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Book Review: Theater Geek

Let me get this confession out of the way up front: I'm a fiction writer who mostly reads non-fiction. Yes, yes, I know.

Let's be clear on another thing: This isn't so much a review of the book itself as a collection of insights I had while reading it. Writers and actors have more in common than I would've thought. How? Read on.

When I came across a review of Theater Geek by Mickey Rapkin, I knew I had to get it right away. I had never heard of Stagedoor Manor, but I was intrigued (and jealous) that there was a special theater camp for kids - one so highly regarded that agents regularly drop by, and yet the camp remains so egalitarian that there are no auditions to get in. In 208 pages (hardback), Rapkin follows three of the campers through the ups and downs of their final summer at Stagedoor, and he gives a fascinating look at the thirty-five year history of the camp, from its wild and woolly early years in the 1970s, to its more disciplined but no less energetic incarnation of today.

The book's initial appeal to me was two-fold. I was in a summer production of Alice in Wonderland when I was nine and I continued with theater in middle school, ending my involvement reluctantly in high school when band and family commitments made it no longer feasible. I am fascinated by sub-cultures, the more insular the better. For these reasons, an inside peek at Stagedoor Manor was right up my alley.

Once I got to reading it, though, I was struck by how similar actors and writers are with regard to their characters. Like us, actors create their characters, and the kids at Stagedoor are often required to come up with backstory, just like writers do. They are reminded that every time a character comes on stage, he or she wants something, and that want must be conveyed to the audience. (Sound familiar, writers?) And here's a quote that will resonate with writers, from Jeff Blumenkrantz, a former camper:
Here are the things you need to have considered before you get up and sing a song: Who are you singing to? What just happened? Why are you expressing this in this moment?
Yep, just like writing.

The best of these young actors learn to become their characters, crying real tears when the character is in pain and feeling real joy when the character is happy. How many of us haven't cried at our keyboard over a tragic scene we're writing, or experienced an oxytocin rush when our character falls in love?

Good writing is a form of method acting. And that's why you should read this book.

Update for Alice Audrey: Here's where we performed Alice in Wonderland: Sunken Garden Theater. The tunnel mentioned in the fact sheet was the bane of our director's existence. We kids loved it and the Griffin was particularly adept at sneaking off and making trouble down there. We gave three performances. I don't remember there being any empty seats, and it's a big theater.


Alice Audrey said...

OMG! I was also in a summer performance of Alice in Wonderland. Only it was the summer between Jr. and Sr. year at H.S. and it was the repertory theater associated with a private class I'd attended for years. Only us seniors did the summer-long tour.

July 11, 2010 at 12:18 PM
Ann (bunnygirl) said...

@Alice: No way! What part did you get? I wanted to be the Red Queen, but the teenagers got all the big parts.

I was one of the youngest and had lied about my age (city-wide casting call and you were supposed to be ten or older), so I was the Dormouse. I didn't mind. I had been performing in dance since the age of four and I knew not to take these kinds of things personally.

Our Tea Party scene came together quickly, so we got to do fun stuff that the others didn't. We were sent out to do the Tea Party for local groups to advertise the show, and as a charitable endeavor. I remember very well the day we performed for the children's hospital. One of our Tea Party performances was even on the evening news.

The March Hare was one of my neighbors, which no doubt helped, since we already knew how to work together. It was the first time either of us had acted, but I was used to performing from all those years of dance, and I guess Lindy had theater in his blood because he went on to become a screenwriter with credits that include Deep Space Nine and the Arsenio Hall Show.

Looking back at my childhood, I spent fourteen years (4-18) performing in one capacity or another: ballet, tap, jazz dance, theater, speech and drama tournaments, high school drum corps, and three years as solo oboist in the high school symphonic band.

I'm not a talent, but I'm competent and willing to work hard when sufficiently inspired. Reading Theater Geek really got me thinking about my artsy childhood (I also painted in oils and won first place in a small art show) and why I sometimes flounder out here in the real world. I must be suffering from a lack of art. ;-)

July 11, 2010 at 1:02 PM
Alice Audrey said...

I created my own role in the play - writing in the part of a bookworm who narrated it so we could do an abridged version. I was also table legs, a card, and various other bit parts.

We did a series of performances in city parks, setting up our own stage and such. There were only about a dozen of us in the play.

July 11, 2010 at 1:44 PM
Ann (bunnygirl) said...

@Alice: Did you have to make your own hedgehogs? I remember all of us spending a hot summer afternoon with paper mache and paint. We might have made the flamingos too, but I no longer remember. Seems like we could've gotten those from any place that sold retro lawn ornaments, so we probably only made the hedgehogs.

July 11, 2010 at 1:50 PM
Alice Audrey said...

OMG, you know someone who wrote for Deep Space 9?! Too cool.

I took the orchestra route. I played violin from 6th through 11th grades then dropped out so I could be on the student newspaper. I did a little dance here and there, but not nearly as much as you.

July 11, 2010 at 1:54 PM
Alice Audrey said...

I didn't do much in oils, but I did go on a painting kick and did acrylics for a while. Self-taught. What I know of drawing I got from a couple of how-to books.

We had someone in costume do the hedgehog stuff. It was supposed to be funny and sometimes got some laughs.

July 11, 2010 at 1:57 PM
Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Okay, I can't compete with this conversation you and Alice are having, but ... you're right. I MUST read this, even though my own theater experience is more limited than my straight-on music background.

Unless it makes me crazy with longing and jealousy. Then I can't read it at all.

July 12, 2010 at 8:53 PM
Alice Audrey said...

Come on, Susan. You might not have spent as much time on stage, but you were actually a professional in the biz.

I don't think it'll mess with my "crazy with longing" issues. I should get a copy.

July 14, 2010 at 11:56 AM

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