Times Staff Writer

Barbara Van Holt remembers the day she became incurably stage-struck. A mere tot of 5 living in Santa Ana, she had just seen a World War II movie that starred a gallant, little Margaret O'Brien.

"That was 'Journey for Margaret,' all about English war waifs. O'Brien and I were the same age. When I saw her, I knew I had to be an actress, too," recalled Van Holt, a drama teacher at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa.

"I know that was pretty cheeky of me. But I figured if O'Brien could do it, then so could I."

This story is characteristic of Van Holt, who has an infectious ebullience and self-kidding charm, whether she's talking about the theater or her own attempts to find fame and fortune in movies and television.

Although Van Holt never made it in Hollywood ("I guess they didn't want 6-foot redheads," she quipped), she is one of the most active figures in Orange County theater and arts education.

She has acted with the Laguna Moulton Playhouse, Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse and South Coast Repertory Theatre. She has directed numerous community theater productions--including "Match Point," the Laguna Moulton's regional winner in the 1981 American Community Theatre Assn. festival, and "If I Should Die Before I Wake," a widely praised drama about an incest victim.

And Van Holt is the driving force behind one of the best known--and most honored--high school drama programs in the state.

Estancia administrators said the school has won major awards in 19 of the last 24 high school drama festivals it has entered. Estancia won the best-production prize (for A.R. Gurney's "Scenes From American Life") in the 1985 Southern California Educational Theatre Assn. competition. The school has been a regular winner in the annual Music and Arts Commendation for Youth competition and in festivals at Cal State Long Beach, Chapman College, Saddleback College and Fullerton College.

(Its entry in the 1983 Fullerton College event was a scene from Michelle Morris' "If I Should Die Before I Wake." Van Holt staged a community theater production of the full play later that year in Costa Mesa. The off-Broadway version directed by John Glines in 1984 featured two of Van Holt's students: Kym Le Mon as Carla, the role she had played in the Costa Mesa production, and David Kerin.)

Estancia plans to enter two more festival competitions in the next month , the first one Saturday at Saddleback College (Van Holt plans to stage a scene from David Reimmer's "Album") and two in early April at Chapman College and Fullerton College.

Although Van Holt continues to direct community theater productions and do voice-overs and other odd jobs for television, the Estancia program is clearly the focus of her professional life.

"Working with high school students is a great experience," said Van Holt, who taught in Santa Monica and Corona del Mar before joining the Estancia faculty as an English teacher in 1967. "The students have a directness about them, a freshness and level of energy that is special."

Since taking over Estancia's drama program in 1973, Van Holt has directed students in more than 40 productions, including "My Fair Lady," "Grease," "Dark of the Moon," "Anastasia" and "All My Sons."

This year she has 120 students in her acting and production classes. Using a 40-member core group, she staged "Album" and "You Can't Take It With You" last fall. The upcoming spring presentations are "Camelot" and the annual show written and improvised by the students.

"The criteria for picking plays are very basic," Van Holt said. "They have to have artistic merit, and they should offer a chance for all 40 kids to be involved." Since the plays are selected with Orange County community standards in mind, Estancia productions have generated "only a few" disputes, she added. "It usually has to do with language, and one time because a girl in 'The Pajama Game' showed too much of her slip."

Getting students for the Estancia drama program is no problem.

"Any school arts program has a much higher status these days. Drama classes don't seem to have the off-beat, fringe image that they used to have," Van Holt said. "We like to think we're achieving a strong sense of camaraderie in our program--you know, the feeling of a true ensemble, a real repertory group.

"We find that talking out a play's characters can be the catalyst for drawing out many of the students' own feelings about the same situations. Rehearsals can be frank give-and-take sessions, a real growth experience for all of us."

But when it comes to advising her students about pursuing an acting career, Van Holt is intentionally discouraging. "I tell students: 'Forget it,' " she said. "I tell them acting is one of the toughest, most frustrating fields around. All they have to do is look at all the unemployed actors."

Only 25% of Estancia's graduating drama students become acting majors in college, Van Holt said. And the number of Estancia students who attempt acting careers is even smaller--an estimated 10%.

"Look, I know how rough it is," said Van Holt, who a decade ago took a sabbatical from Estancia to see if she could establish a full-time acting career.

"After UC Santa Barbara, I went right to work as a teacher, and then later I had two kids to raise. So I figured this time (her 1976-77 sabbatical) was my last chance.

"I knocked on a lot of doors. But after a while I figured it wasn't worth all the aggravation, waiting and uncertainty. Besides, I realized what I really loved was teaching."

Turning out actors, Van Holt said, is not the chief goal of a high school drama program. Instead, she added, "it is a development opportunity on a larger scale. This is to introduce students to a lifelong appreciation--a love--of the arts."

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