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CENTERPIECE

Youngster Act

Summer workshops offer children a chance to rehearse their stage presence.

June 25, 1998|SONDRA FARRELL BAZROD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If your child is the class clown, a practical joker or extremely shy but with a secret yearning to act, there are places where he or she can perform and have talent nurtured, especially during the summer.

On a Sunday afternoon at the L.A. Connection Comedy Theatre in Sherman Oaks, six boys and two girls, ages 5 to 14 are eagerly waiting to take the stage for their turn at improvisational games. They all have a mischievous twinkle in their eyes, especially David, 5.

When his mother is asked how he happened to begin training so young, she says: "He actually began at 4 1/2. He was always the class comedian, and a family friend suggested this group and he's loved it ever since. He's done commercials and been in two television pilots."

Janiece Minnick, who conducts the session, asks a newcomer to take the stage and questions the 10-year-old boy, who definitely is not shy. He says he came to the group because he saw them performing and wanted to join. He also notes that he has five fish and two brothers. Minnick then leads the children in group exercises where they learn to react to things, using all their senses.

Janiece, her husband, Josh Minnick, and Jonathan Lally all take part in training the children. They are performers and students of Kent Skov, who founded the L.A. Connection group 21 years ago. After the children spend two hours doing improvisation, they perform for parties that are booked at the theater at 3:30 p.m. each Sunday. At these events, members of the audience are brought on stage to participate.

Skov came to Los Angeles in 1975 after performing with the acclaimed improvisational group the Committee in San Francisco and soon was seen in plays at the Actor's Theater as well as appearing in his own two-man show. On television, Skov was a cast member of five television series and did guest spots as well. He formed L.A. Connection in 1977 as an adult improvisational troupe, and now more than 85 adult performers are part of the group. Nine different shows are done at the theater with adult performers and two shows with the children.

The troupe also goes on the road to private parties at homes and restaurants. Skov sometimes performs at the theater at the 9 p.m. Saturday show. He has created some of the improvisational games taught to the children. His former students include Matthew Perry of "Friends"; Hank Azaria, now in "Godzilla"; Sharon Lawrence; talk-show host Stephanie Miller; Jon Lovitz and other "Saturday Night Live" performers Will Ferrel, Victoria Jackson and Chris Kattan, to name a few.

On humor in children, Skov says: "One signpost is a child who delights in pranks. But the withdrawn child can also surprise us. Filled with fantasies or comic observations, a shy child can spring to life given the opportunity."

To prove his point, Skov cites his high school classmate Robin Williams, who, Skov says, didn't display his frenetic comic genius until after graduation.

Skov says improvisation opens communication skills and helps in life far beyond theater.

"The difference between regular theater and improvisation is that kids draw on their experiences and learn and grow from other kids' experiences," he says.

Though he was always outgoing and gregarious, Skov says: "As my experience widened, I learned my lack of knowledge in other areas. Part of humor is cleverness and intelligence. This is gained by practicing and learning more. It's a must to learn current events."

When he was with the Committee, he was told to read the newspaper.

"Humor is based on references. If the audience cannot relate with your references, they won't laugh," he says. "You need a wide range of references, much more than in any other type of theater."

Comedienne Toni Attell, who has had a successful career on stage, television and film, has been training children for some time. She now manages some of her students, including an 11-year-old boy who will play Pugsley in the newest "Addams Family" television special. She teaches acting for movies, improvisation and stand-up.

Attell says: "Acting takes children away from peer pressure. They have the moment to become beautiful and show their special quality."

Some children will act up out of insecurity or perceived inadequacies, she says, and will go to elaborate lengths to get attention. Although Attell is beautiful, she didn't feel that way as a child.

"I felt ugly," she recalls. "Then, at a Saturday show for kids, I was asked to get up and do an improvisation as the ugly sister in Cinderella. It was my first time on stage and people laughed. The feeling was so glorious to me. For the first time in my life I felt that I was worthy."

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