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An Act of Faith : Performance Workshop for Children Puts Emphasis on Discipline


It's a gloomy Saturday morning, and the muted hum of traffic is all that can be heard along the usually bustling Crenshaw corridor.

In a small studio in the old Crenshaw Square, however, an acting class for children has been going full throttle for more than an hour. Instructor Deirdre Weston leads a dozen or so charges in a group movement exercise, barking instructions with the urgency of a mission commando without a moment to waste.

"Come on, guys, focus! Eyes here!" calls Weston, her gaze seemingly fixed on every young face at once.

Silently, but with great concentration, the children raise their arms slowly, lower them, turn right, then left, mirroring Weston's gestures perfectly. When she lines them up by twos, they repeat the exercise with the same precision, oblivious to waiting parents who crowd the studio's door for a look.

Before adjourning the class of 7- to 9-year-olds, Weston gathers the children in a circle to analyze their session, freely praising their efforts and frankly criticizing lapses of concentration. Homework--practicing new movements and vocal exercises, making journal entries--is assigned for the following week, and Weston stresses that it will be checked.

Finally, she drops the role of taskmaster and stoops to give each child a hug. "Remember, all of you are special and can do anything you want if you put your minds to it," she says matter-of-factly. "You are somebody."

To Weston and fellow teachers at Faith Acting Studio, this is no idle talk. It is instrumental to the discipline-is-everything philosophy that guides the studio, a philosophy that has shaped students into professional-minded actors who have caught the attention of parents and Hollywood casting directors alike.

Since the studio opened last year, Faith students have captured roles in numerous film, television and commercial projects, including voice-over spots for Saturday morning cartoons, parts in TV series such as "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" and "George" starring boxer George Foreman, and appearances in national commercials for companies such as Levi Strauss and Nike.

But the emphasis on succeeding with discipline addresses a far greater goal than acting, said Weston. It is key in instilling self-esteem and values in young people who frequently lack both.

"It's important to present a great image to the kids," said Weston, whose students call her Miss D. "We praise them, support them, especially the little ones. We try to impress on them that this class is their responsibility, not Mama's or Daddy's."

Faith offers classes in acting and dancing for students 4 to 19. The weekly two-hour classes cost $236 for 12 weeks, and scholarships are available. Last semester, 98 students were enrolled in the studio, with a waiting list of 100.

Terry Sonnier said she brought her daughter to Faith after observing a marked, positive change in a child enrolled in one of the studio's classes.

"This girl was so on top of everything, and she wore her purple Faith T-shirt so proudly," said Sonnier. "I was impressed. After attending the orientation here, I was even more impressed."

Weston opened the studio with fellow actress Felecia Scott, whom she met in New York five years ago during an acting competition. Weston was teaching at Crossroads Arts Academy in Leimert Park when that school's acting program went on a hiatus last year, leaving parents clamoring for a place they could send children that wasn't out of the neighborhood.

The time was ripe, said Scott, although starting an acting studio was not what she originally had in mind.

"My idea was to take the kids who had been training awhile and start a professional troupe for minority kids," said Scott, who serves as the studio's administrator. "Well, we did that, and called the group the Theatre Rascals. After parents saw a performance they did, they were so impressed they started asking if their other kids could become part of the operation."

Faith Acting Studio--so named because of Scott and Weston's Christian beliefs--set up shop last June, offering classes as well as performance training for the Theatre Rascals.

Because graduating to Rascal status is such a coveted goal, discipline problems in the classroom are almost nonexistent. Nor does anyone complain about the strict rules, which include maintaining good grades and keeping weekly journals in which the children record their experiences in acting class and in the rest of their lives. Grades and written evaluations are given at the end of each 12-week semester.

"I love acting and I love being here," said 8-year-old Ashley Lewis, who began classes at Crossroads three years ago and hopes to become a Rascal soon. "Being on stage is everything."

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