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The Play's the Thing for Students

March 13, 1986|PENELOPE MOFFET

Romeo wore tennis shoes and ill-fitting white togs, and Juliet's flowing gown was loosely pinned together, but by Monday night the cast of Orange Unified School District's first "honors play" was almost ready to duel with words and rapiers before a paying audience.

"Watch your sword!" warned El Modena High School drama teacher Maryina Herde, the show's producer, as she passed a swashbuckling gallant on the stairs to the dressing rooms. Student "techies" (technicians) applied makeup to other students' faces and helped fit costumes, while young actors continually besieged director Jeff Schoenberg, a 1976 El Modena graduate, for advice and reassurance.

It was the first dress rehearsal for an unusual production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" that brought students from four high schools together through the county's Gifted and Talented Education program. (GATE, a state-mandated program that seeks to identify and encourage talented and high-achieving students, mostly spends its money on academics rather than the arts.) Herde said she hopes to make the cross-town combination of theatrical talents a yearly tradition.

Four Shows Set

Two free performances were scheduled for Wednesday and today for 1,500 school district freshmen who recently studied "Romeo and Juliet." Two open-to-the-public shows are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. All performances will be given at Anaheim High School's Cook Auditorium. (The Orange Unified School District does not have any halls suitable for a large production.)

Last weekend, a set assembled at El Modena was transplanted to Anaheim High School. On Monday, while the actors and director ironed out performing problems upstairs, two sewing machines ran full tilt downstairs. "It's going to be a costume-sewing marathon" to get ready in time, said Herde, who heads the district's drama department in addition to her other duties. Parts of the set also still needed refurbishing.

Herde and Schoenberg, with some "techie" assistance, assembled many of the actors' outfits, although a number of costumes were rented. Once all the sewing was done, Herde said, all the Montagues would wear blue and the Capulets would be in red, but for the dress rehearsal the effect was more motley.

'I'm Scared'

Some pre-performance jitters ran through the assembled actors. "I'm scared mostly of forgetting my lines," admitted Diana Balazs, an El Modena junior who plays Juliet. In mid-play, "you can't stop and say: 'What was that line again?' "

But the best thing about participating in the show, Balazs added, was meeting students from other schools and making "so many friends. After the play is over, we're still going to get together."

That feeling was echoed by many other cast members. "I've learned a lot about the other schools," said one student. Before rehearsals began, "I thought the Villa Park students were all a bunch of snobs," he said, but the frequent contact changed his mind.

Schoenberg, who now works as the Los Angeles Center Theatre Group's drapery foreman, has directed several El Modena plays and taught a few Shakespeare classes at the school in the past five years. When he was Herde's student at El Modena, he said, he acted, directed and designed sets; later he did the same at the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts in Santa Maria and at Boston University.

Auditions in October

With assistant director Kristen Green (a Cal State Fullerton drama student who also is a 1984 El Modena graduate), Schoenberg held auditions for the honors play last October. Students from the 10th through 12th grade from Orange, Villa Park, El Modena and Canyon high schools tried out, and a cast of 42 was selected. Then began five months of studying what life was like five centuries ago. Under Schoenberg's guidance, students gathered information about early Renaissance music, dance, architecture, language usage and fencing and shared it during Sunday sessions at El Modena High. Rehearsals started in December.

The production has been underwritten with $4,000 from GATE for sets, costumes and Schoenberg's consulting fee, while student-raised money is paying $2,700 to rent the auditorium. Herde said she is "praying" to recoup the $2,700 through ticket sales.

'Passion for Shakespeare'

Schoenberg, she said, was hired to direct because "he's probably a little more adept with Shakespeare than I would have been."

"I personally just have a passion for Shakespeare," said Schoenberg, a short, wiry 27-year-old.

"I had a couple of fabulous teachers who got me over my phobias about Shakespeare," he said, adding that he wanted to do the same for the high school students. "Shakespeare's language is not as flowery and unnecessary as it seems on the printed page. . . . It's so rooted in emotion, there's really no waste (of words) there at all."

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