Before Todd Graff attended theater camp, he liked to cause trouble. "I was hanging out with a bunch of idiot kids," Graff, 43, said. "We'd cut class, stand outside the liquor store, drink beer, blast music and raise havoc at night."
When Graff and friends stole a neighbor's car one night, his Jewish musician parents came up with a novel way to keep him off the streets. They showed him a New York Times ad for Stagedoor Manor, a performing arts summer camp; before long, the 14-year-old was en route to the rambling facility in a converted Catskills hotel.
"There were no s'mores, but rehearsal and classes and more rehearsal," Graff recalled. "We were there to learn to be actors and it made me realize there was something I was passionate about. It focused me and changed my life."
Graff's spunky directorial debut, "Camp," about teen intrigue at a theater camp, is a valentine to Stagedoor and "virtually a documentary" about his experience, he said. Based on the summer he transformed from juvenile delinquent to theater geek, the musical "dramedy" was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. More reminiscent of "Fame" than "Meatballs," it's the latest in a trend of independent films, such as Peter Sollett's "Raising Victor Vargas," which explore weightier teen issues than those found in saccharine-fests such as "She's All That."
"Camp's" edgy characters -- inspired by real people -- include an abject, adolescent drag queen (Robin De Jesus); a geeky ingenue (Joanna Chilcoat); and a charismatic but troubled newcomer, Vlad (Daniel Letterle), Graff's alter-ego. Like the Stagedoor campers, the fictional ones feel like misfits at home but insiders among fellow theater fanatics.
"The camp is like Oz," Graff said. "Your real life is in black and white, but the minute you step off the bus, everything is in color and everyone is a 'munchkin,' a freak, like you."
While Stagedoor jump-started Graff's latent acting abilities, the arts were virtually in his blood. His father served as musical director for Nat King Cole and the Yiddish-speaking Barry sisters; his mother, a pianist, was choirmaster of her Queens, N.Y., synagogue.
"I grew up with 20 women coming over for rehearsal twice a week," Graff said. "I was happily inundated with Jewish music."
After he discovered Stagedoor (where fellow campers included Robert Downey, Jr.) his repertoire expanded to include a range of Broadway showtunes. By age 16, he was starring in the PBS children's series, "The Electric Company"; at 23 he received a Tony nomination for his turn in the Broadway musical "Baby."
Graff went on to act in films such as "The Abyss" and write "The Grandmother Plays," based on his Jewish family, which opened and flopped off-Broadway. Undaunted, he turned the play into a screenplay that became 1992's "Used People."
He settled on an equally personal subject for his debut feature: his first summer at Stagedoor.
"There's a lot of Vlad in me," he said over Caesar salad at a West Hollywood cafe. "It was at camp that I first learned the value of being charismatic. Like Vlad, I saw that because I was cute and outgoing, that translated into other things, such as sex, attention and ego-massage. I had both boys and girls happily in 'crush' and infatuation with me, and rather than be menschy about it, I played them all off of each other. I was manipulative and narcissistic, which I'm not particularly proud of."
Another way "Camp" reflects Stagedoor: The fictional campers put on shows that are "ridiculously inappropriate for children," Graff said. "For example, when I was cast in 'Cabaret' in the newly created role of Emcee's Boy, I wore a collar and leash, and was led around by my 'master' for the entire show, except when I performed the Act II kick line number in full drag."
Other Stagedoor shows carried color-blind casting to an extreme, which "Camp" spoofs in one scene. When black actors in "Fiddler on the Roof" costumes complain, "Do we look Jewish?" the camp director cheerily replies, "You could be Sephardic."
Studio executives were less enthusiastic when Graff began shopping his unorthodox script around town in the late 1990s. Many thought the story was too dark and had too many gay characters. Graff's favorite executive: The one who asked, "Can't we just turn the drag queens into Trekkies?"
Graff didn't think so, which is why he signed when the offer came from the producers of well-received independent films such as Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven." To cast the movie, he auditioned nonprofessional child actors "because I wanted them to be in close touch with what the characters were going through."
One such actress, Chilcoat, 17, said she thoroughly identified with her talented-nerd character, Ellen. "Ellen is [gifted], pretty and smart, but she doesn't believe she is," the fresh-faced Chilcoat told The Journal. "That was me during my freshman and sophomore years of high school. Actually, doing this film helped me boost my self-esteem and grow up a little."
For Graff, the 2002 production was equally memorable. During the 23-day shoot at Stagedoor Manor, he felt that "art was imitating life imitating art. There I'd be in a room I'd stayed in as a teenager, directing a boy who was supposed to be me and another actor who was supposed to be someone I had known as a kid," he said. "It started to feel odd and haunted and complicated but ultimately, it reminded me of how far I have come."
"Camp" opens July 25 in Los Angeles.
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