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Making theatrical lemonade from 'lemons'

August 07, 2007|Beth Shuster | Times Staff Writer

When Karen Kay Woods started teaching music in the Los Angeles Unified School District, it was as if she were Alice in Wonderland, falling down the rabbit hole. She was given 14 flutes; one worked. She had 56 students -- and 48 chairs. When she took her class on a field trip, she had to return hours early because the school buses hadn't been reserved for the day.

Only unlike Alice, Woods didn't wind up in Wonderland, she wound up in the not-so-wonderful world of school district red tape.

Still, she was able to turn the looking glass around, spinning her adventures at a Westside middle school into a one-woman play, "The Dance of the Lemons." In 70 minutes, Woods takes her audience through more than a year of nonsensical rules and regulations, poor administration and mostly helpless teachers.

"It was a far more foreign and complex world than I ever imagined," Woods said recently over tea at a Studio City cafe steps from Two Roads Theatre, where her play runs through Saturday. "I also found out that it had the most intense politics in a workplace that I'd ever seen."

Woods, 45, found those politics unbearable -- she was viewed as threatening and demanding after she asked for an accounting of a music grant her school had won. She received unsatisfactory performance reviews that she believes were a direct result of her questioning superiors, and she quit before completing her second year.

The main problem? "Incompetent administrators," she said, adding that she has known "hard-drinking bar managers" who had better skills. She said the principal had been removed from her job at a high school and "demoted" to middle school -- hence the title of the play, a reference to the practice of shuffling administrators from one school to another. "I really saw the dance of the lemons," she said.

Woods, whose father and sister are teachers, said she loved working with the mostly underprivileged students but that the school made her job almost impossible. She was the only full-time music teacher and, as she says in the play and later in an interview, she had no supplies, few working instruments and decades-old music books. She was even told she had to buy a chalkboard herself -- if she wanted one.

And the paperwork. Form after form was required for instrument repairs, more chairs, supplies. The roll book had to be filled out exactly the right way (no mark if a student is present, a dash if the student is absent, a slash if the student is enrolled but hasn't shown up, a dot if the absence is approved, and the list goes on).

And there was no end to faculty meetings -- one of which included the principal teaching "ice-breaking" exercises for an hour.

At a recent show, teachers in the audience were clearly delighted by these references, laughing knowingly at the jabs. Many heard about the show through word-of-mouth and others through reviews -- one of which noted that "colorful characters spring to life as the buoyant and determined new teacher confronts a seething idiocracy and its purple-vested, flying monkey minions."

Woods said the teachers at her school -- which she did not name in the show or in an interview -- were dedicated and smart. But they had little time to help out a first-time teacher.

Woods acknowledges that she took artistic license with the show -- describing the principal as a cross between George and Laura Bush, for example, and taking experiences from her second year and adding them to her first. Her initial draft of the play ran three hours, but director Ann Starbuck helped condense it.

Starbuck, who has a theater background and works for HBO Films, said she was drawn to the play because of the personal statement Woods makes about the state of education in Los Angeles. The director, who is nine months pregnant with her first child, says she is already nervous about schools.

To Starbuck, the sad thing is that a teacher with Woods' drive and energy was "chewed up and spit out" by the system.

But Woods hasn't given up hope. She said she would like to return to teaching at some point. For now, Woods is concentrating on her show.

The teacher-turned-actress lives in Studio City with her husband and two dogs. She has a degree in music education but has had a varied career including a stint as a radio reporter and producer, and she completed a year at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. She was a cabaret singer there before coming to L.A. as a freelance writer. She began teaching in 2003.

A native of North Dakota, Woods said her public school experience was worlds different than being in Los Angeles Unified. For one thing, "the district in Los Angeles has the same number of students as the population of the state I grew up in," she said. For another, her school had grass (yes, the green stuff) and the music classes had instruments (she played the oboe).

By contrast, she said L.A. Unified schools are painted "prison beige," covered in black asphalt and terribly uninviting.

Overall, Woods said Los Angeles Unified's entrenched bureaucracy needs to be reorganized, and teachers need more support.

When Woods was trying to quit, she ran up against another example of the byzantine school system, the nation's second largest. She was sent to five different departments to get her W-2 form for taxes. "How can they not know what department handles W-2 forms?" she asked, her eyes widening. "Even when I tried to leave, I had a difficult time."

So what would help Los Angeles schools? Woods gives Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa some credit for taking on the district, but she's not sure ambitious politicians can do enough. "I feel like the whole system needs to be revamped, reworked," she said. "I'm convinced we, as a society, can fix this."


'The Dance of the Lemons'

Where: Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Ends: Saturday

Price: $20

Contact: (866) 811-4111

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