A post-pandemic visit to the French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts

One of the most disturbing moments of the early days of the pandemic – at least for me personally – occurred when I read a New York Times article in which Ron Schaefer, the larger-than-life 83-year-old founder of French Woods Festival of the Perfirming Arts, who was being interviewed, suggested that the half-century-old upstate New York theater camp would likely be forced to close if the overwhelming majority parents of campers were demanding refunds due to the upcoming to-be-officially-cancelled 2020 summer season.

“2020 has been a huge financial loss for every camp director,” Schaefer told me. “We all got into debt. We ran an online program, but it only brought in a little bit of income. If there had been a second year of closure, we would have finished, along with most of the others. fields.”

As a teenager in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I spent five much-needed summers in French Woods, where I got a full theater education performing in plays and musicals and attending countless other productions. (I started working as a theater critic just weeks after my last summer at French Woods.) The very idea that the pandemic wouldn’t take a single summer away from French Woods but might have shut down the place for good was unthinkable. .

In 2017, after a long absence, I was invited by Schaefer to visit the camp, to discover its production of Pippin apple, and leading a masterclass on theater criticism, which I later wrote about in an article for BroadwayWorld. In 2019, I went back up to attend a 100% female version of 1776which marked the first time the camp featured 1776 since I played John Adams in 2001. (Impressive, French Woods reworked and even re-orchestrated 1776 before Broadway.)

It would not have been possible to visit French Woods in 2021 due to the strict health and safety procedures that have been put in place to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Campers underwent COVID testing days just before arriving at camp and once again upon arrival. Masks were mandatory for the first five days of camp. According to Schaefer, only one camper tested positive for COVID-19 last summer. After a visitation day for parents in early summer, the camp decided it was too risky to start again. Parents, unable to see their children’s productions in person, watched live.

Ball scene

I was finally able to pay another visit to French Woods at the end of the 2022 summer season. But rather than seeing another musical (like Prom, which received its amateur premiere at French Woods this summer), I was able to attend what has become one of the most celebrated annual traditions at French Woods in recent years: the orchestral concert “Side by Side”, which brings together the French Woods Symphony Orchestra and members of the New York Pops orchestra, as well as singers composed of both campers and Broadway artists. As it happens, this summer’s “Side by Side” concert was conducted by one of the camp’s most famous alumni, Jason Robert Brown.

When I arrived at camp, I was immediately sent to a rehearsal already underway for Schaefer’s production of West Side Storywhich would mark the fourth show he directed that summer (after Chicago, Sweeney Toddand fiddler on the roof in previous sessions) and serve as the “closing show” of the summer. Schaefer realized West Side Story several times at camp over the years – including in 1999, when I did the show alongside Celia Mei Rubin (Matilda, Natasha, Pierre and the great comet of 1812).

I was playing Chino at the time – probably because I wasn’t a dancer and therefore not talented enough to play one of the Jets. (As a Chino, I instead brandished a prop gun and made an embarrassing attempt at a Puerto Rican accent.) As I learned during my visit, I probably wouldn’t have been cast as the shark in French Woods. today. As in the theater industry in general, the racial and ethnic authenticity of the cast has become a major concern at French Woods, especially among the campers themselves. In fact, according to Schaefer, two young women even refused to be considered Maria or Anita in West Side Story because they were Jewish and Caucasian. Similarly, at the start of the summer, a boy announced that he did not want to be considered for a role in Fiddler since he was not Jewish.

That being said, the repetition of West Side Story was not so different from what it was in my time. The (feel-good awesome) campers walked through the first act, scripts in hand, performing the dance choreography despite the space limitations of the cramped rehearsal studio. Schaefer’s notes to the cast (“If you don’t touch, I’ll kill you…If a shark isn’t ready to take the stage right now, he’s a fool…That’s the least thrilling fight I’ve ever seen”) sounded like comments he made 23 years ago. The cast was great, including Ashley Hoberman as the lively Maria, Max Guttman as the soft-spoken Tony, and Hayes Philip as the authoritative Bernardo.

