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Freaks And Leeks
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Helming his first feature film, director Todd Graff
explores the drama of theater camp.
(all include Soup or Salad & Desert)
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everything is in color and everyone is a
cmunchkin,' a freak, like you."
While Stagedoor jump-started Graff's
latent acting abilities, the arts were vir-
tually in his blood. His father served as
musical director for Nat King Cole and
the Yiddish-speaking Barry sisters; his
mother, a pianist, was choirmaster of
her Queens, N.Y., synagogue.
"I grew up with 20 women coming
over for rehearsal twice a week," Graff
said. "I was happily inundated with
After he discovered Stagedoor
(where fellow campers included
Robert Downey Jr.), his repertoire
expanded to include a range of
Broadway show tunes.
efore Todd Graff attended
theater camp, he liked to
"I was hanging out with
a bunch of idiot kids," Graff, 43, said.
"We'd cut class, stand outside the
liquor store, drink beer, blast music
and raise havoc at night."
When Graff and friends stole a
neighbor's car one night, his Jewish
musician parents came up with a novel
way to keep him off the streets.
They showed him a New York Times
ad for Stagedoor Manor, a performing
arts summer camp; before long, the 14-
year-old was en route to the
rambling facility in a converted
"There were no s'mores, but
rehearsal and classes and more
rehearsal," Graff recalled. "We
were there to learn to be actors,
and it made me realize there
was something I was passionate
about. It focused me and
changed my life."
Graff's spunky directorial
debut, Camp, about teen
intrigue at a theater camp, is a
Daniel Letterle (Vlad) with Joanna Chilcoat (Ellen)
valentine to Stagedoor and "vir- in a scene from "Camp," directed by Todd Graff
tually a documentary" about his
experience, he said.
By age 16, he was starring in the
PBS children's series The Electric
Based on the summer he trans-
Company; at 23, he received a Tony
formed from juvenile delinquent to
theater geek, the musical "dramedy"
nomination for his turn in the
Broadway musical Baby.
was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize
at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
Graff went on to act in films such as
The Abyss and write The Grandmother
More reminiscent of Fame than
Plays, based on his Jewish family, which
Meatballs, it's the latest in a trend of
independent films, such as Peter Sollett's opened and flopped Off-Broadway.
Raising Victor Vargas, which explore
Undaunted, • he turned the play into a
screenplay that became 1992's Used People.
weightier teen issues than those found
in saccharine-felts such as She's All That.
He settled on an equally personal
Camp's edgy characters — inspired
subject for his debut feature: his first
summer at Stagedoor.
by real people — include an abject,
"There's a lot of Vlad in me," he said.
adolescent drag queen (Robin De
Jesus); a geeky ingenue (Joanna
"It was at camp that I first learned the
value of being charismatic. Like Vlad, I
Chilcoat); and a charismatic but trou-
saw that because I was cute and outgo-
bled newcomer, Vlad (Daniel
ing, that translated into other things,
Letterle), Graff's alter-ego.
such as sex, attention and ego-massage.
Like the Stagedoor campers, the fic-
tional ones feel like misfits at home but
"I had both boys and girls happily
in 'crush' and infatuation with me,
insiders among fellow theater fanatics.
and rather than be mentshy about it, I
"The camp is like Oz," Graff said.
"Your real life is in black and white,
played them all off of each other. I Was
but the minute you step off the bus,
FREAKS AND GEEKS on page 61