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Potent 'Recipes' for Growth of Young Playwrights


Jarryd Zanzyl's first play is an underwater ocean adventure about a man who dreams he's James Bond in dogged pursuit of Goldfishy. When two professional actors debut his work Friday night, the playwright will be sitting at a desk on stage, taking it all in. He's also there for another reason: to remind the audience that the play was written by a child.

Zanzyl is 11. The seven other one-act plays that will be presented Friday and Saturday at Barnsdall Art Park also are written by children who range in age from 8 to 16. But they are directed and performed by grown-up professionals, part of an ongoing playwriting workshop by the Virginia Avenue Project in Santa Monica.

"We bring kids who are growing up under difficult circumstances together with professional artists to create original theater," says Leigh Curran, the program's artistic director. The project, established in 1992, also holds several other outreach programs, including weeklong summer retreats in Ojai, where children and working artists present plays written by professionals.

"To use an overused word, it's an 'empowerment' program. We are not training kids to be professional actors or writers," Curran says. "We are using writing and performance to help them get in touch with who they are, to grow in self-confidence for their own journey in life."

The journey to this weekend's performances of "Secret Family Recipes" began a little more than a month ago. The playmaking classes meet twice a week after school for two-hour sessions, and the plays are written during an intense weekend workshop in which the directors and would-be playwrights go away together to craft the work. (In this case, it was a Hollywood industry couple's Encino home.)

In the weekly classes, the children learn some of the fundamental tools of playwriting, including how to create a character and the importance of conflict, says Jane Atkins, one of the project's two playmaking teachers. Theater games that lead into writing exercises also are played.

Before writing their plays, the young writers interview the actors who will perform their work. The actors are working professionals who volunteer with the Virginia Avenue Project, Curran says. This session's crop includes some actors known for their television work--Bill Fagerbakke of "Coach," Roma Maffia of "The Profiler" and Marita DeLeon, who was a longtime regular on "The Young and the Restless" and has appeared on "The Practice."

Aranzasu De La O, 16 and a junior at Santa Monica High School, wrote "A Touch of Internal Lightning" after interviewing the two actresses who will perform her 10-minute piece. She based one of the characters on a food one actress likes and was inspired by nature as she sat outside writing. The metaphorical work is about lightning and a cloud that learn they need each other.

The eight plays are held together by the "Secret Family Recipes" theme. Each play is supposed to contain a recipe, but it is not necessarily one that can be concocted in the kitchen.

"I was intrigued by a book of recipes by kids that said things like, 'Don't put your hand on the hot thing.' And their idea of what made up spaghetti included no pasta whatsoever," Curran says. "So I thought, what would happen if we asked kids to come up with a recipe? 'Sophisticated' and 'whimsical' are the two operational words for what they have come up with."

Most of the plays require a leap of faith, Curran says. De La O's recipe for caring is presented in a song that pulls cultural references from her Spanish heritage. Zanzyl's is a moral-of-the-story message about the importance of saving sea life. There are recipes for romance and friendship, safety and ghost magic. And a recipe that goes awry when two sisters end up on top of a cake instead of eating it.

As they write the plays, the children's preoccupations come out, Atkins says. "The last two groups have been extremely forthcoming and full of ideas. I listen to what they come up with, and it makes me feel like a hack. It's so fresh and unadulterated. It kind of makes me see that before we get talked out of it, everyone seems to be a fountain of ideas and stories. It's just a matter of trying to create a safe atmosphere."

The volunteers tend to agree, Atkins says. "During our final performance, everyone will say what their experience was, and over and over, the professionals will say, 'Oh, this is why I went into the business.'

"It's kind of a community storytelling group thing. It just unfolds with a lot of respect and fun and sharing," she says. "People always seem to go out of the theater with a smile . . . that they can't wipe off."

Zanzyl expects to be smiling a lot this weekend. He wrote "The Russian French Speaking Fish" because the two actors who will perform it--Zander Stephano and Dennison Samaroo--said they had always wanted to act as someone making a difference.

"I learned I could incorporate stuff that the actors would probably like into something I could write," the sixth-grader said. "I just learned a lot about friendship during the writing 'cause I made a lot of new friends. Now I've written a play that someone is going to act out. I kind of think I'm a writer now."


"Secret Family Recipes" will be presented Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. at Gallery Theater, Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Free. Seats must be reserved. Call (310) 330-8860.

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