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Topics / THEATER : Taking Youths Out of Cross-Fire, Onto Stage

August 11, 1994|MARY MOORE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Parents who believe that children should be seen, not heard, probably have not been to a play put on by Santa Monica's Virginia Avenue Project. If they had, they might have discovered that what some children have to say is indeed worth hearing.

"We write about our feelings instead of keeping them inside," says 12-year-old Adriana Torres, one of about 40 children in the group. "It helps me express them."

The 2-year-old nonprofit theater company pairs children age 6 through late teens with professional actors. Sometimes the youths, most of whom are deemed at risk for ending up on the road to poverty or other trouble, perform original plays that adults write for them; other times they write plays for adults to perform.

The project's goal is to give youngsters a reason to feel good about themselves, said executive director Kendis Marcotte.

"These are kids who are living in the cross-fire, living in the element and having a hard time of it," Marcotte said. "But they are not generally your hard-core group."

The children will take the stage during three performances Friday and Saturday at UCLA's Little Theater. Titled "Lost Luggage," the series of plays tops off a week the children spent in Ojai rehearsing scripts written for them by professionals.

In July the Virginia Avenue youngsters showed their talents as playwrights in a series of performances called "Second Thoughts" at the Little Theater.

"It spoke a little strongly to my own life," says Ashby Semple, an actress who appeared in one of the plays, "Anything is Better. . . ," written by 14-year-old Santa Monica High School student Ali Campoverdi. The audience gave it a standing ovation. The play explores feelings of loneliness and despair through the main character, called Nothingness, played by Pamela Tyson, who also appeared in the movie "What's Love Got To Do With It."

"I witnessed someone I know who was going through suicide, but it was like I couldn't express my feelings to them," Campoverdi explained.

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The Virginia Avenue Project was modeled after New York's 52nd Street Project, which started 11 years ago in Manhattan and now counts 650 child members.

Leigh Curran, who was involved with the New York group, is the artistic director of Virginia Avenue Project, named after its first home at a youth center on Virginia Avenue.

The program runs on an annual budget of about $120,000, most of that coming from grants and private donors.

Curran has drawn about 40 steady actors who volunteer when they have time. Many of them worked with Curran in the 52nd Street Project and now live in Los Angeles.

"Anytime kids can work with adults, it's a nurturing experience," said Bill Fagerbakke, who stars on television's "Coach."

"As a child, I never wrote, so I can only imagine what it feels like to be affirmed like that," says Amy Brenneman, a regular on "NYPD Blue" who has been working with the Virginia Avenue Project for about a year and a half.

"It's amazing, the extent to which they're treated like adults in this program," Brenneman said. "There's no patronizing them."

The Virginia Avenue group meets at Santa Monica Police Activities League Youth Center at 14th Street and Olympic Boulevard. The center has become the hangout for 80 to 120 children a day, said Patty Loggins, director of the program.

Those who are involved in the Virginia Avenue program have changed for the better, she said.

"One kid never even used to look you in the eye when you said 'hello' to him," Loggins said. "But after he was in one play, he was smiling and talking and shaking people's hands."

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The Virginia Avenue Project includes several classes such as "Creative Dramatics," which teaches acting, writing and performing. In "Playmaking and Replay," children learn how to write their own scripts.

Next year, the project plans to introduce "Playback," in which the youngsters will write half a script, an adult will write the other half, and the two will perform the play together.

And the young playwrights have a pretty nice arrangement when it comes to criticism: "We don't invite critics and critical comments from outside the group," Marcotte said. "This is a self-esteem program more than anything else."

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