Class Acts : Elementary School Students Turn in Creditable Performances as Playwrights

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actor Walter Koenig will probably be known the rest of his life for his portrayal of Ensign Chekov on the original "Star Trek" series.

On Thursday, he swapped his trademark Russian accent for an Italian one and replaced Capt. Kirk with Capt. Christopher Columbus in a humorous vignette that retraced the explorer's voyage but had him land in the strange new world of modern-day Miami Beach.

The author of the piece wasn't the late Gene Roddenberry, creator of "Star Trek," but a sixth-grade student at Dixie Canyon Avenue School in Sherman Oaks, and Koenig's performance climaxed the school's new dramatic writing program.

After a year of refining and rewriting, the students got a chance Thursday to watch Koenig and other professional actors translate their scenes from the page to the stage.

It was a metamorphosis that pleasantly surprised some of the would-be Orson Welleses.

"I didn't think it'd be that good," said Michael Khorramian, 12, whose vignette about a paralyzed man and his brother was one of 10 chosen to be performed. "It was a lot better on stage."

In fact, the pieces were much better than even some of the actors expected.

"They're very sophisticated for sixth-grade kids," said actor Dan Gilvezan, best known as TV commercial spokesman for the Jack In The Box fast-food chain. "When I first got the scripts, I thought it was a high school class."

"Frankly, it'd be impressive for some professional writers I've known," Koenig added with a laugh.

Although at least one girl clamored for his autograph for a sister she described as a die-hard "Star Trek" fan, many of the children did not recognize him, born as they were a decade after the series went into reruns.

The writing program is the brainchild of Dixie Canyon parent Steven J. Fisher, a professional scriptwriter whose two children attend the school, which is already renowned throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District for its elaborate performing-arts productions. Working alongside teachers and school officials, Fisher developed the program as a means to sharpen the writing skills of elementary students.

For an hour each week, Fisher and colleagues from the Writers Guild visited classes and taught techniques of structure, dialogue and plot, and assigned exercises to help students learn to develop characters. They then called upon several of their actor friends to participate in Thursday's readings.

"The goal, at the very least, was to encourage a respect for writing, and for them to realize what goes on behind their favorite television and film shows and recognize the importance of writing in everything they do," he said. "At most, we churn out a professional writer or two."

"They're not all natural writers. But for kids who have that sensibility, who can see the world of the mind, there aren't extracurricular activities that address that," added Mark Saltzman, who has written for shows such as "Sesame Street." He called the program the "most gratifying thing" he has done since moving to Los Angeles two years ago.

Onstage in the school auditorium Thursday were several vignettes with adult themes, ranging from a custody dispute involving a father with multiple sclerosis to a contemporary Rip van Winkle who emerges from a 40-year coma to find Elvis and Jack Benny dead and his wife looking more like his grandmother.

Alexis Glassman, 12, even threw in a dollop of feminism in crafting an account of a high-powered attorney with an adulterous spouse. The lawyer was the wife, married to an "unemployed director" husband.

"Most of the time it's the men who make all the money and bring home the food, so I thought I'd make a woman do it," Alexis said.

A few of the pieces were drawn from real life. The author of "After the Rain," about a mentally handicapped girl dealing with the death of her mother, founded it on a friend's experiences.

"What surprised me the most was the number of scenes that came from real life," said actress Mari Devon, who played the daughter and who graduated from Dixie Canyon herself in 1972. "To find that out beforehand, it added another dimension."

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