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A camp experience to remember

by Kaori Shoji

The summer Todd Graff turned 14, his parents saw an ad in The New York Times about a summer camp called Stage Door Manor. Unlike other camps, this one taught the kids to act and perform in musicals, and since Graff had always loved to sing, his parents (both musicians) encouraged him with enthusiasm.

“Actually, it was more like, ‘Just go, get out of here!’ They were mainly interested in getting me off their backs,” Graff said in a recent interview. “This was a different time [1974], and parents were far less protective of their kids. I wasn’t a problem child, but I was generating a lot of typical teenage trouble, like drinking beer and riding around in stolen cars. My parents decided we all needed to change our space.”

So he went, and the experience literally changed his life.

“I realized that acting and performing was what I wanted to do,” Graff recalled. “The camp gave me a sense of belonging that I couldn’t get anywhere else, and I was in the company of other kids who felt the same way. It really was a turning point for me.”

Two years after attending Stage Door Manor, Graff was acting professionally, and since 1992 he has also worked as a writer and producer. “It’s a way of going back to my roots and all that,” Graff said. “Above all, I wanted the world to know about Stage Door. I can’t imagine how many misfit kids it has rescued.”

Indeed, many of those troublemakers have become major stars. Stage Door’s alumni include Nathalie Portman and Mary Stuart Masterson. Jennifer Jason Leigh was Graff’s classmate, and he was camp counselor to Robert Downey Jr. when the actor was 8 years old.

Budding filmmakers are always told to “go with what you know,” and Graff has obviously taken that approach for his directorial debut. “My characters are all nursing some sort of chip on their shoulders. It was like that when I was going there. But people who want to act, or choose theater or film as a way to make a living, well, they’re bound to be weird, and at odds with a normal school environment. I wanted to describe that weirdness, and what happens when such kids are gathered together and putting on a musical production.”

The director said there’s also a bit of himself in all the characters. “In my younger days, I was like Vlad: confident and charming on the surface, insecure underneath. Now I’m more like Ellen — a doormat. I’ve been with my partner for 13 years now, and in that time, I’ve turned into Ellen!”

Graff said he has a lot of affection for Ellen, the girl who pays her little brother $60 to be her prom date. “I intentionally opened the film with prom scenes,” the director said. “I resented the fact that most teen movies place the prom at the finale, like it’s the main goal of teenage life. For my characters, it’s not a goal, but a terrible ordeal. And it’s like that for many teens although few movies care to tell it like it is.”