A Difficult Stage in Life : Young Performers Do Battle Against Butterflies as They Audition to Make It Into Huntington Beach's 'School Within a School'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a sunny Saturday morning, the kind of day when a teen-ager might go to the beach for a picnic, maybe bike down to the mall for a double burger and fries.

But food and frolic are the last things on Sarah Miller's mind.

"I feel sick," says Sarah, 14, as she stands in the vestibule of the Huntington Beach High School auditorium.

She's not the only one. About 100 other teens--mostly girls--are also here suffering from different degrees of the same affliction.

Their queasiness comes from the fact that they are about to audition for the School for the Performing Arts (SPA), a little-known opportunity for stage-struck young hopefuls who are willing to trade basketball-game afternoons and teen-age nights for arduous hours of additional studies.

Milling about in groups or sticking close to their mothers, these wanna-be actors, singers, musicians and dancers have stage fright. They're afraid they might not be accepted for the coming school year. And they're not ashamed to admit any of it.

"I feel so nervous," says Sarah, a Santa Ana resident. "I really want to get in. It's really important I get in."

"I'm a little nervous," says Huntington Beach resident Lauren Anderson, 13, who, like Sarah, is in the eighth grade. "But I'm pretty used to being nervous because I've already done plays and dance (productions). I know I'll get butterflies right before and once I get in I'll be fine. So I say to myself, 'I know it'll be OK.' I'm just excited, I guess."

Some students--such as Sarah and Lauren, are auditioning to be admitted to the tuition-free public school for the first time. Others are auditioning to stayin.

SPA student Sarah Reichert, 17, says she's a "little more nervous than last year. Last year there weren't as many people. And we're really nervous because we've heard a lot more really good actors want to come here."

This Sarah, a Marina High School cheerleader who this year at SPA is enrolled in musical theater and dance, says she'll today audition for drama and show choir. She says her school day now typically runs from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., not including productions.

"It's a lot of work," she says. "But I've wanted to be an actress ever since I was 6, and the experience is really great."

Started just last September as a "school within a school" by the Huntington Beach Union High School District, SPA draws mostly students from that district's cities: Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Westminster.

But it's also open to any teen-ager willing to transfer into one of the district's six high schools. (No one has to move there; students just have to arrange transportation.)

During the normal school day, students attend regular classes, then go to SPA until dinner time or later.

So far, only about six students commute from outside the district (one is from Los Angeles County), but many more are expected this year, says coordinator Brandee Lara, who also teaches dance at SPA.

"I'm getting panicky calls from people who are just hearing about us," she says. "I tell them it's not too late, as we'll be holding more auditions." (Other auditions are scheduled for May 21 and June 4.)

Lara, formerly a professional actress, says SPA is one of about 16 public performing arts high schools in California. The only other one in the county is Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA) in Los Alamitos, a well-established program but a longer drive for South County residents.

At SPA, students may take up to three programs from a menu that includes theater/drama; dance; chamber ensemble/orchestra; chamber/jazz choir; technical theater; musical theater and show choir; keyboard/electronic music/song writing and media/TV-video.

Each program meets for five hours a week plus additional rehearsals for productions that this year included "Little Shop of Horrors," a Christmas musical, dance concerts, a talent show, an evening of one-act plays, an original show for Westminster Mall, and a joint production with Golden West Community College of "West Side Story."

The school also is working with Golden West on a unique program whereby SPA students can use SPA classes as prerequisites to go immediately to advanced performing arts college classes. Similar arrangements are planned with the Cal State and UC systems.

Lara says the typical SPA student is "bright, creative, passionate, responsive and self-confident at least to the point where they recognize some kind of self-identity. It may not be the identity they end up with, but they recognize it, and this is the place to express it."

For some, the program gives a needed place to bond with others.

"Some just plain need to communicate," she says. "It's their gang, so to speak. They don't all come from the best backgrounds: Here--working long hours with each other--they get that familial experience."

