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Teens Find Solace in Stage Work

For troubled youths, writing/acting workshops enhance their self-esteem and brighten their outlook on the world.


" . . . I love to hear screams of the enemy while I'm busting their heads open with a bat. I love the excitement of being shot at and being the shooter. There's so much adrenaline and power. Yes, I love gang banging."


A 16-year-old boy wrote that monologue and read it softly when he took the stage at the Alliance Theatre in Burbank.

It's based on his real life experience. Each week he writes and shares a similar piece that helps illustrate his difficult existence.

The exercise is part of a theater workshop that actress Laura Leigh Hughes conducts for troubled youths, most of whom are residents at Mid Valley Youth Center, a state-run psychiatric treatment facility in Van Nuys.

"When I first heard the stories of these kids' lives I was intimidated and nervous," said Hughes, a stage, television and big-screen actress. "They've had tough lives and were considered by many to be the bottom of the barrel."

Hughes' Mid Valley Youth Theatre Program has given many of them a boost, however. With the guidance of volunteer actors and screenwriters, the youths--ages 13 to 17--write scripts and develop them into plays, which they later direct and act in.

The group has mounted eight productions at the Alliance, and in 1995 won two Valley Theatre League awards for "Courage," a play dealing with family abuse.

The Mid Valley Youth Theatre Program's next production, "What Show?," is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday and Dec. 11 at the Alliance. The theme centers around substance-abusing parents and adolescents' street life.

Addressing such issues in their work has helped many of the youths cope with difficult situations, says Mid Valley Youth Center Director Peggy Wilson-Jordan.

"The therapeutic value is phenomenal," Wilson-Jordan said. "It does wonders for their self-esteem, and it gives them an opportunity to express themselves in a safe way."

Most of the material the teenagers write is inspired by their experiences, like the 16-year-old boy's gang-banging activities.

A 17-year-old girl reads a poem she initially takes credit for writing, but later admits copying. She picked it because it applies to her life. It's something she can relate to well.

It begins:

"I sat on a sunset thinking of hope. I wondered if my mom was still doing dope. Eventually I crossed through a tunnel looking for love but what I really found was simply a blue dove . . ."


There is silence from her peers when she finishes. She looks down and walks off the stage quickly, avoiding eye contact with the rest of the group.

Most of the youths can relate to her pain because they have been toughened by difficult lives, which include abusive or drug-addicted parents. Many of them have served in juvenile prisons and some have siblings doing hard time.

"These kids break your heart sometimes," Hughes said. "They've been through so much."

But every Sunday they escape to the Alliance Theatre, where Hughes and six of her show business friends create a fun environment where they can freely express themselves.

"I like it because I like to be away from the place I live at and here I don't have to act like a tough guy," said a 16-year-old boy. "I'm on a [residence] floor with a lot of other boys and you gotta be tough if you're gonna make it."

Another 16-year-old said participating in the workshop is the best time he's had in recent memory.

"It's an escape from my reality, and I need that a lot," he said. "I wish I could come here everyday."

Hughes, 36, created the Mid Valley Youth Theatre Program in 1993 to help repair some of the damage caused by the L.A. riots.

She had worked with a group called Free Arts for Abused Children when she was an actress with Alliance Repertory. Through that program, which caters to young children, she was introduced to the Mid Valley Youth Center.

Hughes who has appeared in TV sitcoms such as "Family Ties" and "Wings" and the films "Virtuosity" and "Some Kind of Wonderful," wanted to start a program that catered to older, problem youths like those at Mid Valley.

Setting up the workshops has allowed about 400 kids from various ethnic backgrounds to benefit therapeutically as well as develop their writing and acting skills. All for free.

The Alliance management doesn't charge the group to use the facility, and everyone involved donates their time.

The actors and writers work with about 12 kids on three-month cycles to develop the plot for a play. The workshops also focus on a variety of exercises, such as role playing, and on the monologues and poems written at the group home and later read on stage.

Volunteers say it's fulfilling and fun. They often goof around and giggle during the three-hour weekly rehearsals. Sometimes they hold back tears at the brutal stories they hear.

One girl told of trying to commit suicide after being transferred to a juvenile prison. Another described when her drug addict mother was missing and she hadn't seen her in weeks.

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