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A Shocking Lyricism

Susan Rubin prided herself on inspiring aimless high school students to write plays by getting under their skin. Then she met a group that started getting under hers.

August 27, 2000|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A playwright named Susan Rubin strides into Canoga Park High School, steeling herself for what lies ahead.

She has a track record to maintain.

No excuse-spouting, class-ditching teenagers, no matter how desperate their circumstances, are going to keep her from reaching her goal: In 12 weeks, each of the three dozen 10th-graders she's about to confront will turn in a full-length play.

OK, so 60% get flunking grades, 90% have never seen a live theatrical production, and some will ditch half the time. She--no, not she, they--can do it.

Today, her first on campus this semester, Rubin compulsively greets students she recognizes at Canoga High. Her eyes magnified by thick glasses, her 5-foot-3 frame revved up on neurotic New York energy, Rubin prepares herself for studied nonchalance from tough, working-class kids, many of whom who view high school as the good times before they start the same type of uninspiring, low-paying jobs their parents toil at each day.

She knows she must listen to them, encourage them and believe in them, no matter how sullen and disrespectful they may be. As she takes over their English class a couple times a week, she must coax from them stories they unknowingly hold deep inside. She will hear from Sean, a small boy with a neurological disorder, taunted for being different; Katy, a tall, long-haired swimmer who writes to remember her dead mother; Eric, who sits with hunched shoulders in a black T-shirt thinking about how he wishes he was dead; Josh, a spiky-haired comedian whose humor forges a link to the father who abandoned him; and Anthony, a lanky, baby-faced boy who has failed before and just might fail again. If every student completes a play, she tells herself, she has succeeded. If even a single one falls short, she has failed.

Rubin, who makes her living as artistic director of the downtown L.A. Indecent Exposure Theater Company, has taught playwriting in Los Angeles Unified schools for five years, and she is proud of her record.

"I've had one kid in all the time I've been teaching who didn't turn in a play," she says on this first day at Canoga. "He had committed murder the day before."

*

Feb. 22

The bell rings at 1:13 p.m., and the fidgety students fall into their seats for the first class after lunch. Hormones and high-voltage adolescent energy ricochet around the room.

"This is Susan Rubin, an accomplished playwright, and she is going to help you write plays," the English teacher, Beth Kelley, says over the din.

The kids look at Kelley as if she is speaking Urdu.

Rubin strides to the front of the room as if she were the star of a wacky, one-woman stage show, all hands, elbows and facial contortions.

"I'm here to get you to write a play," she announces. "Why would I come here to teach you to write plays?"

"So you can produce it?" asks one student, barely interested.

"So you can make money from our imaginations?" asks another.

Despite their cynicism, the frizzy-haired woman who dresses in black, loose-fitting clothing commands their attention. She leans forward with the bribe: "Let's make a deal. I'm going to do my side. If you do all the work, you will get an A."

She hands them a photocopied list of their "toolbox" containing the ingredients they will need to write a play: a theme, characters, a conflict.

"I'm interested in what makes you sad, what makes you happy, who you love, what makes you mad," Rubin tells them. "How many of you get along with your family and siblings, just like in 'Leave It to Beaver'?"

A boy raises his hand.

"Write that for me," she says. "That will be hilarious."

She asks them if they have ever encountered injustice. Some nod. Boys gaze into space. Girls apply lipstick, peering into tiny pocket mirrors. Rubin is losing them. But she keeps up the animated patter, addressing those who respond.

"Was it police? Your family? Friends? What was it?" she asks a boy curled up cross-legged and fetal-like in his desk chair.

"It was the way I was born," says Sean, who has cerebral palsy.

"I want to hear that story," she says, looking into his eyes. "That is an interesting story. I would bend myself into a pretzel if I could hear that story."

They giggle.

She tells the students that all their plays will be published in a bound volume and read by professionals--people they see on television and in the movies. No, not Bruce Willis or Pamela Anderson.

Here are the rules: no curse words; about 10 minutes in length; and stay away from schlocky TV writing.

"I'm looking for stories that are inside your heart," she says.

"Can you just grab a movie and, like, redo it?" asks Anthony, who flunked 10th-grade English last year and is experiencing Rubin for the second time.

"No," she says, "because I want to hear your stories. If I wanted to hear from Madonna, I would get her on the phone."

They stop, genuinely impressed for the first time. She lets them believe it. She tells them to come to the next class with a theme. The bell rings and they scramble for the door, almost knocking her over.

*

Feb. 28

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