The casual little sketch taking place on the South Coast Repertory Theatre stage Wednesday morning seemed all fun and frolic, but it was all part of a serious and unprecedented visit.
The 15-minute improvisation--an imaginary game of volleyball at the beach--served as both an ice-breaker for the visiting Latino high school students and an introduction to playful, imagination-stretching theater.
The students' romp on the SCR Mainstage in Costa Mesa was all the more amazing because it was the first visit ever to SCR by any of the 38 students, all members of a Latino club at Santa Ana High School.
"To them, South Coast Rep or the (Orange County Performing) Arts Center is another world. It means big limos and rich people--not them," said JoAnn Aguirre, a Santa Ana High teacher and the Latino club's adviser.
But at the outset, Jose Cruz Gonzalez, coordinator of SCR's Hispanic Playwrights Project, told the students: "The theater belongs to you--to everyone. We want you to come back and see us, to be a part of our efforts."
Enrollment at Santa Ana High is predominately Latino, and it has one of the highest dropout rates in the area. Thus, the high school's Latino club, MECha, focuses as much on getting students just to stay in school as it does on exploring Latino heritage.
The club already holds cultural activities in connection with the Cinco de Mayo and Sept. 16 Mexican Independence Day celebrations. It also holds monthly viewings of Latino-related movies available on videocassette, such as "Zoot Suit," "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" and "El Norte." (Most students have already seen "La Bamba," a current theatrical release.)
The students' SCR field trip came about because of a Nov. 3 story in The Times that told how Gonzalez, a UC Irvine graduate and Latino arts activist, got his job running the SCR project, one of the only programs of its kind for Latino playwrights.
"I felt he (Gonzalez) and other actor-directors would be a good role model for our kids. So I wrote him to ask if it would be all right for our kids to visit South Coast Rep," Aguirre said.
"We wanted to show the kids that Chicanos can succeed (in the mainstream fields), but that you need to go on with your education in order to get these opportunities," Aguirre said.
After a tour of SCR facilities and a pep talk by Diane Doyle, director of SCR's Youth Conservatory, Gonzalez and other Latino artists sat on the main-stage apron and chatted with the students.
The chief message of the actors--who included Danny De La Paz, Roy Conboy, Yolanda Lloyd and Michael Alvarez--to the students was to stay in school, go to college and pursue whatever they most wanted to do.
"Try different fields, if you want (in college). Look for whatever fits you and turns you on," said Lloyd, a young veteran of the classical stage in New York and regional playhouses and graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
De La Paz, who co-starred in the 1979 barrio-themed movie, "Boulevard Nights," added: "Once you've found your field, go for it, jump into the water. Listen to others, yes, but mostly to yourself--you're all you've got."
The students seemed most interested in learning how hard it was for the actors to break into theater and whether they felt the results were worth the struggles.
"Would you believe--I wanted to be a pro golfer once?" laughed Alvarez, who has studied with the Sundance Institute, an arts development program in Utah. "But something intuitive told me it was the theater. Once I got into it, I knew this was it."
"A career in the theater means financial sacrifices. You'll never make a lot of money in this field, but it's what we love doing more than anything else," said Conboy, who is general manager of the Grove Shakespeare Festival and conducts a Rancho Santiago College play-writing workshop with Gonzalez.
In the SCR lobby afterward, students said they were "impressed" by the actors.
"We got their message--education, and more education," said Isabel Mejia, who plans a career in fine arts.
Jojo Salcido agreed. "They're telling us, if they can do it--then so can we," said Salcido, noting that she, too, wants to be an actress.
"Why? Because it's exciting and rewarding in a different way. Besides," she said, "I like all that attention."