They had 19 days to shoot a film at the Jewish sleepaway camp in Warwick, New York. With a musical at the end, 30 speaking roles and child actors with restricted working hours, director duo Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman filmed footage for their first feature every spare moment they got. Of course, working with their other two friends — writer-actors Noah Galvin and Ben Platt — meant more hands on deck.
One morning, Lieberman instructed Galvin to run around, and at a certain point, roll down the hill. So, Galvin, who played Glenn, the wide-eyed stage manager, motored downward for the shot while wearing a tool belt.
“We have a lot of takes of that,” Gordon said jokingly during a panel at Chase Sapphire on Main Street, Park City, prior to the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan 21. The absurdity is a rib tickler, as is the rest of “Theater Camp” — a surreal peek into the world of performing arts from those who truly love it.
Stretching 94 minutes, “Theater Camp” proved to be a hit at Sundance — receiving a standing ovation and the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for best ensemble.
The film was quickly acquired by Searchlight Pictures for $8 million, and now, it is slated to hit theaters July 14.
‘Theater Camp’ is about finding belongingness
It opens with a showing of “Bye Bye Birdy” at AdirondACTS, a scrappy theater camp when the founder, Joan (Amy Sedaris), falls ill. The summer session is about to begin but with Joan in a coma, the bro-y son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), has to step up and manage the establishment.
The staff is concerned but ready to whip the children into shape. Platt’s Amos and Gordon’s Rebecca-Diane are codependent acting and music teachers. Then there’s Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), the strict dance instructor; Gigi (Owen Thiele), the flamboyant costume design expert; Janet (Ayo Edebiri) who knows nothing about theater; and of course, Glenn, a man of many exceptional talents.
While the students and teachers focus on the production of “Joan, Still,” an autobiographical musical based on the founder’s life, Troy is struggling with finances. Here’s when Diane shows up, warning him of a looming foreclosure and offering to take care of the theater camp — merging it with Camp Lakeside, a stuck-up version of what Joan’s created.
The clueless crypto-bro is enticed but Glenn convinces him that their camp is worth saving. It’s up to Troy and the group of eccentric teachers to protect the space that means the world to these children.
Ben Platt, Molly Gordon on writing ‘Theater Camp’
The 16-millimeter verite doc style has been a passion project for the group of four who have known each other for ages — Platt and Gordon knew each since they were toddlers, met Lieberman while collaborating in high school, and Galvin during a musical workshop — and they’re all “theater nerds,” as Lieberman admitted at the panel.
Producer Jessica Elbaum’s work on “Booksmart,” starring Gordon and Galvin, had led her to the gang, and she was immediately taken.
“It was obvious they’ve known each other for a while and love working together creatively,” producer Will Ferrell told Deadline. “This was Jessica’s idea to make this into a feature, after watching them just finishing each other’s sentences as they riffed.”
The goal was to give actors agency and the freedom to improvise “because you only get about 10 minutes at the end of each take to really play,” said Gordon.
So, the scriptwriting process wasn’t typical. “Dear Evan Hansen” actor Platt explained that depending on the role, scene and larger context, some parts were written entirely, while others partially, creating the perfect launchpad for “happy accidents.”
Much of their work is inspired by Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries like “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind” and “Waiting for Guffman” as well as 1993’s “The War Room,” a documentary about Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.
As for the music in the fake production of “Joan, Still,” it is catchy and energetic, especially the anthem “Women Cannot Read.” The final song’s ridiculous chorus — “Camp isn’t home. But I think it kind of is” — first generates laughs before transforming into a heartfelt love letter.
With that said, the film caters to a mature audience because of raunchy language, cussing and sexual innuendos.
A string of brilliant child actors
Moments after the premiere, the young actors took the stage for a surprise performance of original songs from the movie, earning them another glorious standing ovation.
“Our biggest treat and surprise was how incredible all the children were at improvising,” said Platt during the Q&A, “which is what ‘Theater Camp’ is all about.”
“They really got the heart of the film and I’m so happy they came and sang for you guys because that was like the biggest treat in the world,” the Tony Award-winning performer added.
At the heart of the film are these children like Alan S. Kim, a Critics’ Choice Movie award winner for best young performer for his role in “Minari.” He is a hoot, playing an itty-bitty agent with slick hair and big ambitions.
While Kim is seen handing out business cards and spotting talent at this camp, Luke Islam’s Christopher, from “America’s Got Talent,” is busy belting out impressive melodies. “I really feel like everyone has a moment,” said Gordon at the panel.
Of course, it’s hard to ignore the film’s meta nature, which allows these child actors to experience a version of a theater camp. Galvin confessed that their reaction was “heave-sobbing” knowing that the summer and the filming was over.
“It felt so validating for us that we had created this little microcosm for them to exist in,” he said.