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Youth Arts Festival Expands in Second Year


A "Cyrano" from Belgium, hopscotch from Bolivia, Balinese shadow puppets, African drumming . . . this is not your usual family fare.

An expanded International Performing Arts Festival for Youth, which began last year as a modest but impressive home-grown event at USC, has returned to the campus this week. After three days of schools-only events, it opens to the general public on Saturday with an action-packed, multicultural Family Arts Safari Day, from noon to 4:30 p.m. on two outdoor stages and indoors in two USC theaters.

The centerpiece of the festival is Blauw Vier Theatre of Belgium's critically acclaimed production of Edmond Rostand's 19th century classic, "Cyrano," a collaboration with Seattle Children's Theatre.

"Cyrano" is the festival's first big step toward its ultimate goal: exposing young audiences here to top theater companies from around the world. Executive director Tami Tirgrath can't contain her delight.

"It's very difficult to get international acts on a small budget, especially ones that are so top-notch," she said, "and for that we're all very excited."

But this is a family play day in more ways than one, with a host of things for preschoolers, grade schoolers and teenagers to do and see, including another major attraction: Center of Childhood's unusual presentation, "Hopscotch City."

It's a hopscotch extravaganza that includes hopscotch folklore from around the world, because this evergreen children's game, it turns out, goes way back: It was played in ancient Rome. Limber festival-goers of any age can learn how it was played then and how it's played now in Japan, Africa, Europe and South America.

Mask-making with the Los Angeles Children's Museum won raves last year and it's back again; a sci-fi show, "The Environmental Defenders," gets kids into the act with games and role-playing, and there's more hands-on participation with Bali & Beyond's shadow puppets and International Puppet Guild workshops.

Dennis Moynihan, a musician and comedian with an international following, will serve up banjo buffoonery, and there's a smorgasbord of student performances, folk dancers and street performers.

Blauw Vier's unusual production of "Cyrano," directed by artistic director Jo Roets, is for teenagers and older pre-teens. It's as much about emotional resonance as creativity.

Roets staged the multicharacter epic as a one-act play with three actors, and found in the complex, gallant Cyrano a parallel to teenage self-consciousness and angst.

Using radio theater techniques--the actors provide sound effects using what Roets describes as "little toys and props, bells and iron bars you can make noises with"--the Flemish director trimmed the political aspects of the tale and focused on the personal: the triangle between Cyrano, Roxanne and dashing Christian, who wins her with Cyrano's words.

To heighten awareness of Cyrano's self-imposed barrier to happiness and relate it to modern ideals of beauty that pressure teenagers, actor Todd Jefferson Moore plays the part without a fake nose.

"For me, the problem of Cyrano is in his head, not his nose," Roets says via telephone from Antwerp, Belgium. "In our society, and I think also American society, the importance of being [attractive] is a problem with teens. I wanted to show that there is not a physical problem here, there is a problem in our thinking about being perfect."

When Linda Hartsell, Seattle Children's Theatre artistic director, saw Roets' "Cyrano," she was so taken with it she asked him to translate it from Dutch to English and stage it in Seattle.

"It was so strong," she said. "It's a wonderful script, three actors and a bare-bones stage--[and] a focus on the relationships and the love and Cyrano's eloquence with language. It's one of the best-directed minimal-set shows I've ever seen."

It's also "as far from cutesy fake fur, dancing bear stuff as theater for youth can be," Hartsell said. "For a long time, you were getting sort of starter theater for young audiences. Either people starting out in the field, just waiting to move on to something better, or it wasn't sophisticated work. That's not the case anymore."

The hands-on, year-round support of USC's School of Theater and the Office of Summer and Special Programs has been crucial to the festival's survival so far. Its staunchest ally is Robert Scales, dean of the School of Theater.

Scales hopes that the quality and variety of the offerings will spark an "Ahh, this is interesting, what else is there that I might go see?" response, and that young people interested in the arts hear another message: "If you're good in art and dance, if you have music in your head, why aren't you doing that?"


The International Performing Arts Festival for Youth: Family Arts Safari Day, USC, University Park Campus, Saturday, noon to 4:30 p.m. Gate 5 on West Jefferson Boulevard (parking structure D), or Gate 3 on Figueroa Street at West 35th Street (parking structure X). "Cyrano" performances at 1 and 3 p.m. in the Bing Theatre: $10; children, $5. All other entertainment is free. Parking: $3. (213) 740-7111.

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