IT IS 7 A.M. WHEN ACTOR MEL Johnson Jr. turns his gray Toyota Land Cruiser onto the Ventura Freeway for the 90-minute drive to Patton State Hospital. Johnson, who was Arnold Schwarzenegger's sidekick in the film "Total Recall" and has just directed Jason Alexander in the one-man show "Give 'Em Hell, Harry," first began working with the Imagination Workshop seven years ago when he moved to Los Angeles from New York.
"You have to put back," he says, when asked why he devotes two days a week to this work. "You have to put it back out there and just spread it around. And it's helping people. Not to sound goody-two-shoes, but that's the reason. You see the results. You have to be able to find the time in your life to do these kinds of things, because being obsessed with work, work, work--it's not going to happen. At the same time, it helps your work, because when we act with these patients, you see this absolute raw honesty come out."
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 13, 1992 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
In "A Dramatic Remedy" (by Joy Horowitz, Nov. 22), Lyle Kessler was incorrectly identified as the writer and director of the upcoming film "The Saint of Fort Washington." Kessler was the film's writer, but the director was Tim Hunter.
For some artists, the workshops offer respite from the glossy nature of Hollywood. "I feel like I'm doing something real," says screenwriter-turned-rabbinical student Marc Sirinsky, a 10-year Imagination veteran who wears a Jewish skullcap, or yarmulke , of purple-and-blue striped Guatemalan fabric. "In Hollywood, it can be so elusive what you're doing. I mean, you can feel like you're not connecting to anything in the real world. So, to have this connection with real people in the real world with real issues is very humbling. It's grounding." Sirinsky also invokes a basic tenet of Judaism-- tikkun olam , which means "repair the world."
Others say the Imagination Workshop is a two-way process, providing them with inspiration. Many speak of characters and scripts for TV shows and movies that have come directly from their experiences in the program. Imagination Workshop co-founder Lyle Kessler says his play "Orphans" and his first feature film script, "Touched," were based on his work with psychiatric patients. And Kessler's upcoming film "The Saint of Fort Washington," which he wrote and directed and which stars Danny Glover and Matt Dillon, is about the relationship between a black middle-aged man and a young schizophrenic in a New York shelter for the homeless.
"The point is not that we use people as material but that you learn that everybody has a story," says actor-writer Jonathan Zeichner. "We usually think of these people as them: It's us and them. But the fact is it's really all us."
Like several Imagination Workshop artists, Zeichner knows firsthand about such distinctions. The son of a psychologist, he has a brother who has been on the streets and in the mental health system for 25 years. "I've tried over those years in many different ways to have a positive impact on his life," he says. "You do what you can, but it's sort of crisis management when he's been arrested or hospitalized or gotten beat up. I tell you, I felt like I was home when I got involved with this."
Adds Michael Barker, a theater arts teacher at Windward School in Mar Vista and a regular workshop participant: "In my family, I've contended with mental illness all my life. Maybe I couldn't give back directly to my family, but I could in a broader way. It's a way of giving back something other than cash."
Still others insist that any portrayal of them as purely altruistic care-givers is completely misleading. "You can't fix your own family," says Susan Arnold, the casting-director-turned-film producer whose younger sister is developmentally disabled, "but you give what you can give. And I feel like I get so much back for myself. There's a sense of joy that comes with the work. A sense of admiration for people's struggles. And respect. You do the work, and you're healed, too, because there's such acceptance. It's like a program that nurtures people's souls."
Actor Daniel Stern, perhaps best known for his role as one of the loopy burglars in "Home Alone," participated in a workshop at Camarillo earlier this year as a guest artist with his wife, Laure, who is an Imagination Workshop board member. For him, as for Arnold, the lure of the process was as much in what the artists get as what they give.
"In the car driving up, I was told I'd be doing improv, which I don't really do," Stern said recently. "But theater is a primal force, which I tend to forget, acting in movies. There is some kind of magic in that community force, and it is the theater."
He continued, only half-jokingly. "So, during my improv with a patient, I was in a monster costume. And I found myself saying, 'How come I always have to be the monster and you get to be the good-looking guy?' And I realized, this is kind of my own therapy."
DRIVING BACK TO LOS ANgeles from Camarillo State Hospital one day, McCusker, Zeichner and Bowles are exchanging war stories. "One day," McCusker remembers, "this guy was delusional and he was really sexual with me."
What did he do?
"He said real explicit sexual things about what he'd like to do."