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Confessions of a teen Tevye

The school play is a rite of passage that can set the stage for a more confident, empathetic, even magical life.

June 01, 2003|David Rambo | Special to The Times

Here's my prediction about Seth Kamenow: Years after his graduation in June from L.A. Unified School District's Hamilton Academy of Music, he won't be able to name any of the songs played at his prom, nor will he be able to tell you anything that the speakers at his commencement had to say.

However, Seth will, for the rest of his life, remember significant chunks of the songs from "Kiss Me, Kate." He may even remember some of the dance moves he performed in the chorus of Hamilton's production of that Cole Porter musical this spring.

The high school play or musical is one of those events that occurs at just the right time and just the right place to leave an imprint on its participants forever after. I know this. It's been 30 years since I padded my 115-pound frame, spirit-gummed a beard to my pimpled face and made the most convincing approximation of Hebrew prayer a 17-year-old Pennsylvania Lutheran could improvise. Yet when I hear "If I Were a Rich Man" on the supermarket sound system, my shopping cart becomes Tevye's milk wagon, and for a few moments I'm in my private Anatevka, sweetly and vividly remembered.

The fair lady sniffing melons flashes a knowing smile my way as she hums along with "I Could Have Danced All Night," her feet recalling steps learned in hundreds of hours of after-school practice sessions. Notice that stout middle-aged fellow in the checkout line mouthing "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" under his breath? Want to bet he was once in his school's "Guys and Dolls"?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Illustrator's name -- For a June 1 essay Sunday Calendar on school plays as a rite of passage, the accompanying illustration was by William Bramhall. His last name was misspelled Brramhall.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 08, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Illustrator's name -- For a June 1 essay on school plays as a rite of passage, the accompanying illustration was by William Bramhall. His last name was misspelled Brramhall.

Playing a role in the high school play is an enduring experience; indeed the idea itself of putting on a high school play is as perennial as fall football and spring graduation.

In spite of budget cuts for arts education, the unavailability of recent popular shows (high school performance rights for "Les Miserables" became available only last year), and the "adult" language and themes of much contemporary drama, schools and students still want to present plays and communities want to see them.


I think it all comes down to the idea of transformation. So much of the joy of performance is in the "abracadabra!" moment. The magician's flash paper becomes a fluttering dove. The girl in toe shoes becomes a swan. A stage manager speaks to us from an empty stage, and we see the New England village he tells us is there.

Those magic moments

We know as the school auditorium lights go out that we're about to witness an enormous risk -- putting oneself on display. The stage lights come up, and the kids appear. They're in control, groomed and highlighted, word-perfect and alert and listening to one another. "Abracadabra!" That's our boy or girl on the stage, transformed. We're transformed too -- elated, reassured, satisfied.

And isn't transformation the essence of adolescence? The rehearsal and performance experience is, in a way, a metaphor for those years.

At first, the teen actor, like his offstage self, feels awkward: "How do I look?" "What do I do with my hands?" "Does what I just said sound dumb?" "Will they laugh?" "Will they like me?" Suddenly, after a few weeks, without warning, a confidence-making moment of self-realization strikes: Instead of the customary offstage feeling of never knowing the right thing to say, onstage the words are there and they're perfect. What to wear, how to move, how to act -- they're all part of the script. At last!

A book-burdened girl stares at the floor as she shuffles between classes. Maybe she eats her lunches alone. Other girls seem more confident, more knowing and more popular. But put her on stage as Annie Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker," and she's the ruler of the universe, teaching Helen Keller to communicate with the hearing, seeing, speaking world. She's the embodiment of determination, intelligence and love at the water pump as Helen speaks for the first time. Transformed. Mature. The Monday after the performances, the school hallways are less isolating.

Drew Messinger-Michaels, a sophomore at Hamilton in Los Angeles, knows the feeling. "The thing about performing," says the 16-year-old member of the "Kiss Me, Kate" cast, "is it's making or doing something better than yourself."

Stan Wlasick, who has taught drama and directed four shows a year since 1980 at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, would agree with that. "The kids are so unafraid and willing to take risks. It's exciting for them and safe for them," he says. "They can reveal things they can't reveal in everyday life; if they're shy in life, they can come out and be something else on stage."

The newfound confidence isn't left on the stage or the costume rack after the final performance. Wlasick thinks the most rewarding part of his job is "to make the students feel more comfortable expressing their ideas in front of people." He adds: "Drama opens their eyes, and they're able to be more empathetic."

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