Theater Camp
Theater Camp

Ben Platt on Bringing Personal Experiences to the Screen in Theater Camp

Stars Ben Platt, Molly Gordon, and Noah Galvin, and director Nick Leiberman have artfully crafted a love letter to theater teachers in the summer-themed feature film Theater Camp, out in theaters July 14.

The movie, shot in 19 days at Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York, tells the story of a staff that comes together to keep an Upstate New York theater camp alive after its founder falls into a coma. Theater Camp was born out of a decadelong collaboration between Platt, Gordon, Galvin, and Leiberman, and premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Try to follow the six degrees of separation: Platt (who stars as counselor Amos Klobuchar) and Gordon (who plays counselor Rebecca-Diane) met at camp when they were kids. Lieberman (who co-directed the film with Gordon) went to high school with Platt; and contrary to online reports saying they met doing Dear Evan Hanson, Platt and fiancé Galvin (who plays Glenn Winthrop) met when they were in their teens.

Kids of all ages were cast to play the campers, including 13: The Musicals Jonathan Lengel. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see them all become stars,” Platt told Broadway Direct over a Zoom call. “We really wanted to find a group of kids who were representative of the whole theater community and came in as many shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds as possible.”

Platt, currently starring in Parade on Broadway, spoke with Broadway Direct about some of his youth theater experiences and how the film pays homage to the people there who impacted him the most.

What shows did you do in summer camp?

At my summer camp [Camp Ramah in Ojai, California], there wasn’t a theater camp. But at my youth theater program, I did everything under the sun: Guys and Dolls [Sky Masterson], Bye Bye Birdie, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Chicago, Anything Goes, Hairspray, Funny Girl.

Were you the lead in all the shows?

Almost always, except in Fiddler on the Roof. I was Motel the tailor because I’m not really a Tevye type. So I settled for Motel.

How did you make this film different from the movie Camp?

They really don’t have anything in common other than the fact that they take place at a theater camp. This movie is like a mockumentary, and plays purely as a comedy. It’s not like The Office or Parks and Rec, where there are talking heads. It’s entirely fly-on-the-wall in the sense that it’s all observed from afar in terms of storytelling. It’s shot in this nostalgic way. It lives much more in the tone of something like School of Rock. [Camp] also focuses largely on the teen campers. This movie is a lot more about the insanity of the teachers, their relationships, and how they relate to the young kids.

What, if anything, from your summer camp experience made it into this film?

It’s sort of an amalgam of all four of our team members’ experiences. Molly Gordon and I went to a youth theater program our whole lives, from when we were 5 years old until we left high school. Nick Lieberman and I went to high school together and did lots of theater, improv, and acting classes together. I met Noah doing workshops of a musical here in New York when we were young.

Wait, so you didn’t meet from Dear Evan Hansen?

We were 19 years old making a sketch web series that Noah, Nick, and Molly were doing together. I knew Nick and Molly, of course, and they brought me on to guest star. So I met Noah on this sketch show when we were 19 and 20. Then we did a couple of workshops of this musical called Alice by Heart, where we became closer. There’s been this very false lore that has emerged that we met during Dear Evan Hansen. But we met three, four years before that.

Were there any stories from your Jewish sleepaway camp experience that you put into the movie?

There was this thing that we did where a staff member would come to the bunk to do some kind of nighttime programming to help put us to sleep — like a Q&A, or Mad Libs, or sing a song. I loved the idea of a theater camp version. Every cabin gets a nighttime performance that can be seen throughout the film [where] different teachers [are] telling stories and doing dances and monologues to help put kids to sleep. That’s ripped directly from my experience.

Ben Platt and Molly Gordon in Theater Camp. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.
Ben Platt and Molly Gordon in Theater Camp. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

What are some of the niche theater jokes audiences should look for in the film?

There are some great Easter egg audition songs. We have some Sondheim in there. There’s a song from Waitress. There are theater posters sitting around places of different shows we love. There are some acting exercises theater people will recognize in the different classes. Our original musical we wrote that takes place at the end of the film has references and inspiration from all kinds of musicals people will know and recognize.

