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College Drama Classes Help Students Become a Hard Act to Follow : Thespians: Lawyers use theatrical training to improve their chances of success in jury trials and psychologists to interact better with clients.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jennifer Kirk of Thousand Oaks is studying acting at Moorpark College because she wants to be effective in her efforts to educate the public on Tourette’s Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Braden McKinley, the Ventura County district attorney’s top investigator, first studied drama because his 15-year-old daughter needed transportation to a night acting class.

Nick Guastella of Simi Valley, a business major, is learning the fundamentals of the theater because he believes that in the corporate world, appearances are as important as financial acumen.

Kirk, McKinley and Guastella are among a large group of people who shatter the myth that any Southern Californian taking an acting class harbors dreams of being the next Kevin Costner or Julia Roberts.

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People take acting classes for many reasons, said Katherine Lewis, who teaches drama at Moorpark College.

Some--such as Guastella--have clearly defined professional goals: Lawyers use theatrical training to improve their chances of success in jury trials and psychologists to interact better with clients.

“Others might be there for therapy--maybe in high school they weren’t liked or they’re shy,” Lewis said.

Jay Varela, a drama instructor at Ventura College, said personal development is probably one of the most common motivations for taking his class, particularly at the beginning level.

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“A lot of people take the class because they feel it will help them with their sense of self-confidence,” he said.

Suzanne Perez, a 24-year-old medical assistant who’s attending Moorpark College part time, said she is taking beginning acting because she believes that it will help her interact more effectively with patients and others.

“I thought it would help me be open, because I wouldn’t be afraid of what people think of me,” Perez, of Simi Valley, said.

Guastella, also at Moorpark College, sees his beginning acting class as a steppingstone to success as he pursues a career as a financial analyst and corporate takeover artist.

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“It’s helpful in dealing with people,” he said. “In business, a lot depends on appearances--how you look and act. Donald Trump has created a character of himself that is bigger than life.”

Perhaps the most unusual reason for taking an acting class is offered by Kirk, who said she has both Tourette’s Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The syndrome is a rare neurological disease with a variety of symptoms, including involuntary purposeless movements, swearing, tics and incoherent grunts and barks. Kirk said her case is mild, with physical tics and a tendency to clear her throat. And she said she is obsessive or compulsive about touching things or people.

A liberal arts major at Moorpark, Kirk, 27, wants to make a career on the professional lecture circuit and on television talking about the two disorders. In fact, she has already been on “The Today Show” and said she is very comfortable in front of audiences.

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“When I get up on stage I’m fine because I’m concentrating on something I enjoy,” she said.

Varela believes drama classes can be particularly helpful for people with disabilities, and their participation in the course is of value to the other students.

“We’ve got disabled people, deaf people, a student with a spinal injury who has taught us a lot about how to focus because it’s so difficult for him to move,” Varela said.

The student with the spinal injury recently did a scene in which he played a farmer being pressured by a salesman to sell his land. The scene required him to take oranges out of a box.

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“The way he was doing it was so compelling,” Varela said. “He did it much more slowly and with tremendous commitment to each gesture.”

At the same time, the class is helping the student in his determined fight to gain independence, Varela said.

Lewis believes that theatrical training is valuable no matter what field a student is pursuing.

“I think there are many professional areas that require people to be persuasive speakers,” she said. “I feel that acting should be a requirement like speech is.

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“There’s getting up in front of people with their cards and boring people, or getting up before people and appealing to them emotionally,” she added. “People are not just moved by reason. They’re moved by emotion.”

McKinley has found that to be true in his job as chief investigator with the Ventura County district attorney’s office.

“Acting can really help an executive who gives presentations or conducts meetings,” the 48-year-old Ventura resident said. “The fundamentals of acting are just like the fundamentals of life.”

But unlike students who have taken drama classes for reasons other than a career in film or on stage, McKinley harbors Hollywood ambitions.

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A career law enforcement officer who had dabbled a little in high school and church theatrical productions, McKinley fell into taking drama last spring when his teen-age daughter Julie signed up for a night class at Ventura College. Since he had to drive her to campus, he decided to take the class with her.

He loved his class, got a part in the college’s summer production of “The Fantasticks” and was hooked.

Since then, he has performed in the Plaza Players’ production of “Bent” in Ventura and will play the lead role in the “Romantic Comedy,” which opens New Year’s Eve.

He is considering trying out for commercials or television.

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“I’m not foolish enough to think I could support myself or put my kids through college on my acting ability alone,” he said. “But it’s a great diversion from a very stressful job I have now.”


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