"Our future hinges on this summer. If we fail, we'll go down in a blaze. We're the most public we've ever been."
Jack Nakano, founder/director of the California Youth Theatre, a nonprofit theater arts training program for young people, is not talking of financial ruin. His dark intensity stems from his conviction that the company's credibility is on the line with the high-profile move from its Santa Barbara base to the John Anson Ford Theatre.
There, beginning Thursday, the group will present large-scale productions of Rodgers and Hart's "Babes in Arms" and the Shakespeare classic "As You Like It."
Nakano hopes that reaching a wider audience and obtaining a positive response will lead to an increase in hard-to-come-by support for the Youth Theatre. It has remained relatively unknown for 24 years, despite the fact that many of its alumni have gone on to professional careers--including actors Eric Stoltz, Randolph Mantooth and all four of the Bottoms brothers, Timothy, Joseph, Sam and Benjamin.
Britain's highly regarded National Youth Theatre thought enough of the California group to try a joint production last year.
Box office receipts have kept the theater self-supporting at a local level--its professional instructors are mostly volunteers--but expansion is Nakano's dream. He hopes to create a loosely knit statewide, then national, network of independent theater groups accessible to young people ages 12 to 21 from every economic and ethnic background, to complement, not compete with, existing youth arts programs.
In the no-frills garage-turned-office of his West Hollywood home, the soft-spoken Nakano expressed pained bewilderment that the importance of exposing young people to the creative arts process is hard for so many to understand.
"I think we should accept the fact that we're no longer pioneers. We've reached the Pacific Ocean," he said. "It's time we develop the character of our young people. They must have a sense of the arts. They must have sensitivity."
Nakano has found that quality lacking in potential supporters.
"They say, 'Why don't you let adult professionals perform and the kids watch?' That's the lack of vision we're dealing with," he said. "One doesn't suddenly become talented at 21. The only difference between an artist of 12 and an artist of 21 is experience."
Nakano's commitment comes from 30 years of directing, producing and teaching--as a drama instructor at Santa Barbara High School, then at Santa Monica's Crossroads School.
The collapse of the planned exchange with the National Youth Theatre of Britain was a bitter disappointment to him. The venture failed when the $200,000 required could not be raised, but the failure had a galvanizing effect on the local organization.
"Credibility is the key," said Nakano. "We never have any trouble once people see these kids."
The affinity between the National Youth Theatre and Nakano's company has led to changes. Actor Michael York, a graduate of NYT, is the California group's new spokesman and a member of its new board of directors, which also includes Robert Fryer, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group-Ahmanson, and Michael Oliver, executive vice president of International Creative Management (ICM) and a former president of NYT.
Nakano admits he may have been his own worst promoter, but past media lack of interest rankles:
"We're not easily identifiable. We're not a catastrophic disease."
His publicity woes were ameliorated this year when the Los Angeles Philharmonic asked him and his creative staff to design and direct theater arts workshops for young people at the Hollywood Bowl's summer Open House.
"I only had one condition: that the California Youth Theatre be allowed to ride the Philharmonic's publicity coattails."
If all goes well with the two shows at the Ford, there will be a third, Nakano said. Forty kids, chosen from an invitational workshop, are working at the theater to create a new musical called "Girf."
"We challenge young people at an age where challenge is important. And we offer them an understanding of what the arts are about. Then, when they become plumbers and architects and governors, perhaps they'll vote yes on the next bond issue for a civic auditorium, or an arts program in the schools."