'Camp' Champs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It has been a good year for Tiffany Taylor and her new friend Joanna Chilcoat, and amazingly, it seems to just keep getting better. "I'm so excited," the 18-year-old Parkville resident says. "Overly excited. I just can't wait."

It's possible that Taylor is thrilled to be starting college in a few weeks. Then again, maybe she can't wait till Aug. 15 when Camp, the movie in which she and Chilcoat make their big-screen debut, opens locally.

Directed by Todd Graff, the independent film was released nationally last week and has caught the attention of critics and moviegoers alike. It tells the story of a group of oddball but talented high school misfits who spend the summer at the performing arts-oriented Camp Ovation. Ultimately, the youths find love, acceptance and myriad opportunities to belt out hit Broadway musical numbers.

Both Taylor and 17-year-old Chilcoat stopped by their publicists' Pikesville office last month to sign movie posters and meet the press. Tonight, they'll perform at a Baltimore screening of the movie, which is being held to benefit the Maryland Film Festival, the Carver Center for the Arts and Technology (from which Chilcoat graduated in May) and the Baltimore School for the Arts (from which Taylor graduated). Graff and cast members Daniel Letterle and Robin De Jesus also will attend.

"This whole Camp thing is so bizarre," Chilcoat remarked as she leafed through the thick stack of glossy posters she's been asked to autograph. The bubbly Catonsville native, who this fall will attend the University of Maryland, College Park, is noticeably more self-assured in person than her film character, the awkward but talented Ellen.

Black Sharpie pen in hand, Taylor signed her picture with sweeping strokes. "What do you think, should I try to make this one completely illegible?"

Relaxed in demeanor, the young performers are serious about their art. Taylor plans to continue her training at Howard University this fall. She's interested in singing but is open to any acting opportunities that may come her way.

Besides, she pointed out, "singing and acting go hand in hand. You can't be on stage, singing to someone, and not portray what you're trying to say through the song. That's not entertainment at all."

Though Taylor loves performing, she has some advice for anyone considering acting as a career: "Be serious about it. ... It's hard work and a big commitment, but it's worth it in the end." Chilcoat nodded in agreement. "I always say: 'Do what you love, and if you don't love it, don't do it.' That's why I audition. For me, every audition is another chance to find out what I need to work on to get better at this thing that I love to do."

Chilcoat plans to take as many theater classes as possible at UM. "Acting is in my blood," she said. Indeed, her first exposure to drama came when she performed with her father in community theater productions. She began acting professionally when she was 9, and since then has had a brief stint on a New Jersey television show called Bloopie's Buddies. She also has worked with the Young Columbians, a troupe affiliated with Toby's Dinner Theater in Columbia. "I don't know how I decided I wanted to act. I think it started out as liking to be the center of attention," she said with a laugh.

Taylor, who has performed in school productions and at Baltimore's Arena Players, can't pinpoint what catalyzed her interest in theater, either, but has always loved to sing. "I don't think I realized I could sing, though, until I started getting solos in church. As I started getting older my voice started developing, and they kept asking me and at that point I thought, 'Well, I must sound pretty decent doing this.'"

Taylor auditioned for the Broadway hit Hairspray, and didn't get the job, but the casting director was impressed enough to ask if she'd be interested in another of his projects, Camp.

Chilcoat became involved in the film in a similarly roundabout way: Her sister's dance coach, a college friend of Graff's, recommended her. Like the two girls, most of the actors cast in Camp had never previously worked on a film. "Todd wanted regular kids who just happened to be actors. That was one of the challenges in casting the film, and I think it's great that [he and the casting directors] took that on."

The girls agreed that Graff is a "genius" who is "patient and flexible." He has a way of "telling you what he wants and getting what he wants from you without being condescending ... a way of being on your level even though he's brilliant," explained Chilcoat.

In the film, the characters wrestle with the crises and emotional ups and downs faced by many teens. Michael, Ellen's best friend (played by De Jesus), struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality. Other campers are insecure about how they look or whether they're popular. Still others face far more serious problems such as verbally or emotionally abusive parents.

"I think everyone goes through a stage where they are 'Ellen,'" Chilcoat said of her character.

"She doesn't realize that she is an incredible and wonderful person, and she keeps looking for someone else to tell her that. And [acting] is a tough business. You are going to get some praise, but you're going to get even more criticism."

Camp also examines the relationships between adolescents and parents. Jenna, Taylor's character, comes to Camp Ovation after having her jaw wired shut by her father, who is unhappy with her weight. During the film's climax, she removes the wire and confronts him with a magnificent solo performance, the rousing Here's Where I Stand, in which she asks to be accepted for who she is.

Taylor is thankful that, unlike her Camp character, she has always had her family's support. "They back me up on everything. They've put out so much money and so much time, and they really don't have to because they have their own lives, too ... They're the best," she said of her parents and brothers, Brian, 20, and Justin, 17.

Chilcoat, who has two sisters - 20-year-old Zena and 12-year-old Mary Rose - added, "It's so important to have your family's support ... The only thing about Ellen that I couldn't identify with was that she didn't have the support of her parents. I've never experienced that."

While their characters formed fictional friendships, on the set cast members were getting acquainted, as well. For Taylor, making new friends was the best part of making the movie. "We all love each other, and when we get together we have so much fun. We're close, and we have this great experience together."

At this point, the biggest project on the horizon for both Taylor and Chilcoat is college. "I'm a weirdo, but I really like English," said Taylor. "I love to read; I love to write. [In high school] that was my best class.

For her part, Chilcoat is passionate about Italian, and she hopes to get a teaching certificate. "I want to teach. I want to bring the joy that I find, out of acting and out of Italian, to other kids."

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