Are any of the campers you?

There isn’t necessarily a character that is taken from me directly, but they certainly remind me of my love and intense dedication to theater when I was a kid.

Is there any connection to any real-life Broadway actor?

No. Our teacher characters are ripped from so many of our beloved teachers and experiences that we had in classes and programs. It’s much more a tribute to those educators and students than it is to actors we know.

There are casting directors, I know, who booked the talent. I saw Bernie Telsey’s name on the credits. But where did you find these kids and who do you think will be the first of them on Broadway?

Bernie really deserves the credit for finding these children, especially his associate, Kristian Charbonier. So much so that we named our costume designer in the film Gigi Charbonier [Owen Thiele] to honor how amazing his work was. We did a wide search and Zoom callbacks. We did improv with the kids, had them sing, and got to know them. We really wanted to find a group of kids who were representative of the whole theater community and came in as many shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds as possible.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see them all become stars. Alexander Bello, he’s an amazing actor who’s already been on Broadway in the Caroline, or Change revival, plus And Just Like That, and John Mulaney & Sack Lunch Bunch special. Luke Islam, who many in the theater community already know, was on America’s Got Talent. He has a really famous viral video singing from Waitress. He is an incredible vocalist and so funny. Some of his reactions in the film are the greatest shots in the movie. I’m just waiting very patiently for when he immediately becomes a star. There’s also a young girl named Bailee Bonick in the film who has a couple of amazing sequences and has an incredible belt I’m sure people will gravitate toward.

The cast of Theater Camp. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.
The cast of Theater Camp. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

How many kids auditioned?

It was in the hundreds. The amount of kids who [I saw] was something like 100 kids because [the casting directors] did a lot of screening beforehand. We also ended up shaping certain characters we had preconceived and changing them and rewriting them when we found kids who were so special that we had to have them in the movie.

What was your favorite memory with the kids?

Seeing them bawl their eyes out at the end of our last shot. It was like watching the real end of camp and it really made us feel that we had given them a really special experience — which is all we really wanted to do.

How did it feel being the adult in the movie as opposed to being a camper?

Very full-circle. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate how much those teachers changed my life. I love the opportunity to switch shoes and honor them and make fun of them in a way that you can only when you love them deeply. I’m excited for my teacher [the head of the drama program that he and Gordon went to] to see the film. We even named a character for her. It just felt like such a great way to pay tribute. It also pointed out to me how much I would love to find time in my life to get to work with kids and direct children. It definitely made me hungry to do that more.

Did I see Priscilla Lopez make a cameo?

Yes, she does. It was so fun to have a screening recently with theater people who finally recognized her and cheered for her. We were so excited to get the honor of having her pop in at a really important moment. And it was so nice to hear the theater community appreciate her and recognize her.

How did you get her to do this?

We wrote her a note and explained to her that we were making this love letter to theater teachers. We had this really talented actress we hired named Kendra Sanchez, who plays Darla, and we were looking for someone to come and do a cameo [as her grandmother]. She was game and came up for a few hours to the camp and shot her scene.

Noah Galvin and Ben Platt at the 76th Annual Tony Awards. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions.
Noah Galvin and Ben Platt at the 76th Annual Tony Awards. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions.

How did your relationship change with Noah doing this film?

It was really a joy. Obviously, we were nervous because it’s the first time we’ve collaborated so heavily and directly with each other. Luckily, in regard to the tone and subject matter of this film, it really just focused us on the things that we have in common and that we both love, and that make us both laugh. We share such a sensibility, which is part of the reason we’re together. I think it highlighted for us that when we find the right thing, we really love to collaborate. Also, the value of having things that are our own, respectively, and then finding those right moments to team up.

So, when is the wedding?

We’re not sure yet. We’re taking our time and figuring out exactly what makes the most sense for us. We spend a lot of our lives at events and public-facing things. So we want to make sure our wedding feels private and different than that.

You can catch Theater Camp in movie theatres beginning this Friday, July 14.