July 08--As a young boy growing up in Lancaster, Pa., Jonathan Groff played Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" for a family production staged in a barn.
"My grandma asked, 'Who's the little girl playing Dorothy?' " Groff recalled. Realizing the importance of what she said, he shouted out: "I'm believable!"
The young actor followed up that triumph next Halloween by playing Mary Poppins.
Groff, who went on star in Broadway's "Spring Awakening" and television's "Glee," was in the Santa Cruz Mountains recently to give a master class at the Young Actors' Theatre Camp. When Groff entered the rustic recreation room, about 120 students ranging in age from 8 to 18 cheered loudly, which Groff matched with a big, wide smile and the same youthful exuberance as the budding performers.
"I love working with kids," Groff says. "I sit in the Q&A listening to 14-year-olds falling in love with theater for the first time. It's what keeps me still performing at 28 and will keep me going for the rest of my career."
The camp, founded by Shawn Ryan and John Ainsworth 11 years ago, offers three sessions during the summer, and one of its main attractions has been the one-on-one attention the students get as well as the appearance of stars. Darren Criss and Sutton Foster are among some of the big names who will also offer advice this summer.
Teachers and campers come from all over the country. "What usually happens is somebody comes to teach a class and wants to come back again," said Karen Moore, 35, of Castro Valley, who teaches classical theater.
Before Groff showed up, Ryan held a musical class in which three students sang, received instruction and then sang again. It didn't matter whether they were returning campers or first-timers.
"We are one of five accredited theater camps in the country, and we're the only one that doesn't require auditions," says Ryan, 35, who grew up in San Francisco and now lives in Southern California.
"Why do we expect them to be professional Broadway kids when they are 14 or 15 years old? We're here to tell the kids what worked, what didn't and why. It's constructive. We have to be honest."
Getting support early
Groff may not have attended camp, but he knows the importance of getting the support early in life, counting among his many mentors his parents and teachers.
"My dad was a horse trainer but was supposed to be a dairy farmer, so he followed his passion," Groff said in discussing his early influences. "My eighth-grade drama teacher, Mrs. Fisher, was the first person who told me I should be an actor."
Groff also didn't go college but started working in theater and got hired as an understudy in the short-lived musical "In My Life," about a boy with Tourette's syndrome.
He never got the chance to go on, but the road to stardom was on. He got his Actors' Equity card doing regional theater in Massachusetts and did the whole New York actor's thing: waiting tables, going to auditions, taking musical theater lessons.
Eventually, he got his big break with "Spring Awakening," the musical that scored him a Tony nomination for his role as Melchior, one of the young people discovering their sexual identity.
"Spring Awakening" also introduced Groff to Lea Michele. They are still friends -- one can even say best friends.
"When I saw her on the first day of rehearsals, she said we're going to be best friends for the rest of our lives," says Groff, who was reunited with Michele on "Glee" when he played Jesse St. James, the jerk from the rival group Vocal Adrenaline who seduces Michele's Rachel Berry. "And I said OK -- this girl's crazy. ... So we stayed in touch, and obviously we're very close."
As his stage career took off -- roles in the West End, Broadway benefits, etc. -- his TV and film career started a parallel rise, with such works as "Glee," "Taking Woodstock," "Boss" and "C.O.G.," the movie based on a David Sedaris short story that just showed at San Francisco's Frameline festival and is scheduled to open in September.
The actor, who is gay, also has been filming HBO's adaptation of Larry Kramer's play "The Normal Heart" and returns to San Francisco to begin work on a new HBO series about a bunch of gay people looking for love.
The importance of "The Normal Heart" is not lost on Groff.
"There's a lot of gay men from my generation that only know of AIDS as a thing of the distant past," Groff says.
"I was born in 1985 in the thick of it, but didn't live through it. We did a scene last week on the beach on Fire Island where we're at a party, and lots of actors my age are thinking how surreal it is. If we had been there 25 years ago, most of us would be dead.
"Larry Kramer actually got emotional and left because he was so moved by all the young people celebrating."
In the still-unnamed HBO series, Groff plays a video game designer who is looking for love on OkCupid.
"The show hopefully will express all facets of gay life," he says. "We're all different types of people. There's lots of people who have anonymous sex. There's also people looking for love. There's people looking for an open relationship. There are also the queens. There are those you wouldn't know were gay. It's the gay experience."
Helping students blossom
Although Groff is excited about his latest projects -- and looking for a sublet in San Francisco -- this rainy day his attention was on the youths.
First he answered questions from the young crowd, regaling the audience with such anecdotes as the time he forgot the lyrics to a song in "Spring Awakening" or his encounters with Broadway stars Kevin Kline and Sutton Foster.
After the Q&A came the main event: a master class in which Groff listened to five singers. For each student, he heard them sing (the three from the morning session also performed) and then he gave them each an exercise, including having Elena Lipman, 14, of Sacramento sing her song "Live Out Loud" while running around the rec room as he shouted words of encouragement.
"You rocked that exercise," he told her.
Carson Robinette, a 16-year-old Justin Bieber look-alike from Burlingame who had his first voice lessons only two weeks ago, sang "Corner From the Sky" from "Pippin." After the first version, Groff called up another camper to play Robinette's mother and told him to sing it again.
"He taught me how to take things in a different direction," Robinette says, "and figure out what the point of view of the song is and figure out who you are singing to. It was beneficial in helping me grow."
Following their muse
Groff offered plenty of advice to the students, but perhaps the one that they will all take home doesn't need any lessons.
"Stay connected to your joy and follow your interest," he said. "If you follow what really makes your heart sing, you just could end up doing what you love."
Leba Hertz is The San Francisco Chronicle's arts and entertainment editor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @lhertz
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