camp, to create his character. “Amos is like an amalgam of different directors and theatre teachers and professionals that I've known throughout my life—the purest form of their intensity and self-seriousness and passion,” says Platt. “And as abrasive and absurdly difficult as he is, I also feel that he cares so deeply about the kids and wanting them to get better, and actually impart something meaningful to them.”
And although the kids in Theater Camp are all insanely talented and deliciously awkward in the mockumentary-style film, it’s the friendship between Amos and Rebecca-Diane that is at the heart of Theater Camp. For Amos, camp is everything. But for Rebecca-Diane, there might be something else on the horizon. Tensions begin to build when she’s seemingly less committed to writing their finale original musical than he is. Her potential success with a professional performing gig threatens his place in their world, forcing him to look at his own life and ambitions. “The character is a lot about somebody realizing that what they do is enough. And that what they do is what they're meant to do, and you don't have to pine for more or different things just because you're supposed to,” says Platt.
Even though Platt built Amos around his former instructors, he ended up finding a lot of himself in the character. “In my own way, I think I've had that journey recently. Obviously, I'm in a very privileged position in the sense that I have enjoyed some successes as an actor. But I found that I, especially after the pandemic, have this new perspective now on life. I should focus on allowing my compass to be what is actually going to bring me fulfillment and joy and is meaningful to me, rather than what I'm maybe supposed to be wanting to do or strive towards,” he says.
And Theater Camp really hit that mark for Platt. “This was a real turning point in my understanding of how I want to move forward as an artist,” he says. At the time that Theatre Camp was really starting to form, there were other projects swirling around him that he says may have looked more desirable on paper. But he chose to make this film with his closest people instead. “I just believed so deeply in it, and I learned that if you really champion that thing you believe in, it can come to fruition in a beautiful way.”
The first-time filmmakers (Gordon and Lieberman also co-direct the film) had only 19 days to shoot the semi-improvised movie on location at a campground in upstate New York. Of course, because it’s a theatre camp, there was also an entire mini-musical in the movie that the cast had to learn as well. “It was summer camp to the nth degree,” says Platt.
The original musical in the movie, titled Joan, Still, about the life of the comatose camp director, has music by composer Mark Sonnenblick and lyrics and story by Platt, Gordon, Galvin, and Lieberman. As Platt puts it, it is “absurd and ironic and ridiculous” and full of musical theatre references. And it’s a really fun moment in the film for Galvin, who plays the camp’s overworked technical director. Though Platt has written songs before for his solo albums, this was his first foray into musical theatre writing (though he puts “musical” in air-quotes here). “Something I still plan to do for sure in my lifetime is write an earnest musical, but this was a beautiful first try at that,” he says.
It seems like the making of the movie almost mirrored its subject. The whirlwind nature of the project. The “let’s put on a show” spirit of it. The tight-knit friendship at its core. Everything about it was very…theatre camp. Says Platt, “It was a very once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience.”
Theater Camp is open in New York and Los Angeles now, with plans to expand to select markets this weekend and 600-800 locations by August. In addition to Platt, Gordon, and Galvin, the cast includes Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Caroline Aaron and Amy Sedaris.