Make-Believe Helps to Ripen Those of Tender Age : 'Theatre Experience' Plumbs the Emotions

Times Staff Writer

There are two new kids on the block in the game of children's theater. UC San Diego and the La Jolla Playhouse are offering an extension course for teens called The Theatre Experience and the Saturday Play Company in Del Mar is putting on shows for children.

" Kids, what's the matter with kids today? Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way? " -- From the Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie"

The language may have changed, but the question is the same. Why aren't kids perfect? Why can't they be like we were? Why can't they at least look like we do?

At UC San Diego on a recent afternoon, the outward signs were straight out of MTV: girls wearing lots of black and sporting Marine-like flattops; youths with purple pony tails but talking, Yuppie-like, about megabuck careers and early "security."

Digging a little deeper, though, one soon found out that what was on the minds of 31 people between the ages of 13 and 18 wasn't exactly shallow wanderings. They included, in no particular order, death, divorce, drugs and love. And, of course, sex.

The forum was "The Theatre Experience," part of an educational program offered jointly by UCSD Extension and the La Jolla Playhouse (located on campus). The aim is to further self-expression through drama, to teach people of several age groups the fine points of theater art and, simply, teachers say, to have fun. And because of the topics covered, it's often therapeutic.

While other programs are offered to adults and younger children, none seems to plumb the emotions quite as well as "The Theatre Experience." One student said he wished he had a nickel for every tear that was shed in the course of getting a scene right. Maybe it's just that teen-agers forced to draw from within themselves are bound to cry--it's a crying age--but maybe it's also because, as an onlooker suggested, kids simply feel more.

One might ask who could have fun talking about death, divorce, drugs and love. And, of course, sex. But somehow, these actors managed to do it.

"I find myself walking away from these days thinking a whole lot about what I went through when I was young," said Bonnie Johnston, 33, one of two instructors charged with leading the program. "My growing up was similar to what they've gone through, but they've had trauma, lots of deaths . . . I've never had trauma and have lost hardly anyone through death. I come home ragged sometimes. What these kids go through is amazing."

For the most part, they are children of affluent parents. They would have to be to afford tuition--$350 for 16 class days and one performance day. Many have parents who are divorced, and they seem troubled--if not preoccupied--by death.

"They see a lot of it," Johnston said. "They have friends who commit suicide, they see it on television a whole lot. They are not strangers, as my generation might have been, to death."

Linda Powledge, a 17-year-old student at Poway High School, has come away from rehearsals "overwhelmed" by death.

"I've never had a major downer," she said, "and some of these kids are really freaking me out. I still have everybody close to me--I haven't lost anybody, not even a grandparent--and the thought of losing them is terrifying. Plus I've had to confront my own feelings toward death and have come away very unsettled."

To hear Powledge talk, in an almost-teary soliloquy, was itself an unusual moment. She was dressed in a purple gown with elaborate jewelry and more makeup than Mae West on opening night: the Madonna look-alike for a rock band as part of the play the group was rehearsing.

"Without a Net" is a treatise on growing up in the '80s. What it suggests, Johnston says, is that growing up means mostly "getting taller"--through a series of taxing stages.

Chris Grasso, 15, is a little bit younger than Powledge but had a clearer reading, it seemed, on the meaning of death--the most taxing stage--and why it's troubling to one so young.

"You don't know what's gonna come after," he said with a smile. "You don't know . . . where you're gonna go." His opinion for why kids are so "strung out" over death: They're terrified of nuclear war.

Grasso is one of several in the class from outside San Diego County. He hails from West Haven, Conn., and is taking the class at the urging of his uncle, whom he's visiting for the summer. Others are from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A big, good-natured kid with a New England accent thicker than maple syrup, Grasso says Southern California kids are "much friendlier" than those from "the jaded East" and that the girls "are a lot cuter." He said that despite talk of "heavies" (such as death and its morbid cousins) the class had been "an incredible bunch of fun." He said he'll regret going back to where he will undoubtedly be teased about how he spent his summer vacation.

He said he had learned a lot about drama and other kids, especially that they can be trusting and loving when choosing to be vulnerable.

Dating was just one of the subjects tackled, and one could tell from the nervous titters, the blushed faces and revealing body language that it's right up there with death as a subject of tense propriety.

One scene, gone over meticulously by Johnston, involved dating.

"Hector, you look great in that leotard, man," one girl said, acting it out. "It really turns me on."

"Stay and watch us dance," he said with bored indifference, "then you'll really get turned on."

Johnston worked and reworked the scene, trying for just the right come-on in the girl's manner and voice (even having her finger curl his hair) and just the right tone of nervous sarcasm in his.

In another scene a love-sick girl bumps into a heartthrob in the hallway outside class.

"The strangest thing happened to me the other day," she said. "I was coming out of class and I banged into Chester Marlowe . . . He put his hands on my shoulder so I wouldn't fall"--barely able to conceal her rapture--"and he said, 'Are you OK?' I said, 'Yesssss . . . ' "

Every student out of more than a dozen interviewed said the quality of teaching from Johnston and Bill Anton, a San Diego Repertory actor who's assisting, was . . .! and they cited a truckload of teen-age superlatives. Ted Clark, a 15-year-old student of Monte Vista High School, who has ambitions for "Saturday Night Live," went so far as to say that one of the main reasons he's in the class is that the Johnston-Anton team far exceeds any he's seen in school.

Johnston, a bright, inquisitive woman who seems to radiate energy, is aware of the compliment tinged with a criticism.

"I think teachers have an amazingly tough job," she said. "First of all, they're told what to teach. No one tells me what to teach. If I want to go off talking about birth control and pregnancy, I can. And the students appreciate hearing that kind of honesty. Our experience is a whole different thing from being in the classroom every day.

"I think education should be an experience. It all can't be done in books. A lot of high school students wonder why they don't like Shakespeare. Aren't they supposed to like Shakespeare? I learned from my experience that you have to act Shakespeare to love him. Just reading him would be a drag. We try to get over 'the drags' in this class."

Evidently, they've done it. The program, now in its second year, has tackled such time-bomb topics as teen suicide. Twelve-year-old Kent Duncan, a walking, talking brain , said the approach has given him a new insight.

"I never knew much about suicide before," he said with perfect diction. "But if you have to feel it through a character--a role--you develop a keener awareness of it. My parents are still together, but I can see the impact divorce has on people my age. It's really devastating and has a lot to say, I think, about the breakdown of values in the greater society."

Such values and problems have recently been explored in the movies "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club," the latter of which gives rise to the tone and format of many of the sweeter confessional moments of "The Theatre Experience." The kids say they like these movies, but many, already fantasizing of professional acting careers, see the stage as a great place to play.

"I've learned so much," Linda Powledge said. "The stage, as it's shown here, is life and love. Having gained so much, how could I possibly walk away from it? It's smitten me forever."

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