It was a week before opening night, and "Oliver!" director Caryn Cheney was giving no quarter to mumblers, mopers or rowdies.
That most of the teen-age cast had never acted didn't matter. That they resided at Camarillo State Hospital in units for the abused and the abusive, that they had been deemed rejects by courts, foster homes and mental health agencies all over Southern California mattered even less.
"Mr. Bumble, we can't hear a word you're saying," shouted Cheney. "Ee-NUN-see-ate your words!"
The boy in the red baseball cap and T-shirt, not exactly the spitting image of Dickens' workhouse manager, tried harder. "It's nice to be appreciated," he chirped in a mock Cockney accent to his assistant, the Widow Corney. "These 'ere paupers are anti-parochial."
"Look at her once in awhile," the director insisted. "Don't just look at the mike. And we still can't hear you at all. You have to belt it out!"
It could have been a rehearsal for a school play anywhere--except that the stage was in a hospital gym. A few of the 35 cast members were on medication. One girl bore jagged scars on her wrist. All were in Camarillo's Program 5--a repository for the hardest of hard cases. None would be going home after rehearsal. Many, after a year or so of treatment, would be leaving only for group homes on the outside.
If ever a group of actors was born to perform "Oliver!" this was it.
The musical, which will be staged for the public in the hospital's Hagerty Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, is a study in neglect and violence, albeit with a happy ending. Based on "Oliver Twist," the Charles Dickens classic about homeless children enslaved to the master thief Fagan in London's underworld, it rings a more familiar chord for the clients of Program 5 than, say, "The Sound of Music."
"A lot of them are seeing important things in this play," said Cheney. "They're learning from it. The themes are abuse and institutionalization and loneliness, and anger getting out of control--themes they can really identify with."
One of the cast's favorite songs, "Food, Glorious Food," relates the culinary dreams of children raised on institutional gruel. Other songs, like "Boy for Sale," tell doleful tales of helpless street kids. "As Long As He Needs Me" is a girl's tribute to the man who beats and, ultimately, kills her.
At a rehearsal, Michael Bauer, the impish 15-year-old who plays Oliver, stopped snapping his gum and leaned into the mike. In a soprano that probably won't last the year, he cooed:
Where is love?
Does it fall--from the skies above?
Is it underneath the willow tree
That I've been dreaming of. . . .
His arms were outstretched and his voice was quavering. The answer he demanded was nowhere in sight.
The program's 140 youngsters, ages 10 to 18, generally are far from what families they might have. Some were prostitutes, others gang members. Lashing out or drawing within, many live in self-imposed isolation. Like the urchins in "Oliver Twist," many have lived on the streets, bouncing in and out of court-ordered programs to quell violent behavior or curb drug abuse.
But nothing has worked.
"By the time we get them, they've been through quite a bit," said Curtis Thompson, a Program 5 administrator. "All of them have failed two, three or four times in less restrictive environments in the community.
"These kids have learned not to trust," he said. "If a kid is rejected at every turn, if he's moved from home to home, from foster home to group home to community mental health facility to state hospital, he's being told at each step, 'You're no good. We don't want you.' They learn not to trust adults because adults hurt them."
But that hurt has worked to their benefit on stage, said Cheney, a children's theater veteran who was lured to "Oliver!" by her husband, Jack Cheney, an art therapist at the hospital.
"I told them they have this emotional depth that other kids don't because of what they've been through," she said. "I told them they have the potential of being not just good, but exceptionally good. I know they can do it, and they can feel that."
'Lead Very Controlled Lives'
Three months ago, they didn't.
"At our first meeting, they were really nervous," said Cheney. "They were scared. They didn't know what was going to happen. Some were hiding under the bleachers. These kids lead very controlled lives and they just didn't know what they were getting into."
But Cheney and her husband, who helped organize the production and also plays the role of Fagan, managed to overcome the cast's suspicions. So did Ventura County Symphony violinist Kathy Shepard and Ojai keyboard artist Jan Palmer, who were brought in for the production with a $2,000 California Arts Council grant.
Youngsters started to vie for leading roles. Like students on the stage of any local school, some fell prey to the predictable dreams.
"I'll be out soon, and this is really giving me some incentive," confided one cast member. "I want to show people what I've got. I'll study acting--and who knows, maybe I'll become a movie star. . . ."
But what goes on behind the scenes can be as important as the action under the lights.
"In between scenes, a lot of talk is going on backstage about mothers and fathers and homes," said Shepard, who also holds a master's degree in expressive therapy.
"One girl started crying that she needed a hug because she hadn't seen her mother in two months.
"And in the scene where Bill Sykes ends up killing Nancy, one kid said, 'No, that's not right--that's what my father did to my mother!'
"It doesn't happen all the time," she said. "But there are definitely a lot of real feelings going on here--a lot of real pain and a lot of real joy."