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Troubled Teens Learn the Ropes

Arts: Ojai marionette program aims to help students at risk of dropping out. Today's show honors Chavez.


On a stage at Chaparral Continuation High School, Miguel Gonzalez concentrates on the mass of strings before him. Tug on this one and Tara the Ant's mouth moves. Pull that one to bat her eyelashes.

Patrick Kraft, who wears a Mohawk, ripped clothes and metal studs and spikes, hovers intently above Castor, a cheerful lizard dressed in an iridescent robe.

And manning the strings for Holly, a sweet-voiced prairie mouse, is Povl Rueger, a tough-talking kid from Bakersfield sent to this Ojai school to straighten up.

These unlikely puppeteers are part of a new student-run marionette company at the continuation school--the place where high school students typically go when they get in trouble or fall behind in their classes.

The project, a partnership with the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, aims to educate the community about environmental and social issues while giving these at-risk teenagers an opportunity to create art.

"I didn't think I would like it. It seemed kind of lame," said Miguel, 16. "But now I'm into it. And I'm a part of something."

The group, called Imaginaryum, spent last week rehearsing for its debut production, a play in honor of farm labor advocate Cesar Chavez, which they will perform for the community this afternoon as part of a Cesar Chavez Day celebration.

Featuring six marionettes that were handcrafted by the Olde World Puppet Theater in Portland, Ore., the show tells the story of a fictional meeting between the late Chavez and five animal characters. The characters travel in the "Topa-Luna Open Space Ship," which is powered by the moon and the "pink moments" for which Ojai's sunsets are known.

They meet Chavez in an Ojai meadow while they are out gathering food.

Through their interactions, the characters impart some of Chavez's values--from nonviolence to respect for life--as required by the state grant that funded the bulk of the project, said Pete Johnson, an education coordinator at the conservancy.

The partnership between the school district and the conservancy has also received funding from the city of Ojai, Ojai Valley Youth Foundation and other local groups. Animators, sound experts and puppeteers from California Institute of the Arts in Valencia have helped the students put the performance together.

After the Cesar Chavez production, the conservancy will continue using the five animal puppets--which also include a quail named Quilly and a slug named Professor Salt N. Puff--to illustrate messages to schoolchildren about the importance of open space and the environment.

Johnson came up with the idea after seeing a show put on by the Olde World Puppet Theater. "I think this is a great vessel for education," he said.

Chaparral Principal Steve Olsen said he has seen a difference in the students. "They have more of a sense of responsibility, and they have more self-esteem," he said. "I would say many of them might not even be at school right now if it wasn't for this program."

During the last two months, 10 Chaparral students have written a script, learned how to work their respective puppets and created a set for the production. Last week, Johnson and the play's director, Beth Peterson, took them on a trip to CalArts to record the characters' voices.

Chaparral students Erica Sandefur, 19, and Christal Sharp, 16, said the experience has opened up doors for them.

"When we went to CalArts, I couldn't believe what I saw, and now I really want to go there," Sandefur said. "I never thought of going to college before--ever."

Sparking an interest in the arts is one of the project's primary goals, Johnson said, which is precisely why he wanted to work with teenagers considered at risk of dropping out.

"If we can get them doing something artistic and creative, it can draw them back and give them another way to connect."


A community festival, "Kids Connecting with the Community," will be held today from 4 to 7 p.m. in the auditorium and courtyard of Chaparral Continuation High School, 414 E. Ojai Ave. The student-produced marionette show will be presented at 4:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., when a Spanish translation will be available, and 6:30 p.m.

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