Two decades before Dan Futterman, Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman joined up for “Capote,” they collaborated on a different project—a summer theater program.
Back then, they were just high school students looking to spend their break the way thousands of teenagers still do: having fun while indulging their passion for acting.
The options for summer theater camps today are as numerous as Shakespeare’s soliloquies.
Some programs require auditions, others don’t. Some focus exclusively on theater, others incorporate a more traditional camp experience. Some concentrate on putting on large Broadway-style musicals, others on teaching the craft. Some are held in the city, some in the woods.
“It runs the gamut from kids who have a general interest to kids who can be almost competitive, portfolio-building,” said Lois Deckelbaum, a summer camp adviser with Tips On Trips and Camps.
Julia Duffy, a 17-year-old senior in Fort Collins, Colorado, has attended two very different camps, one on the campus of a bucolic boarding school in New England, the other at New York University in Manhattan. Both required an audition, which she liked because she wanted a rigorous program. “I wanted to learn and I wanted to train,” she said.
First, she attended a five-week program for 13- to 17-year-olds at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. She studied acting, singing and dancing, and helped put on a play and some musicals.
“That was a great experience,” she said. “They take you into Boston on the weekends. It was a lot of fun.”
Then last summer, she attended an 18-day program at the Steinhardt School at NYU, taking master classes, going to workshops and taking private voice lessons. The participants, who must be at least 16 years old, can live on or off campus. Duffy lived in a dorm and said she quickly got used to being in the city.
At the other end of the spectrum are programs like the High School Improv Camp offered by Fox Mountain Adventures in the mountains outside San Diego. Campers take part in daily improvisational workshops taught by performers from the National Comedy Theater. They also swim, play color wars and sing campfire songs.
Director Michael Baum said he includes those traditional activities because they involve leadership, teamwork and communication.
“They are not only a ton of fun but also go hand-in-hand in developing skills that enhance improv,” he said.
Tips for those interested in theater camp:
— Plan ahead. Some programs fill up quickly: Stagedoor Manor, for instance, a three-week, non-audition camp for ages 8-17 in the Catskill Mountains of New York, was full by January.
— Consider your child’s personality and interests. Does he need to be center stage? Does she prefer technical theater?
— Don’t despair if you haven’t studied theater and an audition is required. “It is incumbent on summer programs like Perry-Mansfield to identify those young people who may not have had that training, but who have all that potential to succeed,” said Nancy Engelken, executive director of the 103-year-old Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
— If the camp is on a college campus, find out if it’s run by the school or by an outside group. Ask about oversight and what activities are available when campers aren’t in class, Deckelbaum advised.
The New York Summer School for the Arts program that Futterman attended in 1984 as a 17-year-old was held in Saratoga Springs on a campus where students lived in co-ed dorms without much supervision and lots of time for experimentation, he said.
“It was a sort of free-for-all,” he recalled.
The program, which today advertises a zero-tolerance policy for misbehavior, was run by the now-defunct Circle Repertory Company. It was there that Futterman and Miller, classmates at Mamaroneck High School in suburban New York City, met Hoffman, who lived upstate near Rochester.
They didn’t put on any shows, but they studied theater, dance and improvisation.
“It was the first time I was introduced to using personal memories and feelings as substitutions for a character’s,” said Futterman, an Oscar-nominated actor and screenwriter.
Although fewer theater programs exist for young children, there are some. Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan has programs for kids as young as third grade.
For children interested in theater but not ready for overnight camp, Perry-Mansfield offers a weeklong day camp for kids ages 8 to 10 that is an introduction to the performing arts. For older students, it offers two-, four- and six-week overnight programs that include the option of English horseback riding as an elective. Dustin Hoffman is an alumnus.
But don’t expect to see Futterman’s two daughters in any of these programs. They attend a general arts camp in Maine.
“They don’t have a particular interest in theater camp,” he said.