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IN THE CLASSROOM

At This School, Life Is Framed by the Arts

The summer program in Valencia immerses 517 students in dance, film and video, music, theater and other subjects.

August 13, 2003|Errin Haines | Times Staff Writer

It's lunch at the California State Summer School for the Arts, but even in their downtime, the students can't help themselves from performing: One sings the menu to a friend, another pirouettes by the fountain drink machine. Nearby, two students drum a beat on their trays.

For the 517 participants in the program, also known as InnerSpark, art isn't just what they do, it's who they are.

"Music is just my life," said Jewel Taylor, an InnerSpark vocalist who also plays the piano. "It's what I breathe. It's my air."

Each summer, InnerSpark instructors make sure high school students such as Jewel, a 15-year-old incoming senior from Bakersfield, inhale their fill. Over a month, the program immerses aspiring entertainers in an all arts, all the time curriculum. They live on campus at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, the program's home.

Typical days can easily last 12 hours, beginning with breakfast at 8 a.m., followed by classes from 9 in the morning to as late as 6 in the evening, with an hour break for lunch. After dinner, students continue to work on projects, attend performances or set up impromptu jam sessions in dorm hallways.

"It's an incredible opportunity for pre-professionals to get an immersion into art," said Michael Fields, who has been chairman of the program's theater department for 15 years. "For my students, they get to broaden their vision of what theater is and what the life of someone who gets involved in this might be.

"Whether they ever practice theater or not is inconsequential; this has the potential to change someone for the better," Fields said.

InnerSpark was established by the Legislature in 1985 and has trained more than 7,000 young artists in animation, creative writing, dance, film and video, music, theater and the visual arts. This year's session ended last week.

The program is highly competitive; only one in three applicants is accepted each year. Seventeen this summer hailed from areas outside California, including Texas, New York, Washington, South Korea and Thailand.

No California student is denied admission because of inability to pay the tuition, which ranges from $1,590 for in-state students to $3,885 for out-of-state participants. This year, 46% of attendees were given need-based financial assistance.

For their work, InnerSpark participants may receive three units of California State University elective credit.

"When they come in, we presume they start with a basic knowledge, so we don't see our job as repeating what they're already doing in their high schools or private tutelage," director Robert M. Jaffe said. "What we see ourselves doing is giving them the stuff they don't have access to."

Lana Limon, a junior at Hamilton Music Academy Magnet in Los Angeles, said she has been singing "since I popped out of my mom," and admitted she was torn between her dream of becoming a singer, or following her parents' advice to pursue a more secure career. For the last two summers, the 16-year-old has come to InnerSpark -- last year as a theater major and this year in the music program.

"I love the environment," Lana said. "It's so creative, and people are genuinely willing to help each other out. I go to a music academy, but here people aren't stuck up. Everybody here is in the same boat."

The singer added that her experience helped her improve more than just her voice and acting abilities. One friend is teaching her to play the guitar.

InnerSpark is a $1.9-million operation, about half of which is funded by the state. The rest comes from school fees, grants, the program's endowment and donations.

The state budget crisis has reduced InnerSpark's state funding by nearly $200,000 for next year, Jaffe said, and could affect the program's ability to attract teachers.

In addition, many of the artist-instructors receive support from the California Arts Council -- whose budget was also drastically cut this year.

Jaffe said the cuts could reduce enrollment for next year and the program could raise fees by 20% -- still a bargain for in-state students, he said.

Jack Johnson -- a Brentwood High School junior, not the singer -- came to InnerSpark to work on his guitar playing but has since found an additional passion: African dance. That class is a mandatory cultural component of the program for all music students.

"I happen to really love it," said the 16-year-old, peering out enthusiastically through glasses and shaggy blond hair.

"Socially, this is amazing," Jack added. "You're never surrounded by 500 artists. At school, it's the jocks, musicians and slackers. And art is so much more of an experience than hitting someone on the football field."

Other students caught the art bug later in life but are just as enthusiastic as their more seasoned peers. David Waiters, who graduated this year from Edison High School in Stockton, took an acting class his senior year as an easy elective.

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