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Taking the Arts to the People : Steve Mellow's Never Met an Audience He Didn't Entertain

December 21, 1989|JEAN HASTINGS ARDELL

Steve Mellow's passion for the arts came early in life. Once, in his fourth-grade classroom in Chicago, Mellow, who was 10 and taking acting lessons, volunteered to re-enact the events at Plymouth Rock. He says he took control of the class.

"The first row of kids was pilgrims, the second row, the Indians, and third row was the reporters. It was spontaneous; we had a great time," recalls Mellow.

The 53-year-old Santa Ana resident continues to bring what he calls the "magic, power and poetry of the spoken word" to the public through Readers' Theatre, a group that meets to hear the written word read aloud.

The Readers' Theatre has been held in bookstores, schools and private homes. During a recent marriage celebration, Mellow used his well-trained voice to read aloud the "Christmas Wedding Party" from Dickens' "Pickwick Papers."

Mellow estimates that he has produced about 40 hours of material that has reached more than 2,000 Orange County residents. And he says that while it has yet to yield the income he'd like to see, he is pleased that the theater is still growing.

During the last part of December, Mellow is bringing his Readers' Theatre to nursing homes, hospitals and children's centers as part of the Holiday Project. This Saturday, Mellow and his readers will be at the Villa del Obispo, a senior home in San Juan Capistrano, and on Christmas Day, at the Beverly Manor Convalescent Hospital in Laguna Hills.

He is also soliciting submissions from new authors of Pacific Rim countries for a series of readings that will tour Orange County and the city of Los Angeles next spring and summer.

On Jan. 9, a new series of Readers' Theatres will begin at the Newport Center Branch Library. The group will meet on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month at 7:30 p.m.

Some members in the audience take turns reading aloud, while others are content merely to listen.

For a recent lunch-hour meeting, Mellow had deftly woven excerpts from the writing of Charles Dickens, the poetry of Ogden Nash and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the mythic wisdom of "Beauty and the Beast" into his subject of the day, "Celebrating Relationships: Vows, Oaths and Declarations."

"This is the true joy in life," one volunteer read from George Bernard Shaw, "the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one."

Shaw's statement corresponds with Mellow's avowed life's work--that of using the arts to influence what we live for and what we live by.

Mellow studied at Tulane University and the City College of New York and holds a master of fine arts degree from the Goodman Theatre of the Art Institute of Chicago. He moved to Manhattan, where he studied with Broadway director Jose Quintero. It was in New York at a performance of Quintero's play, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," that he says he fully realized the transforming potential of the spoken word.

Mellow has traveled the country in his quest to offer thought-provoking, literate entertainment. During an Army hitch at Fort Riley, Kan., where he was a chaplain's assistant, Mellow directed plays for the Special Services. Later he created the "Looking Glass Review," a dramatic kaleidoscope of sketches of children's stories, which toured the country before the scripted program was purchased by the Boards of Education in Hawaii, New York City and Toronto, and televised by NBC-TV and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

In San Francisco, where he lived in the early 1970s, Mellow devised and patented new animation techniques for television. He lived for six years in Hawaii, where he was production manager for the Honolulu Symphony. There he developed a program of theater games that appeared at every school in the Hawaiian Islands.

He remembers presenting Mozart's work in a high school gymnasium in a remote town, where the audience sang along with the opera. Mellow says that it made him realize that there were 75 die-hard Mozart fans on the island of Molokai who'd never had the chance to sing along to "Cosi fan Tutte."

The experience confirmed that he was on the right path. "Everywhere I go," he says, "I find an audience for my work."

Mellow's audiences range from young children to the elderly, and he has worked in the fields of drama, producing two of his own plays, "The Education of Hyman Kaplan," and "How to Steal an Election." He has had a children's book published, "Help, I'm Trapped in This Book," and he has recently sold a screenplay, "What's Next?" that is scheduled to be filmed in Dana Point next summer.

When he came to Orange County in 1983, he took a job as marketing director for a metal-fabricating company. "I had, after all, been marketing my own work all of my life," he says. "But I never really belonged in the business world."

Although he kept writing, he says he missed the arts, and began to look seriously at where he wanted to participate as an artist in Orange County. Two years ago, he developed his current Readers' Theatre and took it to receptive audiences.

Book lovers at the library meetings say they enjoy the gatherings. Jackie Headly, Community Services librarian of the Newport Beach Public Library, says that the Readers' Theatre ties in well with the library's purpose of bringing literature alive.

Irvine resident Vivian Hall, of the Jane Austen Society, agrees. She says Mellow has presented two programs on the British author.

"The Readers' Theatre turned out to be a terrific contact for our group. There is now a desire to start a new chapter in Orange County," says Hall.

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