Natalie Portman earned rave reviews—and an Academy Award—for her performance as a brilliant but troubled ballerina in the 2009 psychological thriller Black Swan. But convincingly portraying a world-class dancer with the moves to match took more than a few weeks of practicing her pliés and pirouettes: Portman actually began studying ballet as a teenager at Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts summer camp.
Alumni of the prestigious upstate New York theater camp include Iron Man himself, Robert Downey, Jr., and Glee star Lea Michele. Recruiters and casting agents from television, film, and Broadway shows visit Stagedoor every summer looking for young performers destined for big things.
Even if you don’t catch your big break, summer theater programs offer great opportunities to practice your craft, work with expert instructors, and meet other young actors (and maybe one of them will get famous and invite you to awesome movie premieres and Hollywood parties).
Stagedoor isn’t the only performing arts summer camp that started a few of its former attendees on the road to stardom. French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts–alums include Jon Favreau and Zooey Deschanel. Also located in upstate New York, French Woods offers programs in theater, music, dance, film and video, technical theater, and even magic—this is where French Woods alum David Blaine learned basic tricks like pulling a rabbit out of a hat and sawing a guy in half.
Established in 1931, Northwestern University’s National High School Institute is the country’s oldest and largest university-based program for outstanding high school students. America Ferrera took a break from the NHSI theater arts program she was attending outside Chicago to record an audition tape for an independent film about a Mexican-American teenager clashing with her mother. The film, Real Women Have Curves, turned out to be a surprising breakout hit, and Ferrera earned roles in feature films and as the star of the television series Ugly Betty, where she joined David Schwimmer (Friends) and Noah Wyle (ER) as NHSI alums who found success on the small screen.
Check out SummerProgramSearch to search for more theater and acting summer programs. If you can’t find a formal program, research local theater groups and see if any of them are holding auditions for summer productions—working with adult actors is a great experience, and you’ll have another role to list on your résumé. The summer is also a great time for aspiring actors to take individual singing or dancing lessons, especially if you’re hoping to study musical theater.
Or just practice your acting skills in everyday life, also known as “lying.” No one’s going to give you an Oscar for your bravura performance calling in “sick” to your summer job, but you might get a fun night with your friends out of it.