Girls outnumber boys 3 to 1. Why? Boys are receive negative peer pressure, says Lara. "No one wants to be the first one," she says. "But that's changing now as a result of our taking (productions) on tour to the other (district) schools. Suddenly singing and dancing wasn't just this sweet thing that boys perceived it to be. Now they're coming in to audition."

Lara, who before coming to join the eight-member staff of SPA was laid off from Huntington Beach High School because of budget cuts, says she's glad to be back in the district where she attended school.

"I really believe in this," she says. "It's like working in (the movie) 'Fame.' You walk around and hear singing in one room, musical instruments in another room, rehearsing lines in another and tap-dancing in the halls. It's an exciting conservatory atmosphere."

She acknowledges that the new school isn't perfect. Grant money is needed, she says, to continue "at a high quality." That's why her priority now is to take the time to find more funds.

OCHSA had grants, she says, but SPA just started with $150,000 from the district to get the entire program off the ground, including renovations, a dance floor, a student center and staff salaries.

"So much in our society is hard cold facts and very sterile things," she says. "If there aren't outlets for creative and inventive things, what will the future of society be? It's frightening to think of what could happen."

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The program was the brainchild of Steve Schwartz, an SPA theater instructor who first proposed the idea five years ago when he worked as district coordinator. He says he then saw an alarming trend developing with regard to district performing arts programs.

"We were losing sections districtwide," he recalls. "One year, there'd be five drama classes, the next year three or four. Classes were literally disappearing for various and sundry reasons including budget cuts and state requirements for (non-arts) academic classes."

So Schwartz proposed a performing arts magnet school, an idea that was turned down by parents and teachers alike. "Even some teachers didn't think there would actually be a trend," he says. "There wasn't a lot of support, so I put the concept on hold."

Then things got worse, he says, with everything he predicted coming to fruition.

"Whole departments were gone, then teachers were going to two schools to try to keep remaining programs going, a problem given that performing arts teachers need to do after-school programs," Schwartz says. "And you had things like music teachers also teaching drama. The quality greatly diminished, and kids were not getting experienced instruction."

Also, the district's "top talent" was leaving to go Los Alamitos, which further decimated district coffers, he adds.

In 1992, Schwartz again proposed the idea, which was then studied by committee. The final proposal was approved by the school board in February of 1993, despite opposition from some Fountain Valley parents.

"They were opposed even though they didn't even have a dance teacher," says Schwartz. "They still wanted their own programs. So we resolved that they could keep their introductory drama and vocal programs."

Of the more than 300 who auditioned last year, 225 were accepted.

"The ones who aren't accepted are ones who'd be psychologically hurt by being accepted," he says. "It's terrible to put a kid in a program over their heads. Self-esteem suffers. So we tell some to go back to their schools, take some introductory classes and then try again."

He says he's more than satisfied with the level of SPA's productions but doesn't see SPA as yet on the level of OCHSA.

"It's a success, but it's going to take a couple of years to get there," he says. "We're still infants crawling, but our philosophy is different here. All of our staff are credentialed teachers plus professional performers. Over there, the majority are professionals who get an allowance to teach."

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After hearing instructions from coordinator Lara, Sarah Miller walks with her mother to her drama audition. She will perform two monologues, she says, and has practiced her lines over and over in the car coming here today.

"My neighborhood school drama department is not really good anymore," she says. "We have classes but no productions. It's important to be on stage and in front of people."

She says she first starting acting and singing while in elementary school and now aspires to be like Jodi Foster. "She plays a lot of strong woman roles," she says. "I don't want to be like Sharon Stone; she makes women look bad. I want to portray women in good ways--as intelligent and strong--rather than as stupid."

What if she doesn't get in?

"I don't know what I'll do," she says. "Los Alamitos is too far away. But no matter what, I'll always do something in this field."

What about the long hours she'd have to work if accepted?

"It's worth it," she says. "I don't mind anything, as long as I get to act."

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