Thirty students and four instructors hold hands in a circle. The drama room is quiet, but there is electricity in the air as they begin to squeeze each other's hands. A giggle is heard, then another.
"Quiet!" actress Diane Rodriguez says as her eyes scan the circle. "The reason we do this is because this is like acting. You have to learn to concentrate. You have to be ready to do what you're told."
The setting is La Merced Intermediate School in the quiet suburban hills in northeast Montebello and the hand-holding is part of morning warm-up exercises for a group of 10- to 14-year-olds who are in an eight-week experimental theater project designed to tap their creative energies.
More than that, though, the professional actors leading the project want to teach pride in this school which boasts a rich ethnic and cultural mix.
"We're teaching the students two kinds of pride. Pride in creating songs and pride in being who they are," said Peter Brosius, director of the Mark Taper Forum In-School Residency Project.
"At the beginning, we asked the students to raise their hands if they were bilingual. Only a couple raised their hands. Then we asked them if they spoke a different language at dinner. Over 90% raised their hands. These kids are living complete double lives."
Brosius and the youngsters meet for four hours each Wednesday with Rodriguez, and actor Jerry Tando and composer Michael Silversher. Before the sessions are over late this month, they hope the students will have created songs based on themselves.
"The kids will compose, I will facilitate." Silversher said.
John Montgomery, the drama instructor, and Pat Smith, the music instructor, say they hope to later produce a musical, using the songs composed in the class.
The 30 students in the program are a diverse group. In fact, they were partly chosen for that diversity. According to Rosina Spitzer, La Merced assistant principal, students in the group speak 12 languages, in addition to English. The circle of children resembles a miniature United Nations or the "We are the Children" poster come to life with children from Asia, Italy, Ghana, Mexico, India, El Salvador and elsewhere participating enthusiastically.
According to Spitzer, this kind of diversity is one of La Merced's strengths. "Years ago, we used to subscribe to the old American ideal of the melting pot," she said. "We don't believe that anymore. We respect everyone's culture." Unfortunately, according to Brosius, many of the students he has met do not respect themselves.
"Through our project, we want to show the students how important they are. From their stories, they are going to create a song," he said.
As the workshop continues, Rodriguez chooses five volunteers to create beats with different parts of their bodies. The first student stomps her feet. The second one stomps his feet and claps.
As the five students stomp, clap, jump and snap, the rest of the students in the outer circle join the beat.
Rodriguez stops the group. "Does anyone know why we're doing this?"
Three students from around the circle answer: "For rhythm!" "Coordination!" "Memorization!"
"Yes," Rodriguez says, "but also to work as a group and so that you learn how to use your bodies."
Five new volunteers are chosen.
School bells ring but nobody notices.
Students say they like the program.
"When I'm in here, I don't think about anything on the outside. After this class, I'm ready for another week. I can go home and do my homework. I feel relaxed. No problems," said Gieseppe G. Mauro, 13, one of the students participating in the project.
"I like this class. Everybody gets involved,", says Mae Kawamoto, 13, "I have more confidence and it's fun." Ayele Nii-Aryee, 11, who was born in Ghana reflected: "I don't want to be an actress. I want to be a scientist, but I really like this class a lot. I look forward to coming on Wednesdays."
Spitzer said she sees far-reaching benefits from a program like this.
"Studies have shown that the more art and music-type classes that a student takes, the better they do in their academic subjects," Spitzer said, adding that she does not worry about students missing eight Wednesdays of school because, "rather than detracting from their studies, the experience in the long run will affect the students positively."
La Merced, the only school in the pilot program, Spitzer said, was chosen because of its diversity and because it had an ongoing drama program led by Montgomery. The program is being financed by the Mark Taper Forum with a grant of $2,160 from the Artists in School Program of the California Arts Council.
The energy continues to rise past noon, reaching its high point when the students interview each other and practice taking on the role of the student they have just interviewed.
An Asian boy begins the role reversal. "My name is Lucinda Flores. I am a Mexican-American and I don't like it when kids call me a wetback."
As he continues, someone in the audience asks, "Are you ashamed of being MexicanAmerican?"
"No," the boy states as he looks at the real Lucinda. "I am proud of being Mexican-American."
Someone else asks, "Why do the kids call you a wetback?"
The Asian boy again looks at Lucinda and without hesitation states, "Because they're ignorant."