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Troupe Pulls Homelessness Into Spotlight : Theater: The Los Angeles Poverty Department will present a free performance at the Irvine Fine Arts Center on Sunday.


The Los Angeles Poverty Department doesn't pull punches. When it comes to life on the street, this unusual drama troupe tells it like it is.

Take for instance, "No Stone for Studs Schwartz," a 1987 play by the experimental ensemble composed mainly of homeless and formerly homeless performers about a Skid Row inhabitant, a man who talks a blue streak--to no one.

"This guy thought he was being chased by the mob," Kevin Williams, assistant director of the Los Angeles-based company, said recently by telephone. "He always talked to himself. The show was like turning up the mumble."

Then there's the work the troupe will perform about another disturbed homeless man on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Irvine Fine Arts Center. The performance is free.

Michael Lee suffered from emotional and mental problems that made his behavior unpredictable at best. But LAPD, which often conducts drama workshops with the homeless, wanted to work with him anyway.

"He had particularly troublesome problems, and we were afraid to take him," Williams said. "We thought he would get us in trouble with the police, even the Fire Department."

But LAPD invited Lee, who was living on the streets of Portland, Ore., to lead a workshop at a homeless shelter there. The result, said Williams, was a miraculous transformation.

"He basically led the whole workshop, and the guy we thought would be the most uncontrollable--and we're used to dealing with uncontrollable people--turned out to be one of the more persuasive, friendly people," Williams said. "It was just a complete turnaround in character.

"He changed because he got out of his own head to work with people like himself, and it made him a different person. Nobody changes forever," Williams added, but Lee decided shortly after the workshop to move from the streets back to his estranged family's home.

LAPD was founded in 1985 by John Malpede, who had been a New York-based performance artist. He is now its artistic director and acts with the group of about 15 performers. Some are trained actors, but most are untrained and live or once lived on the street. About half will appear in Irvine. The rest are on tour in Minneapolis.

No scripts are used by LAPD; plays stem from collaborative improvisation among members, who perform sketches about real-life recoveries such as Lee's or about their own Skid Row experiences.

"We try to show not what the street looks or sounds like, but what the feel of it is," said Williams, 34, a former homeless man who now supports himself, his wife and their 7-month-old son on what he earns at LAPD. "There's a kind of intensity about the street, and our shows by and large have that going for them."

Workshops such as the one Lee directed are also used for theatrical fodder.

Sunday's show is an excerpt from "LAPD Inspects America," an evolving production that incorporates homeless people's experiences (and their performances) as revealed in workshops that the troupe conducts across the country.

"We go to a town, check out the Skid Row situation and find out about the particular hardships and realities of life in the town from the people who live there," said Williams, who lives in Los Angeles. Because the troupe's engagement in Irvine is limited to one day, no workshops were planned there, he added.

Recently, LAPD has undergone something of a transformation itself. It now attempts to address the causes behind homelessness, not merely the condition itself, Williams said.

"We've found that people come from dysfunctional families and they've had backgrounds they can't escape," he said. "So we're starting to look more at what it is that brought people to homelessness. Not everyone on the street is crazy or crooked. Or, if they are crooked or crazy, they didn't start out that way."

Sunday's performance, the fourth in the ongoing Irvine Arts Festival, is recommended for mature audiences due to some strong language.

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