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Workshop Helps Youth Graduate to Stage

Teens in CSUN's summer program will perform three plays. One teacher calls it a 'safe way to experiment with emotions and feelings.'


All three theaters in the refurbished Cal State Northridge Speech and Drama Building are brimming with action for the next couple of weeks. They're the site of a three-play repertory for young audiences.

The plays, running through Aug. 2, are "Adam of the Road," by Doug Kaback, about a minstrel's son searching for his father in medieval England; "The Water of Life," by Jeffrey Levy, with music by Tony Karraa, a new musical based on the Grimm Brothers story; and "Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays," by England's top comic playwright, Alan Ayckbourn.

Theater for youth is not unusual in and of itself. There's a lot of it around. What sets this particular set of plays apart is that they are the culmination of the Teenage Drama Workshop, sponsored by CSUN's Department of Theatre and the Bureau of Arts Research and Development. This summer's program marks the group's 39th year.

Since 1958, the program has been under the auspices of the university, but it was actually founded the year before by film star Marsha Hunt, television's Robert Reed, and William Schlosser, now professor emeritus at CSUN.

They figured teenagers needed something to do during the dull days of summer. That hasn't changed since the '50s. Kids still need to be kept busy, and their involvement in the program takes care of that, besides offering a few more lasting rewards.

Levy, theater general manager at CSUN and executive director of the workshop, said the group has great value beyond merely providing summer activity for youth.

"It's a developmental growth tool for teenagers to explore who they are, and how they present themselves to the public, and also what teamwork is and what makes art," said Levy. "It also provides an opportunity for our students, undergraduate Cal State students, to design, sometimes direct or assistant direct, or just be involved. Usually they do it in their junior or senior year when they're building their portfolio, before they go to grad school."

And the other benefit, perhaps the most important one, provided by the program, said Levy, is that it helps develop theater audiences. Many theater students and adults he meets, he said, tell him their first theater experience was through this summer program.

"They also take the experience back to their own school, and their high schools, and they demonstrate a professionalism that other students don't have," he said. "Other kids may be interested, but all of a sudden these kids come back with some discipline, with some dance training, some voice training. So they help spread that in their schools; then they become leaders and models."

Irene Silbert, who directs "Adam," agreed with Levy on the value of the program.

"Theater," Silbert said, "is the best place for young people to experiment with emotions and feelings and thoughts, and know there won't be any serious consequences. Theater is a much better place to have danger, and take risks. And they can build their self-esteem. Not everybody can do, or wants to do, a lot of sports. This provides an opportunity to have teamwork, to be a part of a team."


Another advantage for youthful troupers is the opportunity to work with older professionals, who frequently are involved in the program. In this year's rep, one of those is 27-year-old Philip Ross, who, with his twin brother, has recently appeared in films starring Susan Sarandon ("Safe Passage") and Andy Garcia ("Steal Big, Steal Little"). He began his career at age 13 in the 1983 Tony-winning revival of "On Your Toes" on Broadway. His twin was his understudy.

Ross, who plays the minstrel father in "Adam," explained that after the workshop period, the shows have two weeks of rehearsal, then a week of technical work; then they open to the public.

"I have a feeling that a few of [the students] are probably panicking, but this is great for them," Ross said. "You can learn in a classroom all you want, but you have to get on stage and do a show in three weeks to find out how you can learn your technique in a short time."

And the values, he added, go beyond the theater.

"They form friendships for life," he said. "A number of our people who have gone on and succeeded professionally and formed a network, they formed their network from other actors and other people they knew from here.

"They're very tight all year. They go to each other's shows. It's an expanded clique that's self-chosen, through interest and motivation. They have a real network of buddies. They stay in touch."

* "Adam of the Road," Studio Theatre. 7 p.m. today, Friday and July 26; 11 a.m. Saturday, July 26, 27 and Aug. 3; 2 p.m. July 25, Aug. 1 and 2.

* "Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays," Little Theatre. 2 p.m. July 25, 31, Aug. 1 and 2; 11 a.m. July 26, 27 and Aug. 3; 7 p.m.; July 26 and Aug. 2.

* "The Water of Life," Campus Theatre. 7 p.m. July 31; Aug. 1, 2; 2 and 7 p.m. Aug. 2. Drama and Speech Building, Cal State University, Northridge. (818) 885-2488 or (818) 677-2488, or Ticketmaster outlets.

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