Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theatrical Debut is a delirious romp through a camp experience actor Clark Moore lived through.
In the opening moments of Theater Camp, Artistic Director Joan (Amy Sedaris), drops to the floor of a middle school auditorium and falls into a coma—the unfortunate result of a rogue strobe light employed by an eighth grade production. This tragedy, which plays to uproarious laughter, plunges Joan’s summer camp AdirondACTS, and the tens of campers and counselors who adore her, into a precarious circumstance. Namely, the incompetent hands of her son, Troy (Jimmy Tatro), a crypto enthusiast whose inexperience with summer camp management is outmatched only by his musical theater illiteracy.
This is a film to prioritize seeing in theaters, ideally with your own collection of artist friends, surrounded by as many theater nerds as possible—as many as can be in one place at one time without spontaneously breaking into song, an instinct the packed screening I attended did not indulge.
The screenplay was written by Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, and Ben Platt, the film was co-directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, and the story centers on characters played by Gordon and Platt around whom the film’s colorful ensemble manically orbits. Considering the cast, the screening at AMC Empire 25 in New York City was dotted with numerous faces of the current Broadway season; performers whose careers likely began at their own version of AdirondACTS and whose talent was undoubtedly nurtured by one Joan or another along the way. My own career began at a performing arts camp in Atlanta, where I arrived with no artistic experience.
I emerged a week later with representation and an audition for a film starring Keanu Reeves.
Theater Camp manages to capture that uniquely delirious magic of a place where delusions are only one phone call away from reality. It is worth noting I did not get that part, nor many that followed. However, the possibility of a fantasy made real was enough to hook me for life.
If it isn’t already clear, I loved it. I recognized myself in the campers, counselors, and instructors who span three generations of artists all of whom negotiate their evolving relationship with their work and their careers. As a self-identified theater kid, I know the value in intricate light cues and a three-quarter thrust. I have navigated every level on the social hierarchy of the cast list, indulged in the intoxication of a production’s shared mythology, and I maintain a deep reverence for the blind ambition of an eight year old with an agent. Furthermore, I understand the painful duality of teaching the arts, an occupation which is often unfairly imbued with the melancholia of a dream not fully realized. These are the circumstances of the central figures Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon)—artists whose own dreams were born at this very camp but for whom the stage and screen have remained, for the most part, out of reach.
Having experienced Theater Camp in a full auditorium, surrounded by unabashed lovers of the theatrical arts, it is no wonder the film reportedly received a standing ovation when it premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
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In the opening scene, the audience is brought into an intimate community in Upstate New York which is forced to solve one problem after the other, all whilst they prepare for multiple productions (some of which are written as they go.) It’s a world both wholly satirical yet grounded in the reality of a shared experience. For those who are not accustomed to the melodrama of theater camps, the stakes are always life and death. At the same time, they couldn’t possibly be less life and death. In the grand scheme of things, what could matter less than a 20 minute abridged version of Grease for kids, performed by 10 year olds who learned the choreography two days prior? And yet, real dreams are created on those stages, real careers sparked in a place where big imaginations bridge the gulf between high aspirations and low budgets.
It is through this balancing act that viewers enjoy expertly executed comedic beats immediately followed by sincere moments of earnest ambition and unmitigated joy. After all, this isn’t just camp, this is theater camp. Their chaotic world is immediately recognizable to any theater nerd as well as anyone who was lucky enough to experience the peculiar comforts of the American adolescent sleep-away experience. Camps where, within a matter of days, one can fall into a showmance, or create a friendship with someone they can’t imagine life without.
My AdirondACTS equivalent was called Atlanta Workshop Players. I went for one week a summer and stayed in dorms at a local college, which we turned into an immersive theater kid playground. The packing list included camp staples like sunscreen, shower shoes, and a swimsuit, alongside tap shoes, makeup, and scarves (for juggling.) The campers weren’t particularly concerned with being popular or cool, and instead wanted to be the best in their field. They wanted to rehearse, run lines, and practice all the time.
I once saw a camper alone on the quad struggling to lift a giant rock. I later learned it was styrofoam. Insufferable, and at the time I wondered, “How can I do that?”
Like the Atlanta Players Workshop, the characters in Theater Camp perform their shared delusions in any venue that will have them, for anyone who will watch, and frequently for no one at all — except for us. To choose any one performance as a stand out would be nearly impossible, as the characters in this ensemble are so thoroughly woven together that each is provided opportunities to shine. Gordon and Platt construct compelling and charismatic figures who share an intimate friendship, the challenges of which are relatable and heartbreaking. We are in safe hands with Ayo Edebiri who demonstrates yet again her mastery of comedic timing. Her preternatural ability is to ground even the most nonsensical character choices within the greater context of the film’s constructed reality. Galvin shines in his role as Glenn Winthrop, the camp’s technical expert, lighting technician, and universal problem solver. Through Glenn, Galvin is provided the opportunity to show us just how camp this world can be.
Likewise, at a time when we often feel lucky to get one queer Black character, Theater Camp includes three in one of the most beautiful and subtle portrayals of the intergenerational queer Black experience. Legendary actor Nathan Lee Graham’s Clive DeWitt brings humor and elegance, Owen Thiele imbues Gigi Charbonier with his characteristic chaos and timely comedic sensibility, and Alexander Bello plays Sebastian Campbell, a character whose sexuality is never clearly defined. It’s a thoughtful choice given the character’s age.
Bello’s character reminded me of my own experience as an effeminate, Black boy in the South. I was transported back to that same summer camp, where I dazzled the audience with a lip sync performance of “Lucky” by Britney Spears. (At least that’s how I remember it.) What I often omit from that memory is that I wore yellow basketball shorts and forgot the bridge. However, I do remember the standing ovation from the generous and supportive audience.
Theater Camp proves it is possible to present queer characters of color who exist outside of the limitations of well-established caricature whilst remaining familiar. Through these characters in particular, one can’t help but imagine the countless ways Graham’s character’s experience paved the way for Thiele’s, and Bello’s — a meta narrative that reflects the many opportunities for gay, Black actors provided by Graham’s own groundbreaking career. To see these three generations thrive and celebrate their talent — without wallowing in trauma — was a breath of fresh air.
While the community of AdirondACTS is central to the film’s narrative, it follows that Theater Camp, a film about the magic of low budget theater, crafts a compelling argument for the importance of theatrical exhibition. When the film ended, we exited the auditorium with hearts full. Together, we lingered in the hall and swapped stories, and connected inner-child to inner-child through tear-soaked faces, thoroughly exhausted from 88 minutes of nonstop laughter.
Two days after seeing Theater Camp I was running errands in the West Village ahead of a trip. I looked up from my afternoon stupor and saw a face I hadn’t seen in a while. He had to run to therapy and I needed to find shoes for a wedding, and we tried to calculate the time since the two of us last saw each other: three years, maybe five?
We’re both professional actors now. His show just received a few Emmy noms and the showrunner wrote a movie I was in. We’ve come a long way from when we met at theater camp.