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An Optimist Unmasked : Gideon Potter, who believes in the need for human connection, involves adults as well as children in his world of wonder.

June 02, 1995|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes regularly about theater for The Times.

STUDIO CITY — Gideon Potter doesn't think of "The Wonder Faire Trunk Show" as children's theater. He's aiming it at the whole family.

"It's basically a mask-story-comedy revue," says the actor, whose solo piece opens Saturday at the Two Roads Theatre. Potter has performed "Wonder Faire" in various incarnations around the country since 1975--including a 2 1/2-year run at the West End Playhouse in Van Nuys a few seasons ago--and he's very clear on why he does it.

"It's about breaking down barriers," he says, "based on the idea that there's more that connects us than separates us. I get people to connect with a world full of wonder, a world of grace and beauty."

Potter is no Pollyanna. But he is an optimist.

"I want to live in a lighter place," he says emphatically. "The truth is, we have a choice to be violent, to threaten one another--or to get smart. We have to re-establish our connection with each other. I can walk down the street, smile at 50 strangers and 48 1/2 of them will look away. When we don't say good morning, when we don't make eye contact, we add to the problem."

Still, Potter admits that he's not always up to the task. "Sometimes it feels like I'm Sisyphus, always pushing the rock up the hill," he says with a sigh. "But my work is about that."

It's also about creating a feeling of freedom and adventure within the audience. Children and parents (and sometimes grandparents) are pulled into the act on stage, "helping" Potter to tell his stories. "It's very tribal, like sitting around a campfire," he says of the show, which runs 60 to 75 minutes. "When you put a mask on someone and ask them to behave in a certain way, it validates and affirms their sense of worth, creativity and expression. We forget that adults need that reaffirmation."

Ed Gaynes, who runs the Two Roads Theatre, formerly produced Potter's show at the West End.

"I'm not a children's-show producer," stresses Gaynes, whose credits include the long-running revue "Crazy Words, Crazy Tunes."

"This is the only children's show I do--and I do it because I love it and I'm proud of it," Gaynes says. "It really does work for adults as well as kids. As a matter of fact, you can't do it with just kids; it needs adults in it. And for the kids, it's great to see their parent or teacher get up on stage and make a fool of themselves. So it works on a lot of different levels. Each age group responds to it in their own way."

Potter, 44, says he's geared the show for ages 4 and older.

"You'd be surprised how fun it is," says the Oregon native. "Totally wacky, totally unique. There's no fluff-and-puff, no Barney. And it's always been a changing show. This time I've got a new piece called 'International Man,' a Mr. Potato Head piece."

In it, his character, wearing a neutral face mask, "wakes up in the morning and decides which facial parts to wear that day: an African-American nose? Asian eyes? A frown or a smile? All of the pieces--eyes, nose, ears, mouth--are added on."

Potter, who also acts in TV and film, has taught preschool at Beth Meier in Studio City, as well as teaching seniors in the Fairfax area through the Oasis Program. He has taught theater and visual arts for ages 6 to 14 at Santa Monica College; he now leads an improvisation class at the college for non-actors. "It's helping people rediscover their voice," he says happily. "I love to see the light go on. To watch a dental technician or a lawyer get on stage and play an alien in a Laundromat is a great thing."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "The Wonder Faire Trunk Show."

Location: Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City.

Hours: 2 p.m. Saturday. Indefinitely.

Price: $7.

Call: (818) 766-9381.

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