It had been a busy morning of rehearsals for the young cast of "Annie Get Your Gun," singing, dancing, acting and marching on and off stage at the Northridge Recreation Center. None of it had been any easier for 14-year-old Levi Gonzalez, the oldest and tallest at 5-foot-10. And now he was standing alone on center stage, facing a piano and a nearly empty auditorium.
Most of his 80 or so fellow cast members, ages 7 to 14, were taking a break on the grass just outside. But young Levi was still doing his best to get through a song from the Irving Berlin-scored musical "My Defenses Are Down," in spite of the headache, sore throat and upset stomach he awoke with this morning back home in Lake View Terrace.
It was all in preparation for the Aug. 17 opening night of the big musical comedy Western, and Levi wasn't complaining. He was looking forward to the entertainment event and its audience of several hundred with the same mix of nervousness and excitement that has surfaced in the few other drama workshops he's participated in.
"It's been getting worse instead of better," Levi admitted of the stage fright that follows him and most acting beginners. "But I should be OK. I usually am."
The Northridge park's Summer Theater Workshop is among a handful of large-scale drama programs offered this summer to teen-agers in the San Fernando Valley. But with plans by the Los Angeles Unified School District to switch local campuses to a year-round schedule, drastically shortening students' time off for summer vacation, this month's teen-age drama productions could be the last in their current form.
Instructors at these programs agreed that the concluding stage productions were only part of a broader, long-lasting dividend from these endless weeks of rehearsals.
"I work on building self-esteem, self-confidence, and I think theater is a wonderful way to do it," said Carol Allen, director of the Northridge "Annie Get Your Gun" show. "When you get up in front of a crowd and do something that you've worked real hard on and they applaud you, it's a great feeling. Hopefully, when this is all over, the kids will feel real good about themselves."
For 34 years, the Cal State Northridge Teenage Drama Workshop has taken junior high and high school students through six weeks of classes in acting, voice, dance and stagecraft in preparation for its three stage productions, including this year's full-length play, "Once Upon a Mattress." Classes begin at 8:30 a.m. and continue through 12:30 p.m., followed by a lunch break and rehearsals for the program's various productions.
The workshop's closing performances of "Once Upon a Mattress" and "Revenge of the Space Pandas" will be presented at 2 p.m. today and Saturday. And the final "Munch and Crunch" variety show and awards ceremony will conclude the summer program at the CSUN Campus Theater 10 a.m. Sunday.
"Most of the shows sell out pretty quick," said Lynn Cohen, a teacher for the CSUN summer program. "They have an incredible reputation and usually the tickets are gone real fast."
The CSUN workshop is open to anyone who can pay the $400 tuition, while the limited acting roles are handed out on the strength of auditions in June. Those who don't make the final cast are encouraged to participate backstage.
"We do have some very talented kids, but some who are not," said Mia Truxau, administrative director of the program for the past three years. "So our main objective is to provide everyone the experience of theater, and the byproduct they get is the relationships that form."
The program at the Northridge Recreation Center is in its 12th year and is the most elaborate city park drama workshop in the Valley, although centers in such towns as Encino offer their own programs. The fee is $200, and the annual Northridge summer production reguarly attracts audiences of more than 500. But program Director Judy Taylor said that participating in a show from its inception quickly erases most misconceptions about the entertainment business.
"A lot of children think it would be wonderful to be in a play," Taylor said. "They do a lot of theatrics around the house, but it's a lot different from what they think its going to be. When you're rehearsing you're not on stage every minute. You may be in another room working on a song or something else. It's a lot of hard work.
"And they do get to perform in front of an audience. For a child that is 7 years old it's a pretty exciting thing. Later on in life, when a child is called upon to make an oral report, the stage presence they learn in theater workshop is of great value," Taylor said.
Amanda Pearlman, for one, was glad to be in the air conditioned gymnasium-theater this summer rather than simmer in the outdoor heat of summer camp. Wearing a blond ponytail and shorts at a recent rehearsal, Amanda was picked up early by her mother to celebrate her ninth birthday.
"This is not an expensive way to put your child into something that is creative, where they feel productive," said Allyson Pearlman, 35. "Summer camp can be really expensive. This is four days a week for quite a chunk of the day and they feel like they're not just sitting in front of the TV."
With the Los Angeles schools changing to a year-round schedule, many of these teen-age drama workshops are faced with severe rearranging or extinction. Several Valley schools switched to the year-round schedule in July.
"It's been looming over our heads for the past few summers," said Candy Sherwin, now in her 13th year as a teacher with the CSUN workshop. "This is not the only program that will take a dive because of it."
Sherwin added that there has been talk of reshaping the program to fit into the new school break schedule. Still, she worried that the entire curriculum would have to be fundamentally changed, restricted to what could be fit into a handful of weeks.
"If kids are going to get a six-week break in the summer, they're not going to want to spend six weeks here," Sherwin said. "They're still kids and they still need a break."
Truxau, who sits on the CSUN drama department committee that will decide the workshop's fate before the end of the year, sounded more optimistic. She explained that much depends on the length of summer vacation students will receive with the year-round schedule.
"If it is an eight-week break that starts in June and ends in July, we could do it," she said. "We've done a five-week program before. There is a need for it. Whether we can do it depends on facilities, staff."
In the non-summer months, Lynn Cohen and several others of the CSUN summer workshop staff are active with the Our Gang Theater Group. The youth-oriented program resumes in early September in the hopes of moving into its new theater space in North Hollywood. Cohen said other drama programs will likely always exist throughout the year, but will lack the intensity of the summer workshops.
"It's a very exciting program in the summer," said Cohen, who works with summer students backstage at CSUN. "The energy is very high. During the rest of the year it's a little bit more laid back and focused towards long-range goals."
At the Oakwood School, a North Hollywood prep school founded in the 1950s by the late actor Robert Ryan, nine teachers have been guiding a small class of 22 students ages 12 to 18 through its two-year-old summer drama program.
The Oakwood School drama program fee is $950 for an intensive six-week course that runs 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Designed for kids ages 12 to 18, the workshop offers instruction in acting, makeup, video and technical theater.
In conjunction with the currently running play, "The Boy Friend," students decorated the school's courtyard to look like a '50s-era teen-age hangout, complete with a giant mock-up pizza and two-foot-square fuzzy dice hanging from overhead. The final performance of the play, which is presented in a dinner theater format, begins at 8 tonight and Saturday.
"The whole philosophy here is that the kids get real hands-on, close-up instruction," Warren said. "But we're not trying to create little stars to feed the industry. We're really more after building character. We treat the child very individually. We try to encourage them to be expressive and creative and responsible."