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So You Want to Be A Star, Kid? : Theaters That Get Kids Into the Act

March 12, 1992|PAT LAUNER

At age 12, Ryan Hartwigsen of Olivenhain was so nervous about speaking to people that his mother usually answered for him. Then his younger sister, Courtney, persuaded him to try out for a part in a Coast Kids production in Encinitas. Ryan landed a small role, seven lines in all. The next year, he was cast as The Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz." Now he's a senior in high school, just ran for class office, is performing in a musical touring company of Coast Kids and plans to major in communications.

"If anyone would have told me when he was 8 years old that he would be up there singing and dancing, I never would have believed it," said his mother, Vonnie Hartwigsen. "He is still painfully shy, but not onstage. There he has absolutely no trouble. This has given him the courage to speak up."

Ryan agrees. "Before, it never crossed my mind as something I wanted to do. Now I don't miss a show."

Not that it's been an effortless transition.

"You have to keep doing it, you have to get some training, and you have to have a lot of support from your parents," Ryan said, by way of advice to other theater wanna-bes.

"For the last few weeks of rehearsal, you have to put your life on hold. It's a real challenge to keep your grades up. You have to balance everything. I have an appointment book filled with school, homework, tests, due dates. But I don't resent it in any way. I know it's going to help me, and it's something I love to do."

His mother has a similar perspective. "It's a lot of work and time commitment for myself, too. But when I see the look on parents' faces on the day of the performance--the pride and satisfaction--and I feel that, too. Then I know it's all worth it."

There are many youth theater programs in North County. Some organizations are production-oriented; some provide direct as well as on-the-job training. Most have open auditions, unconstrained by geographical area.

Some will take children as young as 3, some up to age 18. Students can be at the very beginning level of theater involvement, or veterans of many productions with an eye toward a long-term professional commitment. Some groups are sponsored by theater companies, some by communities or foundations or private efforts.

Most groups are nonprofit labors of love by adults interested in theater and in seeing children develop through their involvement in it. As existing programs meet with interest and success, additional venues are being developed throughout North County.

Ann Schulz was a teacher of gifted children before she went into youth theater full-time five years ago. She started the Encinitas-based Coast Kids mainly in an effort to help children build self-confidence.

"Believe me, even 2-year-olds need to have their self-esteem bolstered. And behavior problems are almost always related to how kids feel about themselves. . . . It's a great escape to be able to be someone you aren't."

Coast Kids of Encinitas is a production-oriented company that provides training workshops in the summer and three major musicals a year. By double-casting they can squeeze 100 children into a production.

The group is nonprofit; none of the staff is paid. To cover costs, there is a per-child production fee of $75.

Besides directing Coast Kids, Schulz is part of a committee in Encinitas working toward creating a performing arts center with a 500-seat theater, possibly on the San Elijo (Cardiff) campus of MiraCosta College. Meanwhile, she's writing a grant to support rental of a storefront so Coast Kids can start its own performing arts school. "There is no scarcity of children," she said. "The interest is definitely there."

Encinitas is also home to Parkdale Players, an adult theater group with a youth arm called Encinitas Performing Arts. The program provides classes in acting, musical theater and improvisation. Director Pat Lydersen said the aim is "to concentrate on basic acting techniques, rather than pushing the kids right into performance. The best way to start out is with theater games, improvisations and creative movement. Then you learn to develop character."

The production realm remains with Parkdale Players, which presents an original musical for children this month, with a cast of children and adults. "There's a Monster in This Box" plays March 21 in Carlsbad, March 22 in Poway and March 29 in Encinitas.

In Escondido, the opening in 1993 of the new $73.4-million Center for the Arts is expected to further increase theater programs available to children.

The recent merger of the Felicita Foundation, a nonprofit fine arts organization, with the new center will enhance its ability to provide instruction in art, theater, dance and music.

The center has formed an education committee to develop plans for a North County school of the arts, envisioned as an after-school supplement to academic programs for grades K-12 that would make use of some of the new center's extensive studio and rehearsal space.

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