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Young Actors Learn To Spread Their Wings As Scr's Conservatory Players

September 04, 1987|LYNNE HEFFLEY

The spotlight's on you. You're 10 years old, wearing make-up and a funny costume, on stage in front of 300 people, mostly strangers.

You have to sing, dance, handle props, be funny, hit your marks and get your cues. And, you have to look like you're enjoying it.

If you're a member of South Coast Repertory's Young Conservatory Players--non-professional kids ages 8-18--chances are you will succeed.

Classes at the Conservatory start Sept. 12. A production of "Charlotte's Web" begins Nov. 14. The company's 1987-88 season continues into April with "Folk Tales From Far-Away Places" and with "Tom Sawyer" in June. Judging from past performances, the players will be up to the task.

Where do these budding thespians come from? In a recent interview, the guiding spirit behind the players--teacher, actress, choreographer and director Diane Doyle--talked about the 13-year-old, three-year acting training program she helped develop.

"The first year is basic training," said the 38-year-old Doyle, decked out in a red shirt, a denim miniskirt, sneakers and red socks. "We get kids comfortable on stage and in front of each other, verbalizing, making things up--learning what theater is."

The experience apparently can be liberating for many children, she said: "Some kids haven't learned how to express their feelings. They can go with their creative juices--they're not just in the living room with Mom and Dad--and they think, 'Gee, maybe I really can do this.'

"A nurturing quality is a part of each class. But we approach it on a professional basis, and the kids enjoy not being babied."

The teaching staff is made up of professional actors, actively pursuing their own careers. "David (Emmes, South Coast Repertory's producing artistic director) doesn't want me to hire retired teachers," Doyle said. "He wants working actors . . . who know what they're talking about when they talk about believability."

Students move from introductory 11-week courses--one each in movement, speech and performance--to intermediate and advanced studies in succeeding years.

"The first class is beginning mime, abstracts and machinery, moving through space," Doyle said. "The second year is a creative dance class--learning how to count and move, to express yourself and move. The third year is specifics in movement, fine tuning skills.

"Speak I is lots of improvisation--how to think fast on your feet. In Speak II, the kids learn how to sing a song and how to make a character sing a song. Speak III is advanced acting, scene work, making believable characters.

"In all three years of the performance module, we give the kids a performance goal. We have recitals--have them learn what it's like to do a play."

On graduating from the program, the Young Conservatory Players take part in professionally staged shows, with South Coast Repertory designers and artists doing sets, costumes and lighting. Since last year, the shows have been presented in the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Founder's Hall, a larger venue than the group's old space, SCR's Second Stage.

A hallmark of the productions is a tight sense of discipline. Rarely during performances do the young actors slip out of character or reflect self-consciousness.

SCR's main productions and local community theaters also draw on Doyle's pool of young actors. When Emmes needed a double cast of 10 small boys for Keith Reddin's satire "Highest Standard of Living" last year, Doyle came through--even though she said fewer boys than girls participate in the program. ("One thing I'd like to stress to parents, especially Dads," Doyle said, "is that it's OK to be doing this and be a boy.")

How did Doyle recruit her actors for that show?

"I had to call all these parents and say, 'We want to audition your child for a play. He won't have any lines--he has to come on stage, hit the lead actor in the head with a hammer and leave.'

"The hammers were made out of Styrofoam," Doyle quickly added, "and they couldn't hurt Jeff (Jeffrey Combs, the lead actor). The kids had a ball."

How much money do parents have to spend for the program? Each 11-week course costs $136; a year's study costs $408, and the entire three-year program costs $1,224. Classes are all day on Saturdays until the third year, when a Monday class is added.

In addition to the school-year programs, a special summer series includes two courses. The Neighborhood Conservatory is a community outreach program funded by a three-year, $90,000 grant from Target Stores, a major supporter of Young Conservatory Players activities.

An introductory primer to theater, the Children's Theatre Workshop I, is in its second year. A more advanced summer workshop is planned to give youngsters already enrolled in the regular course the chance to create an original theater piece.

Who are the kids who get involved in the program? The scions of a multitude of stage parents who hope their's will be the next Webster or Punky Brewster?

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