Next West Side Story rehearsal, I attended a masterclass in song interpretation given by Jason Robert Brown to some of the most up-and-coming artists in the camp. Brown meticulously deconstructed and reconstructed each camper’s performance, wondering who each was singing to and what they wanted and urging them to remove unnecessary gestures and use their natural voices. “You’ve been Audra McDonald for so long you can’t find your own accent,” Brown told a woman who chose “On the Street Where You Live” as the song. “What do you actually look like? I want you to feel like you can be you,” Brown said.

Compared to previous theater criticism workshops I conducted in French Woods, which were lecture-like in which campers made only a few offhand and polite comments, this summer the campers who attended my workshop were fiercely opinionated and assertive. . I barely needed to speak. I simply posed a question about the duties of a theater critic and they swirled into vigorous debate. They didn’t need me there at all: those kids were already theater critics.

The ‘Side by Side’ concerts, which have now been taking place at French Woods for a decade, are the result of the tireless efforts of longtime French Woods bandleader Brian Worsdale, who is Music Director of the Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestras and director of the New York Pops Kids on Stage program. Before concerts, members of New York Pops teach masterclasses and rehearse alongside young musicians. Campers can audition to sing at the concert alongside Kerry Butler, Andrea Burns and Max von Essen, who have previously been featured singers.

Jason Robert Brown frequented French Woods as a camper just over a decade before me. In fact, I frequented French Woods when Parade and The last five years received their first professionals, and when songs for a new world received its premiere at camp (in a terrific 2000 production directed by Brian Kite, starring Celia Mei Rubin, Ana Nogueira and Joshua William Gelb).

Although Brown led pit bands as a camper, the The Side by Side concert “marked his first time conducting a symphony orchestra concert at French Woods. The concert program included selections from songs for a new world, Parade, The last five yearsand Honeymoon in Vegasas well as orchestral suites by Madison County Bridges (which, as Brown noted, will probably never be played at French Woods) and swan trumpetand “Wait ‘Til You See What’s Next”, an abandoned version of the Hal Prince review finale Prince of Broadway. I was a bit surprised that no song from 13 (the screen version of which had been broadcast on Netflix a few days before the concert) was included. French Woods presented the first post-Broadway production of 13 in 2009.

A post-pandemic visit to the French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts
Kristy Cates

Professional singers at the concert included Jesse Nager (a French Woods and Broadway veteran who is currently artistic director of vocal group The Broadway Boys) and Kristy Cates (Elphaba’s original understudy in Nasty on Broadway), who took over at the last moment from Betsy Wolfe, suffering from laryngitis. If Cates was somewhat disappointing, Nager was smashing, knocking him out of the park in the upbeat pop anthem “Invisible” (which appears on the album How we react and how we recover), “He told me to watch the door” of Parade (which I saw Nager perform years ago in concert with Brown at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City), and gospel-flavored “Flying Home” by songs for a new world (in which he was accompanied by a choir of campers). Teenagers who sang solo acquitted themselves well, especially Lana Schwartz, who performed “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” by songs for a new world. Brown capped off the event by taking the piano and singing “Moving Too Fast” from The last five years.

A post-pandemic visit to the French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts
Jesse Nager

Brown, who described the concert planning process as “the craziest two days in the world”, remained in good spirits throughout the performance, including when a wave of coughs ripped through the camper audience. . In response, during a break in the program, Brown urged everyone to let it all out with a big joint cough, then said, “Dayenu.” I attended many of Brown’s concerts over the year and he always proved himself to be an accomplished musician and showman, as well as a self-deprecating comedian. (If they haven’t already, the New York Pops might consider adding a Jason Robert Brown concert to their series of annual Carnegie Hall subscriptions — and maybe bring some kids from French Woods. with them.)

My visit to French Woods showed a camp in the midst of an incredible transition – emerging from the pandemic, accommodating new cultural trends and expectations – and yet mounting large-scale theater productions with children and teenagers in as little time. only two and a half weeks and offering a one-of-a-kind camping experience. I hope to attend another rehearsal of West Side Story in French Woods in 20 years.


Watch highlights from the “Side by Side” concert here and here.