So You Want to Be A Star, Kid? : Theaters That Get Kids Into the Act

At age 12, Ryan Hartwigsen of Olivenhain was so nervous about speaking to people that his mother usually answered for him. Then his younger sister, Courtney, persuaded him to try out for a part in a Coast Kids production in Encinitas. Ryan landed a small role, seven lines in all. The next year, he was cast as The Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz." Now he's a senior in high school, just ran for class office, is performing in a musical touring company of Coast Kids and plans to major in communications.

"If anyone would have told me when he was 8 years old that he would be up there singing and dancing, I never would have believed it," said his mother, Vonnie Hartwigsen. "He is still painfully shy, but not onstage. There he has absolutely no trouble. This has given him the courage to speak up."

Ryan agrees. "Before, it never crossed my mind as something I wanted to do. Now I don't miss a show."

Not that it's been an effortless transition.

"You have to keep doing it, you have to get some training, and you have to have a lot of support from your parents," Ryan said, by way of advice to other theater wanna-bes.

"For the last few weeks of rehearsal, you have to put your life on hold. It's a real challenge to keep your grades up. You have to balance everything. I have an appointment book filled with school, homework, tests, due dates. But I don't resent it in any way. I know it's going to help me, and it's something I love to do."

His mother has a similar perspective. "It's a lot of work and time commitment for myself, too. But when I see the look on parents' faces on the day of the performance--the pride and satisfaction--and I feel that, too. Then I know it's all worth it."

There are many youth theater programs in North County. Some organizations are production-oriented; some provide direct as well as on-the-job training. Most have open auditions, unconstrained by geographical area.

Some will take children as young as 3, some up to age 18. Students can be at the very beginning level of theater involvement, or veterans of many productions with an eye toward a long-term professional commitment. Some groups are sponsored by theater companies, some by communities or foundations or private efforts.

Most groups are nonprofit labors of love by adults interested in theater and in seeing children develop through their involvement in it. As existing programs meet with interest and success, additional venues are being developed throughout North County.

Ann Schulz was a teacher of gifted children before she went into youth theater full-time five years ago. She started the Encinitas-based Coast Kids mainly in an effort to help children build self-confidence.

"Believe me, even 2-year-olds need to have their self-esteem bolstered. And behavior problems are almost always related to how kids feel about themselves. . . . It's a great escape to be able to be someone you aren't."

Coast Kids of Encinitas is a production-oriented company that provides training workshops in the summer and three major musicals a year. By double-casting they can squeeze 100 children into a production.

The group is nonprofit; none of the staff is paid. To cover costs, there is a per-child production fee of $75.

Besides directing Coast Kids, Schulz is part of a committee in Encinitas working toward creating a performing arts center with a 500-seat theater, possibly on the San Elijo (Cardiff) campus of MiraCosta College. Meanwhile, she's writing a grant to support rental of a storefront so Coast Kids can start its own performing arts school. "There is no scarcity of children," she said. "The interest is definitely there."

Encinitas is also home to Parkdale Players, an adult theater group with a youth arm called Encinitas Performing Arts. The program provides classes in acting, musical theater and improvisation. Director Pat Lydersen said the aim is "to concentrate on basic acting techniques, rather than pushing the kids right into performance. The best way to start out is with theater games, improvisations and creative movement. Then you learn to develop character."

The production realm remains with Parkdale Players, which presents an original musical for children this month, with a cast of children and adults. "There's a Monster in This Box" plays March 21 in Carlsbad, March 22 in Poway and March 29 in Encinitas.

In Escondido, the opening in 1993 of the new $73.4-million Center for the Arts is expected to further increase theater programs available to children.

The recent merger of the Felicita Foundation, a nonprofit fine arts organization, with the new center will enhance its ability to provide instruction in art, theater, dance and music.

The center has formed an education committee to develop plans for a North County school of the arts, envisioned as an after-school supplement to academic programs for grades K-12 that would make use of some of the new center's extensive studio and rehearsal space.

