The Play's the Thing for Students

Romeo wore tennis shoes and ill-fitting white togs, and Juliet's flowing gown was loosely pinned together, but by Monday night the cast of Orange Unified School District's first "honors play" was almost ready to duel with words and rapiers before a paying audience.

"Watch your sword!" warned El Modena High School drama teacher Maryina Herde, the show's producer, as she passed a swashbuckling gallant on the stairs to the dressing rooms. Student "techies" (technicians) applied makeup to other students' faces and helped fit costumes, while young actors continually besieged director Jeff Schoenberg, a 1976 El Modena graduate, for advice and reassurance.

It was the first dress rehearsal for an unusual production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" that brought students from four high schools together through the county's Gifted and Talented Education program. (GATE, a state-mandated program that seeks to identify and encourage talented and high-achieving students, mostly spends its money on academics rather than the arts.) Herde said she hopes to make the cross-town combination of theatrical talents a yearly tradition.

Four Shows Set

Two free performances were scheduled for Wednesday and today for 1,500 school district freshmen who recently studied "Romeo and Juliet." Two open-to-the-public shows are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. All performances will be given at Anaheim High School's Cook Auditorium. (The Orange Unified School District does not have any halls suitable for a large production.)

Last weekend, a set assembled at El Modena was transplanted to Anaheim High School. On Monday, while the actors and director ironed out performing problems upstairs, two sewing machines ran full tilt downstairs. "It's going to be a costume-sewing marathon" to get ready in time, said Herde, who heads the district's drama department in addition to her other duties. Parts of the set also still needed refurbishing.

Herde and Schoenberg, with some "techie" assistance, assembled many of the actors' outfits, although a number of costumes were rented. Once all the sewing was done, Herde said, all the Montagues would wear blue and the Capulets would be in red, but for the dress rehearsal the effect was more motley.

'I'm Scared'

Some pre-performance jitters ran through the assembled actors. "I'm scared mostly of forgetting my lines," admitted Diana Balazs, an El Modena junior who plays Juliet. In mid-play, "you can't stop and say: 'What was that line again?' "

But the best thing about participating in the show, Balazs added, was meeting students from other schools and making "so many friends. After the play is over, we're still going to get together."

That feeling was echoed by many other cast members. "I've learned a lot about the other schools," said one student. Before rehearsals began, "I thought the Villa Park students were all a bunch of snobs," he said, but the frequent contact changed his mind.

Schoenberg, who now works as the Los Angeles Center Theatre Group's drapery foreman, has directed several El Modena plays and taught a few Shakespeare classes at the school in the past five years. When he was Herde's student at El Modena, he said, he acted, directed and designed sets; later he did the same at the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts in Santa Maria and at Boston University.

Auditions in October

With assistant director Kristen Green (a Cal State Fullerton drama student who also is a 1984 El Modena graduate), Schoenberg held auditions for the honors play last October. Students from the 10th through 12th grade from Orange, Villa Park, El Modena and Canyon high schools tried out, and a cast of 42 was selected. Then began five months of studying what life was like five centuries ago. Under Schoenberg's guidance, students gathered information about early Renaissance music, dance, architecture, language usage and fencing and shared it during Sunday sessions at El Modena High. Rehearsals started in December.

The production has been underwritten with $4,000 from GATE for sets, costumes and Schoenberg's consulting fee, while student-raised money is paying $2,700 to rent the auditorium. Herde said she is "praying" to recoup the $2,700 through ticket sales.

'Passion for Shakespeare'

Schoenberg, she said, was hired to direct because "he's probably a little more adept with Shakespeare than I would have been."

"I personally just have a passion for Shakespeare," said Schoenberg, a short, wiry 27-year-old.

"I had a couple of fabulous teachers who got me over my phobias about Shakespeare," he said, adding that he wanted to do the same for the high school students. "Shakespeare's language is not as flowery and unnecessary as it seems on the printed page. . . . It's so rooted in emotion, there's really no waste (of words) there at all."

Schoenberg said he has set "Romeo and Juliet" in 1440, about 150 years earlier than Shakespeare's time, because he wanted the play to be "at the beginning of the Renaissance . . . to me, that's what (the story) represents, the new way of thinking" that marked the end of medieval ways.

Students Relate to Play

"Little by little," he said, the students have come to "relate (the play) to current times quite a bit." One student watched a cross-generational argument within the play and said, " 'My God, I just had this conversation with my father two days ago!' " Schoenberg said.

"It was really neat learning about how Shakespeare did all these things," said Rich Donald, an El Modena sophomore who plays an aristocrat's servant. In junior high, Donald said, he saw a videotape of "Romeo and Juliet" and "I thought it was the most boring play I ever saw because nothing in it was funny." Now, he added, he understands the Elizabethan language better and can appreciate the play's humor. And his theatrical lessons are carrying over into his daily school life. "I find myself saying, 'doth thou?' in class," he said.

Donald said he plans to try out for more school productions, and several other actors said they'll be pursuing professional or semi-professional acting. Gary Litwin, an Orange High senior who became Romeo less than two weeks before the opening performance, has already worked as an extra on several Hollywood movies. He hopes, he said, to eventually be "first a movie star, and then a (stage) actor."

Litwin moved from playing the prince to being the lead when the play's original Romeo was dropped because of bad grades. (The district requires students to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average to participate in extracurricular activities; Herde and Schoenberg also demanded that "Romeo and Juliet" participants fail no classes.) Litwin said he thinks that his recasting was appropriate because "I'm more of the 'innocent youth' (type) than the 'gallant prince' type."

'Face Feels Old'

Wearing heavy makeup that featured dark lines on his cheeks and forehead, with his dark hair artificially gray, Steven Lieberman didn't think that he looked too young and innocent for his part as Lord Capulet. "My face feels old, my shirt feels young," he quipped, surveying himself in a mirror before the rehearsal began.

Lieberman is a Canyon High School junior who has appeared in 14 productions since eighth grade, "and I hope to God that one day I'll be a professional actor," he said. He wants to attend Chapman College, he added, and maybe spend a year with the Royal Academy of the Arts in London through Chapman's exchange program.

Tony Hicks, an El Modena senior temporarily known as Friar Laurence, has more modest goals. He likes being in the play, he said, because it has made him "more aware" of literature--and life at other high schools. "Drama's not like sports, where you're competing," said Hicks, who has performed in several other plays. "You're drawn together, you're supporting each other."

Few Stumbles

Few stumbles were evident at the first dress rehearsal, although Schoenberg and Green had myriad suggestions for improving the production. Most lines were remembered, most props appeared and disappeared from the stage as scheduled, and when fights were required by the script, rapiers clashed skillfully.

All that was needed was a little more spit and polish--and a lot of ticket sales (at $5 each for the weekend performances). "We've been hearing the oddest rumors that tickets are sold out (but) we have one embarrassingly small house" on the weekend, Schoenberg told the students.

"I want you to hound every person you have ever met in your entire life" to buy tickets, the director told the students. "I'm very serious about that."

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