How to Work at a Theater Camp

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Photo Source: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

Watching the 2003 cult classic “Camp” starring a young Robin de Jesús (“In the Heights”) and Anna Kendrick is a summer rite of passage for many, up there with overpaying for ice cream cones and scratching mosquito bites. There’s just something so winsome and nostalgic about the story of talented campers putting aside their drama to give it their all onstage, in front of Stephen Sondheim, no less!

Maybe it’s time for you to get off the couch and into the woods, as it were. Working at a theater camp for the summer at places like the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and Buck’s Rock Camp in Connecticut are an ideal way to explore your passion for the performing arts and forge important industry connections while getting paid. “You spend all day long working and socializing with these people so you’re always building a network,” explains Chris Armbrister, the artistic director for the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center in New York’s Catskill Mountains. 

Armbrister speaks from much experience: For nearly 25 years, he’s been overseeing staffing at the popular and prestigious 48-year-old theater camp that boasts an alum list of Robert Downey Jr., Natalie Portman, Mandy Moore, Zach Braff, Sebastian Stan, “Deadpool 3” director Shawn Levy, and, ahem, “Campwriter-director Todd Graff. 

The Stagedoor application process starts in November, and Armbrister—who started as director in 1999—fills slots from counselor to assistant choreographer through the spring. The youngest staff members are 20-year-old college students, and many worker bees return each summer. “It brings me a lot of satisfaction to see people come out here and then go out and enjoy their careers,” Armbrister adds. 

What quality are you really looking for when hiring?  

I’m looking for personality. Are you going to fit in with the team? Are you ready for an intensive 24/7 summer experience? And do you have the mindset where you’re going to stop and explain and help kids? I get a lot of applications from stage managers or choreographers who have experience but don’t have that kid-friendly personality. You really have to walk that line, even if you’re working in the tech department. 

Where and how do you usually find your staff?  

We put ads in places like Backstage. It’s a simple process of sending in a cover letter and résumé for us to review, and then we schedule a Zoom interview. We also go to a couple of theater conventions and conferences—I actually just got back from the United States Institute for Theater Technology in Seattle. We had a table set up and did on-the-spot interviews with people who met our basic criteria. 

Beyond all the socializing, how can staff members build connections? 

Well, first of all, we hope to get a lot of people back every summer. I want you until I can’t afford you! And because we’re such a close-knit group, it builds a network. I’m friends with one of the guys who does a lot of hiring for Disney cruises and theme parks. If he sees Stagedoor on your résumé, he will contact me and ask. So we can help get you in the door, but you have to do the work yourself. 

Are there instances when an industry pro or a parent will watch a performance and recruit? 

Yes, for both. We do get a lot of industry people who come through or send their kids through our program and will say “Oh my god, I need to reach out to this person.” 

We know the campers who went on to greatness. What about on the behind-the-scenes side? 

Many of our alums work on Broadway. The dresser for “Wicked” was with us for a while. Matthew Buttrey was a set designer for us several years back and he’s currently a set designer for “The Notebook” [on Broadway]. Rachel Chavkin, who directed “Hadestown, was in our program. 

Generally speaking, how can a staffer make the most of their summer at camp? 

Go in with an open mind, and be willing to be flexible. Be the type of person who takes what you do seriously—but don’t yourself seriously. I will tell a lot of bad jokes and do a lot of stuff in the interviews to try to make sure that you’re the type of person who will have fun. But what I really love to see is someone who’s ready to collaborate and work as a team to create a positive theatrical experience for those kids. Ultimately, that’s our goal.  

And let’s hear your “Camp” review. 

I love it. It’s hilarious. But I do want to say that we don’t let kids sit down on the roof. We also don’t have a lake, and we’ve never done a show by a dumpster!