The 10 Cult Classics That Shaped Theater Camp

8 minute read

In Warwick, New York, on the New Jersey border, there sits a now-defunct Jewish summer camp, Kurtz Camp. When the cast and crew of Theater Camp—an ensemble mockumentary out on Friday—arrived to film there, it felt like a ghost town, dotted with half-empty Gatorade bottles. Over the course of just 19 days of shooting, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Ayo Edebiri, Patti Harrison, and a host of child actors brought it back to life. (The production funded improvements to the camp to later reopen it for Warwick residents.)

The rest of the cast, which includes Jimmy Tatro, Nathan Lee Graham, Caroline Sidney Aaron, Amy Sedaris, and Owen Thiele, got comfortable with each other quickly to improvise most of the dialogue. “We didn’t have time to not be” comfortable, says Gordon, who co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in the film. “That’s what theater does, right? You all become this little family.”

Theater Camp takes place at AdirondACTS, a beloved camp in upstate New York that’s teetering, unbeknownst to its teachers and campers, on the cusp of financial ruin after its founder (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma. Gordon and Platt star as Rebecca-Diane and Amos, two zany, brilliant theater teachers who make AdirondACTS go round. Galvin plays Glenn, the camp’s overworked stage manager who harbors a secret knack for the spotlight. (Platt and Galvin are both well-known in the theater world for each playing the titular role of Dear Evan Hansen; they are also engaged.)

Gordon—who recently played Claire on The Bear—wrote the film with Platt, Galvin, and Nick Lieberman. She also directed the film with Lieberman in their directorial debut. The movie originates in a short film made three years ago, also by the four friends, who have known each other since they were teenagers through theater and musical workshops.

Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) are worried about the state of the musical they're writing, "Joan, Still," about the camp's founder, Joan, who is in a coma.Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Theater Camp premiered in January at Sundance to two standing ovations. Before the film festival, Gordon and Lieberman spent all day, every day in a Brooklyn closet, trying to edit roughly 16 hours of footage into a 90-minute movie. They had approached the project as a documentary, laying out the plot points, but improvising from there—which left them with plenty to work with.

“We were really excited to try to make something that was earnest, and then also really specific to this world,” Lieberman says. “And that felt hopefully to people like, ‘Oh yeah, even if I didn’t go to theater camp, this must be what it is like.’”

The influences of documentaries and cult films, camp-related and otherwise, reverberate throughout Theater Camp. When I saw it, 2003’s Camp immediately sprang to mind. A friend saw In the Bleak Midwinter (1995) in it, and my coworkers saw the fingerprints of Wet Hot American Summer (2001) and Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries. I talked to Gordon and Lieberman (from a Manhattan hotel the day after the New York premiere) about which movies influenced them—and what they might recommend after watching Theater Camp. Here are their picks through the ages.

Original Cast Album: Company (1970)

In terms of influences and inspirations, the directors leaned heavily into documentaries. In 1970, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker observed the marathon recording session for the original cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. The resulting documentary opens a view into a part of the “theater world that not every theater representation has, of people in a room, sweaty, intensely arguing with each other, in this ‘70s cool way,” Lieberman says. “Definitely, vibe-wise, that was a huge inspiration.”

Small Change (1976)

Much of the charm of Theater Camp hinges on the work and creativity of its child actors, for whom the directors have the utmost respect. François Truffaut’s French film Small Change (L’Argent de poche) follows the minutiae of the lives of a group of children in Thiers, France in the summer of 1976. “He just treats kids so beautifully and legitimately,” Lieberman says, “and takes them really seriously in a way that we love.”

Everything by Christopher Guest

The screenwriter, composer, musician, director, actor, and comedian Christopher Guest is an unparalleled force in Hollywood. Best known for having written, directed, and starred in a series of mockumentaries—This Is Spinal Tap (which he did not direct), Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration, and Mascots—his name is synonymous with the filmmaking style. “Christopher Guest is everything to us and we wouldn’t even dare to put our film in the same sentence,” says Gordon. “But we were 100% inspired by him writing specifically for his friends and all getting to kind of play with each other.”

The War Room (1993)

The heavy documentary influence wasn’t limited to mockumentaries—or theater-related fare, for that matter. Gordon and Lieberman both love The War Room, a 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. “We’ve always dreamed of making a comedy that used the kind of vérité style of that documentary and the visual style of it and the nostalgic, 16-millimeter grain,” Gordon says.

The Parent Trap (1998)

Of course, the Theater Camp tincture also has a healthy dose of summer camp influences—a uniquely nostalgic, American genre. In The Parent Trap, Lindsay Lohan stars in her breakthrough role as two 11-year-old twins: British Annie James and American Hallie Parker. Annie and Hallie were raised on opposite sides of the Atlantic—the former by their mother and the latter by their father—with no knowledge of one other’s existence. The twins are accidentally reunited at summer camp, where they scheme to “trap” their parents back together.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

In keeping with the summer camp theme, Wet Hot American Summer is an iconic piece of the genre, and has picked up a cult following since its release in 2001. An ensemble comedy like Theater Camp, it features Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Marino, Bradley Cooper (in his film debut), and Amy Poehler. On the last day of Camp Firewood in 1981, counselors scheme to hook up with each other before they leave. Two overzealous drama teachers, Ben (Bradley Cooper) and Susie (Amy Poehler), try to cobble together Camp Firewood’s greatest talent show yet.

Stagedoor (2006)

In one of few documentaries ever made specifically about theater camp, director Alexandra Shiva chronicles the stresses and successes of five teenage campers, Maddy, Nicole, Randi, Robert, and Taylor. Stagedoor was inspired by Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Bryce Dallas Howard, Zach Braff, and Mandy Moore—all of whom attended the Stagedoor Manor theater camp in the Catskills. (As did Gordon and Lieberman.)

Stagedoor swings between comic and compassionate, illustrating just how extreme the experience can be. “A lot of people that see the movie who went to theater camp or were in drama programs are like, ‘Oh my God, my teacher was crazier than this,’” Gordon says. “We could have even made them more kooky, but we wanted to strike a balance.”

Jesus Camp (2006)

Jesus Camp—a documentary about a charismatic Christian summer camp in North Dakota—feels like perhaps the polar opposite of Theater Camp, but the creators drew fresh inspiration from a drastically different camp experience. “There’s this blackout scene in that movie, and all the kids are playing with flashlights,” Gordon says. “And we have a blackout scene that becomes very silly in ours.” The Kids on Fire School of Ministry camp taught children to “take back America for Christ” and was later closed over controversy sparked by the film.

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Rachel Getting Married may be billed as a drama, but it feels at times like a dark comedy. This movie, alongside Computer Chess, combined elements of comedy with the documentary aesthetic that the directors were looking for. “I remember a dark day right before we submitted to Sundance where we were like, ‘Is our camerawork too shaky?’” Gordon says. “And then we watched Rachel Getting Married and we were like, ‘I think we’re OK.’” Rachel Getting Married follows Kym (Anne Hathaway), an addict currently in rehab, through the emotional minefield of her sister Rachel’s wedding. (Hathaway received her first Oscar nomination for the role.)

Computer Chess (2013)

Computer Chess and Rachel Getting Married were “the movies that we really looked to see the confluence of some of the things that we wanted to function” in Theater Camp, according to Lieberman. The independent dramedy is set in 1980 at an unequivocally nerdy computer chess competition in a California hotel. In black and white and shot on analog video cameras, Computer Chess excels at capturing a snapshot of a moment in time, which Theater Camp’s directors aspired to do.

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