What Summer Camp Was Like for Lena Dunham, Taryn Manning, Rosario Dawson, and More

By
Photo: Focus Features

Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer prequel, First Day of Camp, maintains the film's signature absurdity and expertly builds on its stories and characters. It also brings back all those summer-camp-specific feelings with hilarious clarity. We asked Lena Dunham, Taryn Manning, Rosario Dawson, and others to share their own best and worst summer-camp memories. Embarrassment, hurt feelings, and moments of profundity abound. And what would camp be without the ol' underwear-up-the-flagpole gag? 

“I have two wacky experiences. I went away every summer to a YMCA camp in Tucson, Arizona, and there was that one game, I don’t know if you ever played it, I didn’t do it, I was scared. But they do Stiff As a Board, and you hyperventilate till you pass out. I was like, what the … And then, when I was 7, this camp counselor called all the girls out except for one, it was so embarrassing. It was shower day and she was like, 'I just want everyone to know that so-and-so, you know, she has boobies and pubic hair.' But they set us up, so of course everyone is looking. I couldn’t think of a worse thing to do. And I remember always thinking about that. And I remember seeing her face. Maybe because I’m an actress and I was so observant and that was just wrong to me. That was inappropriate. It stuck with me. Pointing something out, something that may have gone unnoticed.” —Taryn Manning

“There was one day, it was one of my favorite days. I was in this really cool building, a little lodge, but it was only three walls. It was two bedrooms, and I had a roommate. She left for the day and I spent the whole day there, and I had an apple, that’s all I had all day. And it was raining, so you could see this perfect rain outside, and it was so weird because the insects were flying in, and it was so green and it was so beautiful, just listening to the water on the leaves. I kept thinking at one point it would stop, and I’ll go out and maybe get something to eat. But I ended up just sitting in that room all day, just, like, listening to the leaves, reading a little bit, and napping a little bit. It sounds so boring. It was just one of those moments that was so stunning.  It was my first time away from home. Being able to make a choice like that, and just to enjoy the nature around me and just to feel what it felt like to be alive. I think it was the first real idea of what my next forming years were going to be like when I became an adult, and the next year I did Kids. I don’t remember 12 or 13 very well, but I remember 14 very vividly. And I felt I had that transition moment for myself, that rite of passage that made me ready to do that.” —Rosario Dawson

“I went to Fernwood Cove Camp for Girls for three years. But camp was a bit of a different experience for me. It was deeply emotional. I mean, it was a good experience. But, it was girls only in a bunk. Obviously, things got testy. Really testy. A lot angst and emotional growth. [As far as pranks go], I did the classic underwear up the flagpole. We stole the underwear from our counselor and ran it up the flagpole. Now, it didn’t quite flap in the wind as much as I was hoping. But it happened.” —Lena Dunham

“I went to one sleepover camp when I was 8. I remember the first week they put me in the wrong group. So I was in with a bunch of 12-year-olds. And at that age, a few years can make a difference. That was awkward, but they figured it out. I have fond memories of camp. I remember boys like, very innocently, running around, flashing themselves to other boys, but in that way of, we’re away from home, so we can cut up. An innocuous way that involves nudity.” —James Urbaniak

I used to be a counselor at Wohelo, which was a Campfire Girl camp, and it was called Work Health Love, Wohelo. I learned how to sing Native American songs. And I still sing them.” —Andrea Martin  

“First kiss, second kiss. I went to a sleepaway summer camp in Vermont called Camp Billings. I went for a full two sessions. They were two-week sessions. I had my first kiss the first session, and then he left, and I had my second kiss in the next weeks.” —Kristen Taekman

“I married my bus counselor. And I was only 6. And they were marrying the kids. And everyone who was 6 was marrying someone who was 6, but I said I only wanted to marry my bus counselor, who was like 18. So go figure.” —Rachel Zoe

