IRVINE — "Be part of the fun! Be part of the magic! Be part of the cast!" read fliers from the Children's Theatre Experience, a training program that guarantees each student a role in a well-known musical comedy staged in a professional theater.
But with 150 to 200 students per production, and some appearing only in groups of 40 or more, how rich an experience is it?
Very, said Dawn Tengwall of Mission Viejo, whose son and daughter, ages 7 and 9, respectively, will perform twice today in "Annie," his seventh and her eighth CTE production. The cast will do three public shows and six for local schoolchildren at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
"It's a great overall theater experience," Tengwall said. It's less individualized than the work her kids do with an acting coach, she said. But, for $125 a piece, they get 12 weeks of dance, vocal and acting instruction and the onstage time--a perk many acting schools don't offer. Plus, they learn teamwork and self-confidence.
"All of my kids' teachers have [commented that] you can tell they've done this," said Tengwall. "They've said they're much more confident than other kids when it comes to making presentations, like reading their book reports."
That's the goal of the 4-year-old CTE, which stages about 15 musicals a year in six Southern California cities, including Irvine.
"We're devoted to building self-esteem and confidence through the dramatic arts," the group's 30-year-old founder and director, Christopher M. Robertson, said. "We state that there's no 'I' in the word ensemble, and we work in a team. It's not about who's the lead."
Headquartered in Encino, CTE is a nonprofit corporation that pours its revenues back into operations, said CTE producer Sherry Frymer. Unlike many arts groups, it is not tax-exempt and does not solicit donations, but the Irvine Barclay grants CTE the same break on theater rent fees as it does tax-exempt nonprofits.
CTE students of all ages sign on for weekly, one- to two-hour rehearsals, run by a staff of five or six working professionals, including an artistic director and choreographer. The week of the show, kids must attend three six-hour rehearsals in the theater, although young children are released early.
The typical student-teacher ratio is about 10 or 15 to 1, Robertson said.
"Our music director, for instance, works with the kids on tonality, pitch control, breathing support and harmony," he explained. "So they learn now to hold true to their own note--and they're given a slew of exercises to do each week" as well as lines and lyrics to memorize at home.
One-on-one coaching may occur for featured roles, but CTE spreads the wealth, he said. For instance, three girls will rotate in the title role of "Annie" in Irvine.
Even children who appear only in large groups benefit greatly, he said.
"Just performing in a professional theater house with professional set crews and professional lighting designers is in itself a valuable stage experience."
Robert Cohen, a UC Irvine drama professor, agrees.
"Anything that ties together literature, self-expression and the chance to conquer shyness by performing in public with good adult leadership can be valuable," said Cohen, who has never seen a CTE production. "I wouldn't hesitate to [enroll] my child."
But Joe Lauderdale, director of the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre, said such large programs tend to emphasize performance over process and provide inadequate training.
In contrast, 10 to 15 students take Lauderdale's six- to eight-week beginning-level course, which runs two hours each week and costs $100 to $160. Some may appear in Playhouse productions, but there's no guarantee.
"I've found that kids who come to me who have been involved in experiences like that have no skills and all of their acting is extremely overblown and false," said Lauderdale, who also has never seen a CTE show. "It's almost like they're out there being cute without any idea of what it's really like to be on stage."
Robertson says several CTE students have leaped directly from the program into professional productions. "I can't take credit, because these kids have private teachers," he said. But, for instance, after playing the title role in "Oliver!," Christopher Winsor, 10, of Mission Viejo won the same role with the Theatre League, a professional touring troupe based in Kansas City, Mo. He has since been cast in "Les Miserables" on Broadway.
Young actors can get professional stage experience in other ways, of course--and get paid for it. Six children danced and acted (although only one had a speaking part) in eight weekly performances of "Show Boat," which recently closed at the Orange County Performance Center. The youths, who rehearsed for six days, six hours a day, pocketed roughly $550 a week, producers said.
CTE, which charges first-time students $150, barely breaks even, Robertson said. Expenses, ranging from theater rentals to educational materials, add up to about $55,000 per production, CTE officials said. Schoolkids pay only $5 to get in to the six shows designated for them. And scholarships are given to 20% of the students.
But "as long as the program can sustain itself, we're OK," said Robertson, who works a second part-time job to help pay his rent. "My personal payoff is watching the kids' faces as they perform and watching the audience respond."
* The Children's Theatre Experience will perform "Annie" today at 2 and 7 p.m., at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. $12-$14. (714) 854-4646.