Junior Mike Strickland is a student-athlete at Estancia High School who is facing an unusual dilemma. For most high school athletes, the problem is picking which sport to concentrate on in the hopes of becoming good enough to earn a scholarship.
Strickland's choices are not between sports, but rather between athletics and acting. He runs track and is an end on the Estancia varsity football team, but his best work at school thus far has come as part of the school's drama program.
He has the size--6-feet 2-inches, 175 pounds--to develop into a very good athlete, but currently seems to be more comfortable on a stage than an athletic field. Both endeavors take considerable practice time, which means he may have to choose between the two if he hopes to develop his potential.
His teammate and best friend, Eric Dorn, is a better hurdler and football player. And fellow drama student Randy O'Reilly, who programs computers in his spare time, has more stage presence.
But nobody else at the school combines the two with as much consistency as this rather mature 16 year old does.
Mike Strickland is not quite a star on the stage or the athletic field, but he appears to be on his way. He is developing more quickly in drama, where aside from the school plays, he has earned a part in a minor commercial film, playing a teen-ager with an alcohol problem.
Said Estancia drama teacher Barbara Van Holt: "What you look for in young actors is not raw talent or charisma, but honesty. You could see that in Mike as a little 14 year old, and even more so now.
"In terms of his ability, if he continues at this rate of growth, he could make a career of it. With every piece of work he gets better."
The Estancia drama program has a reputation as being among the best in Orange County. Van Holt's productions have taken a first place--for either best scene, best actor or best actress--in 19 of the last 22 student competitions they've entered. That's a record the school's athletic teams might admire.
Tryouts for the Estancia Production Drama class are as competitive as they are for any of the varsity sports. But the rewards for those who make the cut, such as Strickland, are immediate and tangible.
At the end of January, for example, the Estancia group entered a competition, along with 20 other schools, at the Ahmanson Theatre in the Music Center in Los Angeles and came away with the first-place prize.
Strickland even cornered one of the judges, actor Matthew Broderick, star of the movie "War Games" and the Neil Simon play "Biloxi Blues," to discuss a career in acting.
"He was real friendly," Strickland said. "I guess it proved that stars are people, too. I didn't know that he didn't even get his start until two to three years out of high school. It was kind of inspiring."
At Estancia, combining sports and drama often leads to headaches for the coaches and Van Holt. Student-athletes such as Strickland, who want to perform in the school plays, have difficulty balancing rehearsals with the practice and game schedules of their respective sports.
Once, Van Holt even kept 300 people in an audience waiting half an hour for a baseball player to finish his game and then play the role of Kenickie in the musical "Grease." Many other times, athlete-actors have missed practice to be with the drama class.
Within athletics, Strickland finds the same type of excitement that his drama work often generates, and he has tried to be as diverse in his athletic roles as he has been in his dramatic ones.
At a recent track and field meet against Dana Hills, Strickland won both hurdles races as well as anchoring the winning 440-yard relay, on the junior varsity level. He also competed in the pole vault for the first time, and won.
"Ladies and gentlemen: Estancia High School with 'Scenes From American Life. ' "
The 29th annual Cal State Long Beach Theatre Festival is a beehive of activity both on and back stage at the university's Studio Theatre.
High schools from all over the Southland, including Estancia, Fountain Valley, Ocean View, Tustin and Corona del Mar, each present a half-hour of drama ranging from the works of Neil Simon to Harold Pinter to Ray Bradbury. Most are in costume; West Torrance actors are in mime faces.
For the Estancia ensemble the pre-stage jitters are similar to those of a football or basketball team waiting in a locker room for a game to begin. Some relax, some exercise the nervous energy away and still others begin repeating their lines.
By the time they hit the stage with their adult-situation series of vignettes--Van Holt chose the play because it allows a maximum number of students to perform--the Estancia students approach the challenge with as much energy and class as a dozen teen-agers can muster.
Strickland is involved in two of the scenes, one an opening monologue and the other a three-man act near the end of the play. The honesty Van Holt talks about is present in Strickland's performance.
Strickland is one of several Estancia students to win individual noncompetitive awards, but the ultimate compliment to the Estancia ensemble would have to come from a peer from another high school.
Whispering to a neighbor in the audience, she said, "Hey, these guys are good ."
It is not always easy for a high school student such as Strickland to excel in his areas of interest, but that's not just because of the demands on his time.
"I can't win," Strickland notes with a laugh, "because to the football players, I'm a 'drama queeb' (teen-age vernacular for an unpopular peer), and to the drama people, I'm a 'meathead' because of football.
"It's like in 'The Breakfast Club.' Everybody has a role to play, and they don't know how to handle it if you step out."
As to whether Strickland ultimately pursues drama or athletics, only time and his talent in each field will tell.