CRENSHAW : Drama Camp Fuels Youths' Creativity

Standing on a makeshift stage, the two would-be actors gamely tried to improvise a scene under the watchful gaze of teacher Monica Calhoun.

Stifling self-conscious giggles and averting their eyes from fellow students, the two boys played out a situation in which both were drivers trying to decide who was at fault in a fender-bender.

After the pair rushed the scene to its conclusion and took their seats, Calhoun and the 12-member class praised the effort and just as quickly pointed out its weaknesses: poor articulation, not playing to the audience, unclear motivation.

But the exercise served its purpose, and soon other actors, ranging in age from 5 to 13, clamored to take the stage with sudden inspirations. It was the kind of enthusiastic response Calhoun and her mother, Lorine, hope to generate more of in their at-home youth drama camp launched last month in the Crenshaw area.

"The main thing is giving kids a creative outlet and introduce them to the life of acting," Lorine Calhoun said. "There are things about discipline and self-esteem they need to learn. We want to catch them before they get off into drugs or gangbanging."

John Whitfield, 10, a camp newcomer and one of the morning's performers, said he's hooked. "It's kind of scary but fun," he said. "And you can be on TV later on, be a star maybe."

The camp operates five days a week out of Calhoun's four-bedroom home on Brynhurst Avenue and offers basic instruction in acting, dance and music.

Parents pay $10 a day, or whatever they can afford, for classes; those who can afford little pitch in and help Calhoun by bringing food for participants, shuttling them to class each morning and otherwise assisting Calhoun. The shoestring budget has meant that Calhoun is hard-pressed for rehearsal space. She uses her den for acting rehearsals, her mirrored dining room for dance classes and is casting about for rehearsal space for a group production next month.

But fostering a sense of an "acting family" among students and parents and making such training accessible has made the camp worth the trouble, she said.

"Kids are going through so much these days, they need something like this," she said. "They can get things here they can't get in Hollywood workshops. We teach the three R's--respect for home, family and theater."

Calhoun manages the career of her 22-year-old daughter, Monica, whose acting credits include featured roles in the film "Baghdad Cafe" and the subsequent television series. Monica Calhoun got her start in a Santa Monica youth drama camp 10 years ago and says she wants to pass the benefit of that experience on to other young people in the community.

"I want them to learn about themselves, as well as learn to observe others," she said of her students. "It's not just about everybody being stars. Working with each other through improvisations, they can learn how to deal with similar situations later in life."

Though novices at acting, many students admitted to already harboring dreams of making it big. "I like the camp because when I do make it as an actress, I'll know how to do things on stage. I'll also be making big bucks as a star," 11-year-old Taipei Laleau said.

Keith Everage, 10, said he is more intrigued by acting than he thought he would be. "I was nervous but I'm starting to relax and enjoy it."

Lorine Calhoun is adamant that all can excel if they put their minds to it. She points out that her 20-year-old son, Eric, who is blind, has also worked in several movie and television projects.

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