Child actors exert a droll fascination. The contradictions of the profession—flamboyant personalities and Spartan discipline, the extrovert's desire to perform amid constant rejection—blossom in even its youngest members. In Theater Geek, Mickey Rapkin, a senior editor at GQ, spends a summer among this unusual breed at Stagedoor Manor, a renowned performing-arts camp in New York's Catskill Mountains. Rapkin, whose previous book, Pitch Perfect (2008), exposed the riotous collegiate a cappella performance circuit, has a journalist's flair for uncovering riveting stories in unexpected arenas.
Stagedoor Manor, for those not among the young-thespian cognoscenti, is the nonpareil of performing-arts summer camps. In this ambitious and exacting program, 290 campers put on thirteen full-scale theatrical productions in only three weeks. Campers as young as ten attend up to five hours of rehearsals daily in addition to classes in acting and voice, stage combat, tap, and ballet. With so much talent passing through the small town of Loch Sheldrake, it has become a regular stop for New York City scouts and casting agents. One manager describes it, with a whiff of commodification, as "one-stop shopping."
Rapkin follows three campers through their last summer at Stagedoor. Harry Katzman, suffering through senior year at a private Episcopal school in South Carolina, enters a room like Eva Peron and has his iPod organized according to West End versus Broadway cast recordings. Rachel Singer, five feet tall and busty, has a phenomenal voice and acting talent, but little self-esteem. And finally, Brian Muller is Stagedoor's golden boy—tall, talented, handsome, and, even more rare and highly prized, a heterosexual male. The three are cast, with varying degrees of excitement and apprehension, as leads in three Stephen Sondheim shows.
Rapkin deftly handles his spin on this hysterically insular world. As a former geek himself, he shows affection for these funny, personable kids yet maintains enough distance to reveal the comic possibilities of earnest devotion to dramatic art. In one instance, an actor can't be consoled for breaking character during a show despite accidentally catching fire. And Harry, Rapkin observes, has "the ample physique of Zero Mostel." The phrase is brutal but still complimentary to a young man who dreams of starring in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Rapkin couples this tonal finesse with a narrative in the best tradition of proscenium suspense: Will Rachel recover from her flu in time to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd? Will Brian discover his character's motivation in time to make his last role at Stagedoor a triumph?
The campers' stories are interspersed with anecdotes tracing the camp's history from the wild 1970s, when it was founded by an alcoholic Ronald McDonald impersonator, to its current prestige. Distinguished alumni—from Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr., and Zach Braff to Pulitzer Prize–winning playwrights, Broadway producers, and Tony winners—weigh in with pithy recollections of their time at Stagedoor. "It's more like a secret society," says Mandy Moore. "It's this knowing look you get from people: Ah . . . Loch Sheldrake." Though a slight and almost frivolous book, Theater Geek nonetheless initiates us all. Ah . . . Loch Sheldrake, indeed.