Lisa Neher and Gayle Pero, voices raised, were discussing their futures one recent morning as they awaited the start of Fullerton College's fifth annual High School Theatre Festival. The two freshmen from El Dorado High School in Placentia were among more than 700 competitors attending the two-day event.

"You going to take drama next year?" Lisa asked, as the two chatted in the campus theater.

"I don't know," Gayle responded. "Do you think? . . ."

"You should!" Lisa urged.

Started as an effort to recruit Orange County students to the college's theater arts department, the festival has grown to include competitors from Los Angeles and San Diego counties, with 23 schools represented this year. Some students, now seniors, have competed every year since they were freshmen.

"And they grow, " said Joyce Sciarrotta, one of the judges.

A prized example is Corona del Mar senior Lawrence O'Connor, who as a freshman won no awards.

Of his early efforts, Lawrence said: "What you think is good--the stuff you perform in beginning drama class--is nothing like the eye-openers you see other people doing. So you think: 'I can incorporate their stuff . . . .' "

This year, Lawrence won first place for poster design, shared another first with classmate Janis Thomas for musical theater and placed second in men's classical drama, with first honors going to classmate Marc Stewart. The Sweepstakes Award for overall performance was retained by Vista High in San Diego County. "For us," said Lawrence, "the competition means more than finals in CIF football."

Winners receive trophies or scholarships to the college's summer program for high school students.

In form, the festival resembles something of a track meet: A variety of events, both team and individual, take place simultaneously at many sites. The logistics are "a horror," according to co-chairman Tom Blank, an instructor at the college. Blank was quick to add, however, that the overall effect of intensive competition in many small areas gives students an accurate glimpse of professional theater life.

The competition in one-act plays had the aura of a road show, with each small company of actors and technicians hurrying to set up their play in an unfamiliar space while coping with the unforseen. One student from El Dorado, who had just finished performing Francis Swann's comedy, "Out of the Frying Pan," remarked to another in her troupe, "I think we did pretty well, considering somebody lost our props."

In another building, the women's competition in dramatic monologue had all the intensity of a Hollywood audition. Rebecca Van Bibber of El Dorado portrayed a woman trying to prove her sanity in a monologue from Tom Topor's courtroom drama, "Nuts." The only words from the judges in the back of the room were the chilly "Please begin," and the neutral, "Thank you."

In yet another structure, the competition in group improvisation was taking place. The judges, like directors at a rehearsal, sat close to the actors, tossing ideas, supporting the players with ready laughs. Two students from La Serna High School in Whittier were given three minutes to create a scene that would start on a note of "extreme giddiness and end with romantic love." The students conferred, then quickly pushed some chairs together and became two strangers riding the toboggan down Disneyland's Matterhorn. They fell in love and promised to meet again as soon as possible in Fantasyland, earning spontaneous applause from everyone in the room, including fellow competitors.

The most generous applause of the festival occurred after the solo performance of La Mirada student Greg Fosmire. In the finals of the one-act category, Greg, 17, portrayed an old man trying to make himself a morning cup of tea in Steven Tesich's "Touching Bottom." The character was broadly played--the obligatory stoop, the hand on the small of the back--and it was played with clarity.

Greg is the youngest of 11 children, most of whom, he said, went in for soccer. Greg, however, hid his soccer uniform in the closet so he wouldn't have to play. When Greg first walked into Robert Sessions' drama class at La Mirada High School he was "green, fresh and eager," Sessions recalled, and four years later he won two first-place festival trophies. And this is from a school whose drama department has no vocal instructor and whose theater has only 58 seats.

Festival judge R.G. Wilson, an original member of Los Angeles' improvisational troupe the Groundlings, when asked if any student participating in the Fullerton festival possessed more talent than he did, responded with an emphatic: "Yes."

"It's scary," he said, "but it's also very exciting. Some of these kids have it so much more together than I did in high school, partly because they have more information to plug into.

He paused, then gestured at the surroundings of the festival. "They have this. "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World