Light spoilers ahead for “Theater Camp.”
Theater lovers (and Jews) everywhere, rejoice! A new movie starring Molly Gordon and Ben Platt, along with Platt’s now-fiancé Noah Galvin, now has a release date: July 14th. And if you’re lucky enough to be in Austin this week, you can catch it in theaters at South by Southwest (SXSW).
The film, titled “Theater Camp,” tells the story of a group of counselors at a theater camp in upstate New York. I had the pleasure of watching the movie when it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the jury award for ensemble. As a fan of “Glee,” a former theater camp attendee and a former camp counselor (I was even a drama teacher and an accompanist for the camp musical), this film spoke to me on a personal level. One could even say I felt called out by this film, which was also remarkably Jewish, in all its messiness, comedy and theatrics. And though my experience was not as dramatic (though I was once told to “be less harsh” when coaching 9-year-old campers on their auditions), I still found this film relatable to my own experiences as counselor, camper and, most importantly, Jew.
“Theater Camp,” directed by Gordon and Nick Lieberman and written by Gordon, Lieberman, Platt and Galvin, grows out of the 2020 short film of the same name. In the mockumentary-style short, Gordon, Galvin and Platt are counselors at a theater camp in New York City that faces funding issues, forcing one of the counselors to be cut from the program. Throughout the film, each counselor tries to make their case as to why they should remain in the program, creating the kind of theatrics only seen in the world of drama and musical theater.
The resulting feature-length film keeps the hilarious theatrics while still amping up the drama and the characters. When camp director Joan Rubinsky (Amy Sedaris) has a seizure resulting from the strobe lights at a middle school production of “Bye Bye Birdie” (not a sentence you hear every day), she goes into a coma, leaving her hyper-masculine, heterosexual son Troy (Jimmy Tatro of “American Vandal”) to keep the camp afloat. Unfortunately for him, his entrepreneurial spirit fails to impress many of the counselors, including drama counselor and wannabe actor Amos (Platt), bohemian music counselor Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), costume counselor Gigi (Owen Thiele) and dance counselor Clive (Nathan Lee Graham). In a scene which showcases Troy’s ill-suitedness to his task, he fails to quiet the campers down and Amos steps in by singing the first notes of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from “Oklahoma” in a call-and-response, which works right away. Also co-starring in the film are Ayo Edebiri of “The Bear,” Patti Harrison of “Shrill” and Caroline Aaron of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” rounding out a cast that feels wholeheartedly iconic and — in every sense — camp.
At one of the Sundance screenings, Gordon said the film came out of the desire to “make something with our friends.” According to Vulture, Gordon met friends Platt, Galvin, and Beanie Feldstein doing theater, forming a “sort of unofficial Jewish theater-kid collective.” Gordon expanded on this point in a Meet the Artists interview for Sundance, where she explained, “At the core of this piece, it’s really about how theater is a place where you can fully be yourself and… really find your people.” Added Lieberman, “The four of us who met doing theater as kids are a testament to the fact that that is true.”
Although the film itself barely mentions Judaism, “Theater Camp” feels inherently Jewish. With lines like “she missed sitting shiva for her grandmother to be here” (referring to an audition) and last names like Cohen and Rubinsky — not to mention the history of Jews in theater and the way that Jewish sleepaway camp has been a coming-of-age space for Jewish kids and teens — this film tells that Jewish story while allowing others a space to share theirs, too. Gordon, who has described her Jewish relationship as “watching comedy. That felt like God to me” and whose acting credits include the films “Shiva Baby” and “You People,” seems to focus her work on Jewish stories. With “Theater Camp,” she and her friends dig deeper into a shared Jewish experience that feels both very niche and incredibly relatable. Where else would you see kids buying Throat Coats under the table from other kids or intense counselor meetings about casting, not to mention a musical number inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof”?
As I watched the movie, I thought a lot about my own experiences as both camper and counselor. While it was ridiculous, it also allowed me to be me: loud, proudly Jewish and, most importantly, unafraid of whatever drama came my way. And if there’s anything I took from “Theater Camp,” it’s that every Jewish story deserves a musical — even if it isn’t as dramatic as the film’s own “Joan Still.”