Jenny Badiyi was the best Laura in The Glass Menagerie you ever saw. Or, more accurately, never saw, because she was all of thirteen years old when she did it, in a production that was mounted in a dank basement theatre in a kids' summer camp in upstate New York. Oh yeah, Jenny Badiyi ultimately changed her name to Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Robert Downey, Jr. was a pain in the ass. He was eight years old, at the same summer camp, doing chorus parts in musicals along with his big sister. Don't get me wrong, he was adorable—kind of the camp mascot—but he exploded out of bed each morning with a hyperactive energy that, tragically, pre-dated Ritalin. I know. I was his counselor.

The camp was, and is, called Stagedoor Manor, a place where kids go not to ride horses and row canoes, but to learn to be actors. There are no S'mores at Stagedoor Manor. There's rehearsal and classes and more rehearsal, period—and I made a film about it, called Camp. We shot at the real location last September for twenty-two days. Twenty-two days that were haunted by ghosts.

Everywhere I turned, they were there—phantoms from my past: Helen Slater as Dainty June in Gypsy (she was thirteen). Nicky Silver (celebrated New York playwright of Pterodactyls and The Food Chain) in Equus. Yes, Equus. He was fourteen, playing Dr. Dysart—and he was brilliant.

Natalie Portman went there for years. And Josh Charles and Felicity Huffman and Zack Braff and Mandy Moore, and a ton of other kids—some now famous, some not.

The shows we did at camp had little regard for appropriateness of material. You were never going to learn how to act by doing productions of Annie. You learned to act by doing Albee and Beckett and Brecht. And as for musicals, well, I musically directed, in one summer, Stephen Sondheim's fantastical ode to post-war regret and deferred dreams, Follies, as well as Hair, with no nude scene but everything else, including a rousing version of that first act showstopper, "Sodomy."

A few years earlier, when I was still a camper, 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. I was thirteen, and looked about ten.

But I learned how to act. The teachers there have won Tony Awards. So what if last summer they did the Caribbean-set musical Once On This Island, a fable that explores internalized racism between dark and light skinned blacks, without one black child in the cast? It was an experiment whose audacity attained Peter Sellars-like proportions.

The thing is: there were black kids at the camp—but they didn't cast them. The kids were in other, equally audacious shows. This was about growth and risk and the insane, idealistic belief that musical theatre, that most unfairly maligned of hoary, old genres, could actually teach you something about life—at least if you were pre-adolescent.

Shooting in the actual location brought back floods of memories. First kisses and first, self-induced nervous breakdowns. The glorious realization that there was an outlet somewhere for all the drama you felt overwhelmed by in middle school. It's where Jon Cryer could do Sunday In The Park With George. Where Bijou Phillips could do Lorca.

And, most vividly, where Jenny Badiyi could limp across a postage stamp-sized stage to greet her Gentleman Caller—and break your heart.

©2003 Landmark Theatres