Once upon a time, South Coast Repertory's Young Conservatory Players was something of a fairy tale, introducing kids to theater on both sides of the curtain.
For nearly 20 years, SCR's Young Conservatory Program offered a fully staged (and amply subscribed) youth-theater season; SCR's eduction department provided touring educational shows and free workshops for low-income kids.
Then SCR dropped the regular productions--the eduction programs remained--in exchange for a single minimally staged show that was spartan by comparison.
The demise of SCR's youth theater season, however, hasn't resulted in tragedy, says David Emmes, SCR co-founder and producing artistic director. As Emmes describes it, the Young Conservatory program has opted to focus more on the development of young actors than on young audiences.
This season, a revised Young Conservatory format has been introduced. Now it has three components: an introductory, creative dramatics arm for children in first and second grades; an advanced program for grades three to six; and the Teen Players, for seventh- to 12th-graders, which includes exploration of playwriting and directing.
This weekend and next, the young actors will star in two productions. Mary Fengar Gail's musical fantasy "Phoebe's Closet" will be performed by the Youth Players on Saturday and Sunday.
On June 6 and 7, the Teen Players stage "Get on the Bus," a new collaboration with SCR literary associate JoAnna Downey.
"Phoebe's Closet" is recommended for grade-school children; "Get on the Bus" is suggested for ages 12 and up. Both will be presented on the Second Stage using simple sets and minimal costumes and props.
When the Young Conservatory began in 1974, "its primary purpose was to provide programs for kids that would help them discover their unique powers of creativity and imagination," Emmes said. Students who completed two years in the classes could audition for the Young Conservatory Players performances, which were enhanced by professional designers and the considerable resources of SCR's production department.
YCP audiences were often exposed to world premieres and new adaptations, including a few created by some of the same artists who have written for the theater's Mainstage and Second Stage.
SCR literary manager John Glore, whose credits include an adaptation with Culture Clash of Aristophanes' "The Birds" for the '97-98 Second Stage season, also penned three works for YCP, including an adaptation of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's "The Stinky Cheese Man." There was even a revival of a rarely seen David Mamet script called "Revenge of the Space Pandas."
There were also numerous new works by former YCP director Diane Doyle, who led the program from 1975 to 1994, composer Diane King Vann, Greg Atkins and Richard Hellesen.
Although Emmes says he heard from some disgruntled families when the YCP series changed formats after the 1993-94 season, he says students are now getting a deeper, more personalized level of training without the burden of turning out show after show.
Doing away with the youth series also has eased the logistical problems of staging two other seasons, running children's and adults' conservatories and working out a multitiered new-script development program.
Young audiences haven't been forgotten, Emmes said. In addition to the yearly recitals, SCR presents an annual Educational Touring Production, original musicals-with-a-message performed by professional adult actors at elementary schools and the occasional public venue. He seems especially proud of the work being done by the Teen Players in "Get on the Bus."
Laurie Woolery, acting Conservatory director and "Bus" director, says the hourlong play provides a good example of where SCR's new Young Conservatory is headed.
"So many kids take a [theater] class and figure, 'OK, I know how to act,' and they want to perform, perform, perform," Woolery said. "But there's this whole complex process that comes before that.
"Since SCR is known for developing new works, we wanted to do the same" for the Teen Players, said Woolery, an Equity actor and instructor who has been involved with SCR's youth programs for eight years.
"We've spent a lot of time talking, doing improvisation, dealing with the issues that are important to them and, through that, creating these big, bold wonderful characters," she said.
Woolery was surprised by the fervor with which the students took to the project, creating with Downey's guidance a story that she calls "a cross between 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Rent.' " The loose story line follows a disparate bunch of bus riders on a journey of self-exploration.
Some difficult themes are addressed, including feelings of isolation and rejection experienced by a lesbian character. All of the characters in the story "are trying to make a connection, trying to have someone see them for who they really are," Woolery said. "That's something everyone shares."
"Phoebe's Closet," South Coast Repertory Second Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 2 and 4 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. SCR's Teen Players also present "Get on the Bus" at 4 and 7 p.m. June 6, 4 p.m. June 7. $5. (714) 708-5555. SCR's Education Department: (714) 708-5577.