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Troupe Brings Stories to Life


Lela Baker emits a fierce, throaty growl as she petulantly tosses her blond mane and swaggers across the brightly lighted stage. But Baker is no ingenue. And she's not "emoting" in a Strasberg drama workshop.

The 73-year-old Oxnard resident is part of the Ventura Reader's Theatre Troupe, a group of senior citizens who have been acting out popular children's stories in school assemblies for three years.

Today, the 12 women, ages 55 to 83, hold more than 165 fourth- and fifth-graders in thrall at the Montalvo Elementary School cafeteria during a performance of "Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock," an African folk tale retold by Eric A. Kimmel.

One actress climbs a coconut tree in pantomime fashion. The others, who are similarly attired in black slacks or skirts and white sweat shirts bearing the Reader's Theatre logo, remain seated in a row of metal folding chairs. And perched atop each head is an elaborate animal-head cap designed by member Marlene Reinhart.

During the second of three stories that make up the 30-minute assembly, the children join in during the chorus. And Baker, who is seated, seems to defy gravity when she frantically flails her limbs and screams "Shark!!!"

The sight of mature adults emitting animal noises while cavorting on stage draws appreciative giggles from the children. Of such antics is entertainment made.

Nevertheless, members of the group don't consider themselves entertainers, according to Betty Hartman, 55, who coordinates the theatrical group as director of the Ventura Avenue Senior Adult Center. Hartman talked to me a few days after the performance. "We see ourselves more as educators," she said.

About one-fourth of the group's members are retired teachers, Hartman said. Many of the books they choose to adapt are on the Young Reader's California Medal Series--books children voted as their favorites. And the group's goal is to promote self-esteem through the lessons in the stories and to stimulate an interest in reading.

Troupe members Betty Taffert, 64, of Fillmore and Reinhart, 61, of Ventura prepare scripts, create costumes and props and act out the stories.

They all rehearse about an hour weekly at the Ventura Avenue Senior Center. And they perform at elementary schools in Ventura, Oxnard and Port Hueneme. The group hopes to expand to the eastern part of the county this fall. And the troupe welcomes inquiries from people interested in developing similar groups.

The Ventura Reader's Theatre Troupe is a branch of the Senior Drama Troupe, which was established about seven years ago. The Senior Drama Troupe began with a grant from the Ventura Department of Parks and Recreation, which stipulated that one of its plays had to be inter-generational.

So the troupe produced a "Roaring '20s Revue" using an equal number of senior citizens and middle-school-age children.

"We had skits, jokes and costumes from the '20s," Hartman said. "The kids didn't understand the songs--they seemed silly. But the seniors enjoyed reminiscing and explained what the songs meant to them."

Then in 1990 the Reader's Theatre was formed. One woman who had previous experience with theatrical readings was convinced that PTAs and teachers would welcome their performances at school assemblies. Some schools responded to the group's letters. And favorable word-of-mouth publicity produced more invitations.

"I think the teachers are impressed that we're seniors and a local group," Hartman said. "It's great fun. But we always need to recruit men. And there aren't enough of us to cover enough schools."

In addition to school assemblies, the group has performed at a Reader's Theatre workshop for student teachers at Cal State Northridge. They have also read to children at summer camps. "I can also see getting involved with libraries that do storytelling for children," Hartman added.

The group is one of the most successful of the center's senior programs--in part because it is self-supporting, Hartman said. The group charges a nominal $50 fee for a half-hour assembly to generate funds for costumes, props and other production costs. But they even pay for their own sweat shirts.

In January, the group received an award from the California Parks and Recreation Society District 8 for volunteer work and community service.

But the real reward comes in letters from children like the boy in Meiners Oaks who wrote: "You have convinced me that reading is fun."

"And that," Hartman said, "is the message we try to get across."


To contact the Ventura Reader's Theatre Troupe, call 648-3035.

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