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Runaway Youths Put Energy Into Classes, and Discover Something Worth Working For : Acting Teacher Reaches Out to Teen-Agers

March 19, 1987|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Up until the night he stole that car, Paco was getting the hang of acting class. He'd shown some natural ability. More important, he'd shown up regularly. Then came the joy ride and the police and the next thing he was sitting in Juvenile Hall.

"He was very talented," said Marc Gass, his acting coach. "It's a heartbreak."

Gass is an established producer and director with a string of television specials and off-Broadway plays to his credit. For the last four months he's been working on a different kind of project, though, with kids like Paco.

Each Thursday evening, Gass stops by a shelter for runaway teens called the Los Angeles Youth Network. He picks up five or so kids there and drives them to The Actors Center in Studio City, where he teaches an acting class. The runaways attend the $125 series of classes for free. They study beside teens who have been in television and movies for years.

Offers Advice, Money

Gass pushes and nags the runaways as much or more than he does the professionals. But he also gives them rides to and from auditions and gets them parts as extras in movies. He throws birthday parties for them and lends them money.

Paco, 16, was his first disappointment.

"Sometimes you want to wring their little necks," Gass, 36, said in the frustration of the moment. "But you don't because they come from homes where that happened."

One stolen car notwithstanding, Gass' idea of teaching acting to these troubled youths seems to have worked out pretty well so far.

"It's not that this program has been to turn runaways into Hollywood starlets," said Joel Schwartz, the executive director at Los Angeles Youth Network. "One of the things the kids need to be working on is self-esteem. This kind of work makes them feel proud. It makes them able to sell themselves in a job interview. It teaches them work habits."

Look Forward to Class

Said Solloman, a tall, thin 17-year-old boy who has been in the class since November: "Before this class, there were just the problems . . . going to school and things like that. Nothing to look forward to. Then I started coming to class, and there's something I really want to do. There's something I look forward to." Solloman said his mother threw him out of the house after he refused to give her money to buy drugs.

The youths are showing some surprising signs of success. On a recent Thursday night, two of them missed the class because they were working as extras on the set of the latest Whoopi Goldberg movie. Another boy was selected out of thousands of young actors and given a taped audition by NBC.

"They've had so much pain in their lives and you can see it in their acting," Gass said. "I don't think it's far-fetched to think these kids can make it as actors. They have so much talent."

Involvement With Drugs

The teen-agers at the Los Angeles Youth Network shelter have more often than not been involved with drugs. They range in age from 12 to 17. Some have been sexually abused by their parents. Others have been prostitutes. They come to the shelter, which is located at the Hollywood YMCA, to get off the streets. Or they are brought in by police or social workers.

The acting class is a perfect match for some of these teen-agers--they ran away to Hollywood to be in the movies. Despite his confidence in their acting abilities, Gass doesn't harbor unrealistic dreams of stardom for his special charges. He thinks it's important enough that they are getting involved in something.

"Some of my kids have not succeeded in anything," Gass said. "Some of them don't show up for school even though they're perfectly smart. They're not interested. They are interested in this. Besides, I can't tell them 'no.' Everyone else has. I tell them, 'Yeah, it's hard. But you stand as good a chance as anyone else.' "

Chosen for Talent Pool

Cash, a sleek-looking, dark-haired 15-year-old, was the one selected to audition to be part of NBC's teen-age talent pool from which they draw actors for certain shows. And that came scant months after he'd begun in class.

"It's a big break. Actors go for years and don't get a break like that," Cash said. "But I have no great expectations. Right now, I'm going to school to be a VCR technician."

Cash and the others must stay in school or fulfill other requirements with Los Angeles Youth Network in order to attend Gass' class, Schwartz said.

When a youth comes to the shelter, he or she is allowed to stay for 72 hours. Then a decision must be made. The boy or girl must enter the shelter's program or leave. Since these youths are minors, they need parental consent to remain or, if their parents can't be reached, a police record check to show that they aren't wanted for a felony. (Because of that agreement with parents, the youths can be identified in print by their first names only.)

Choices Offered

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