"We believe in starting with very, very young children," said Barbara Masters, director of education and outreach for the group. Felicita has three classes geared for 3- to 5-year-olds, intended to develop concentration, creativity and coordination, in addition to singing, dancing and mime. Specialized instruction--such as ventriloquism, mask-making and theater games--is offered for students through age 16.

Another Escondido venue for children is the Youtheatre of the Patio Playhouse. The decade-old Youtheatre presents three major productions a year, such as the upcoming "Rumpelstiltskin and the Witches," for which auditions are this weekend. The theater offers a blend of workshops and play production for ages 8-18. Emphasis is placed on making the performances available for children.

In Vista, Santa Fe Elementary School is being converted into an arts magnet school to be named the Vista Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts. The 600-student arts school, grades K-5, is scheduled to open this summer.

The city of Vista already sponsors a year-round day camp for the arts, which will probably move to the campus of the magnet school.

Kathy Brombacher, artistic director of Vista's 12-year-old, highly successful Moonlight Amphitheatre, said she feels the presence of the theater has heightened the community's awareness of the importance of the arts. Moonlight's two annual Youth Theatre productions have been popular with schools and the public.

Moonlight offers Saturday acting, dance and singing workshops in the fall and spring for 7- to 19-year-olds.

When Carlsbad Youth Theatre summer workshops were initiated four years ago, they were "intended to train kids for our own productions. But now they are more like a fine arts summer school," said Will Neblett, president of the Youth Theatre. "To succeed and excel, you need some raw talent, very supportive parents, and a creative looseness. Parents always say, 'Little Johnny is so dramatic at home.' But he may not have the maturity, responsibility and discipline needed to develop the skills."

The Patrons of the Arts organization oversees the Carlsbad Youth Theatre, which presents workshops and productions for 6- to 16-year-olds. After 16, youth theater participants can join The Play Factory, a summer touring company of about a dozen adolescents who perform musicals in schools, clubs and libraries in North County for a fee of $100 to $150.

In order to audition for a Carlsbad Youth Theatre production, participants either have to have taken a workshop with the company or appeared in a Patrons main-stage production.

Director Jim Hall said the program has been successful in attracting both boys and girls. "(There are) a lot more boys than six years ago, due to the success of the project and also because a lot of men are working in the program. There's not as much of a stigma for boys. And there are a lot of women in technical fields, too, doing rigging, lighting, carpentry."

Paul and Sheryl Russell of El Cajon started Christian Community Theatre in 1980 as a wholesome summer theatre arts program. A year later, they added Christian Youth Theatre to provide training in theater arts and full-scale productions for children ages 6 to 18.

Today, two of five branches of the Christian Youth Theater are based in North County, and each presents three full-scale musicals a year. The organization has theater schools and camps in Escondido and Solana Beach, with classes in drama, voice, dance and specialty classes such as clowning, mime and accents/dialects.

Both North County branches hold open auditions for all productions, but students must be enrolled in one of the organization's class.

Like so much of youth theater, the Russells' involvement represents a commitment on the part of parents and children.

Paul Russell is artistic director, his wife, Sheryl, is managing director, and their four children, Travis, 15, Jason, 13, Janie, 10 and Amy, 7, are active participants in Christian Youth Theater productions.

"It's in the blood," Sheryl said. "Jason and Janie are the most serious about their theatrical pursuits; both have appeared at Starlight Musical Theatre. Jason starred in a Christian Youth Theater presentation of 'Peter Pan' and appeared in the Kathy Rigby production at Starlight."

Last year, four Russells were involved in "The Sound of Music" in Escondido; Paul directed, and Janie, Jason and Amy were members of the singing von Trapp family.

"For Travis and Amy," says their mother, "theater is enjoyable, but it's not a passion. But Jason and Janie, give 'em a stage, a few people, and they'll just perform away."

Jason, an articulate 13-year-old, said he figures he was born into theater. "That was my life. It was what everybody around me did. I didn't even think about it. I did my first show at 8, and I have done over 20 plays since. You can't do this if you don't like it. You have to commit yourself to it. When you get in front of people, you have to act like you know what you're doing. You can't be frightened or scared to go up there, volunteer, be the first one to do something."

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