“I went to summer camp for seven summers. I did not enjoy a single moment of it. I thought that seven years old is when you begin to experience depression. I felt like I was involved with Hitler youth. It was not an emotionally stabilizing experience; to pit children against one another was like Lord of the Flies. Plus, I wasn’t a deeply competitive person, and I don’t like the heat. As a Jew, I have the same reaction to camps that my great-grandparents do. Actually, I’m glad. I got exposed to truly horrible people. I’m sure you’re getting a lot of ‘I loved archery!’ I fucking hated the whole thing.”Craig Bierko

“I went to a farm camp and we ended up working in the field, picking corn. There were a lot of animals around. I won the jellybean contest, and they wouldn’t give me my jellybeans. You know, where you count how many were in the jellybean thing. I won, and they only ended up giving me a few.” —Aida Turturro

“I did a vacation Bible camp called Windy Gap, and we did this whole mud race. I was covered head to toe in mud. It was fantastic.” —Molly Sims

“Okay, I have so many fucking stories — here’s the first. I go to sleepaway camp at like 13 years old, and they have an open shower. I’m like six feet tall, so [my] vagina is in [everyone's] face. I couldn’t fit in the bed. It was just awful. You could either stay for eight weeks or four weeks, and it was my first time, so I was only staying for four weeks. I pack up all my stuff but I left something in the bunk, and so I went back to my bed, and in the wood, in the bunk, someone had carved, ‘Bigfoot slept here.’ I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? This sucked, and now it sucked even more than I thought it was going to suck, you know what I mean? Then I went to Heartwood College Music camp in Oneonta, and I loved it. I was actually cool at music camp, unlike regular camp.” —Judy Gold

“I went to overnight camp and was a counselor. We used to just go to this graveyard to drink because our camp director told the counselors, ‘You can’t drink on the premises.’ So we were like, Oh, cool, we’ll just go to this graveyard. That was the first thing I thought of, but there was so much, like, pranking and sneaking out and stuff. It was so much fun.” —Vanessa Bayer

“My dad is a schoolteacher, so basically we were like the Partridge Family every summer. We just got in our camper and I spent the whole summer on the road camping, which I romanticize a lot.” —Cynthia Rowley

“I fell in love with my bus driver. I was eight years old, and he was a grown-ass man, like 28. I bought him an iron pot at a garage sale. I don’t know why I thought that was a great gift for my bus driver. He received it very graciously and said that he and his girlfriend love to cook, and I was crushed.” —Marti Noxon

“I went to Girl Scout horseback-riding camp in the mountains. It was super dorky. Summer camp is a trip. A lot of really good things happen there, and a lot of bad things happen there. I was a horse wrangler when I was 19. The wranglers were not allowed to go anywhere, and we couldn’t see any boys. We had 25 horses and each other, and we got so bored by the end of the summer that we ended up riding the horses naked through the woods. It got weird. Also, there was a counselor at this camp and her name was Pooh Bear. Her voice was tiny and whispery and she wore Winnie the Pooh T-shirts and Warner Bros cartoon flip-flops all the time. She was about 350 pounds. We had found out five weeks in that her hands had been declared weapons by the state of CA because she had killed people with her bare hands. She was in a rehab program there, as part of the camp.” —Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

“I was a camper. I won the camp pageant, I was Little Miss Fun Time. I played the piano while wearing a bikini, and I painted my belly button green. I was very Lady Gaga at six years old. For some reason I thought that painting my belly button green while wearing a two-piece bikini and playing ‘Born Free’ on the piano would help me win. I was right.” —Gina Gershon

“When I was probably about 10 years old, my mom sent me to summer camp. I didn't even last a single day. I walked into the camp, and everybody already had groups of friends. I wasn't sure what to do, and I sat down on a cot in a tent. Then a teenage bully walks over to me and says, ‘Hey, that's my cot.’ He grabbed my foot and gave it a really nasty wrench. It basically wrecked my knee, so the camp counselors had to carry me out of there. I was sent home as soon as I arrived at camp. That was definitely it for me with camp. Once you get your leg so banged up that the counselors have to carry you out in front of the entire camp as soon as you arrive, you don't return.” —Chuck Scarborough