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Behind the Mask : Participants find the Young Conservatory program provides an outlet for personal expression that in other instances might not be considered cool. They also get a chance : to explore human nature.


Huge, bulbous, red foam noses protrude from the faces of the 17 teens in the Young Conservatory's Monday night course. To some parents, they might look as fashionably amusing as green hair. But it's likely these won't catch on as the next fad.

Putting them on serves as a kind of signal among the students to let go of their inhibitions and become the person they had, in the last week, selected to impersonate. That character isn't necessarily a clown or even funny. The goal is that eventually they will no longer need the noses to let them assume a character.

Exercises like these are part of the act for the 233 Young Conservatory participants at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (about 70 are teens), as well as for thousands of others throughout the county in similar repertory programs and high school drama departments.

These young thespians share a commitment that goes beyond the experience of most high-schoolers. They are willing to shed social conventions and peer expectations. They have to study and explore human nature. And in this forum, where the "no guts, no glory" maxim is religiously followed, there is no room for introversion--unless it's part of the act.

Adolescence is all about trying on masks and finding an identity that fits. For these teens, role-playing is all part of the art of theater.

"In acting there's no limits to what you can be," says Villa Park freshman Tracy Clifton. "And because you're supposed to be another person, it's not embarrassing."

"Really, what people don't know," confides the 15-year-old, "is it's just a reflection of what's within you."

Tracy began the Young Conservatory program two years ago and has since integrated many of the skills she's learned into her daily life. She became more sensitive to why guys her age tend to talk less than girls. Having to play a boy one year, Tracy got from her observations that sometimes their silence has to do with being self-conscious.

"As actors, we have to have a lot of empathy," says Tracy, who actually has designs on a career as a marine biologist, not as an actress ("I could better help the planet that way and try to save the oceans").

"It helps me when I can get into their world and understand it," she says. "It's amazing when you do research about your world. It makes life more fun."

Tracy has expanded her own world since entering the theater culture by trading in her once shy personality for that of an extrovert. The sense of self-assurance even landed her a spot on the school debate team.

"People always have to brand everyone as shy or smart or weird," she says. "I learned that it was OK to break out of the brand. It's OK not to act like how people expect sometimes."


For many teens, the theater culture assures them of an outlet for personal expression that in any other scene might be construed as unacceptable behavior.

Monte Vista junior Chris Friend looks like the average teen. That is, if you consider as average his black and blond Mohawk, multiple piercings, ripped trousers and worn, studded army boots.

Chris expresses himself by more than his wardrobe, however. He paints and sculpts. Other projects include a book he's writing and illustrating that resembles a children's tale, but is actually political and social satire for adults. He also keeps a journal of costumes he's designed.

A spontaneous 16-year-old who admits to "getting bored very easily," Chris enjoys the improvisation exercises in his YC class. It's his first semester at SCR and his first crack at the acting experience.

The physical challenges involved, says Chris, are what fascinate him most about acting. During a session, the lanky teen will throw himself down and drag himself along the floor without a second thought. And he'll repeat the crash just for the asking.

"I've learned a lot about controlling my movements and voice and making up characters fast," he says. "I love creating a situation or a character from my head and making it real."

He will put the training into practice when he becomes a director: "I don't figure art alone will support me, so I'm looking at directing." It's no surprise, then, that he counts such vanguard directors as David Lynch, Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino as influences.

Bored with high school, Chris will take an exam in the next few weeks that he hopes will enable him to start the spring semester full-time at Orange Coast College. His older brother is already studying psychology at the Costa Mesa campus. Chris plans to enroll in art courses, including set design and film editing.

"I like to take an image in my mind and make it real, tangible, like sculpting," he says. "Directing is another way of making an idea tangible, but taking it to another extreme."


It's those extremes, or at least the atypical behavior, that Molly Dorfman says lets "you recognize who are the people in theater."

A freshman at Foothill High in Tustin, Molly says the factors are subtle, but common among those in theater.

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