Giving Wings to a Performance Institute : Arts: Paul McCartney's Liverpool school will also teach the business side of the craft, says Donna Soto-Morettini, who will run the acting and dance divisions.

Times Staff Writer

What's it like to meet Paul McCartney?

Unreal, says Donna Soto-Morettini, an Orange County native whose far-flung career path led last year to the former Beatle's door. At the door of his new school, that is.

McCartney helped conceive and will teach at a new performing arts school scheduled to open in September in his hometown of Liverpool, England. Soto-Morettini, a UC Irvine drama school alumna and erstwhile singer, actress and director, will run the school's acting and dance divisions.

"It's that first moment that's so weird," she says of the meeting with McCartney, "because he walks in the room, and you think, 'No, that's not really him.' But he was incredibly charming."

McCartney has been generous too, donating about $1.6 million to the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, which will occupy his refurbished grammar school, closed long ago. He also appears in a television ad for the academy, the first ad he's ever consented to make for anything, organizers say.

Why the unprecedented endorsement? A deep fondness for his roots, Soto-Morettini said during a recent trip home to visit her family and publicize her new place of employ.

When the school's chief executive, Mark Featherstone-Witty, approached McCartney with the idea of creating the school, Soto-Morettini said the singer expressed his support, as long as the school were to be in Liverpool.

"He's wanted to put something back into Liverpool for some time," she said.

McCartney expresses affection for his old school in a promotional audiotape distributed by the institute: "When I heard the building was falling into ruin, (saving it) became one of the main objectives for me."

The institute will offer courses leading to bachelor of arts degrees in music, dance, drama, visual art and design. McCartney will teach songwriting, and other performers, including Elvis Costello, Joan Armatrading, Carly Simon and Andre Previn, have agreed to help out.

Business classes will be mandatory so that all students will be equipped to run their own companies or produce their own work, should jobs be scarce in the brutally competitive world of show biz.

For instance, Soto-Morettini said, "the music students are going to learn how to set up a label and produce their own albums, and the acting students are going to learn how to run a small company -- how to do the finances for it and how to create a business plan."

Although McCartney today is one of Britain's richest men, he says in the tape that he could have benefited from better professional know-how in the early days.

"Look, it's all very well being able to write songs," he says, "but (John) Lennon and McCartney were pretty neatly ripped off because they didn't know anything about business." In fact, when the Beatles broke up in 1970, Lennon complained that they did not own the rights to most of the songs they had written.

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Soto-Morettini's path to Liverpool began in her hometown of Huntington Beach, where she acted in and directed Huntington Beach High School productions.

As a teen folk singer and guitarist in the mid- and late-'60s, she had her first playing gigs at such defunct local clubs as the Prison of Socrates in Balboa, the Cosmos in Seal Beach and Huntington's venerable Golden Bear.

"I played mid-sets at the Golden Bear a little after the first big wave of big people who came through there, which included Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt," said Soto-Morettini, 43.

After next attending Orange Coast College , she hit the road for 11 years, traversing the Western United States, Japan and Canada, singing or performing stand-up comedy and performing in musicals. She then returned home to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees in directing and acting at UC Irvine. (Soto-Morettini has no dance training but said she will "simply manage" the dance department at the Liverpool institute to make sure it's in line with the school's philosophy. She will also be teaching singing.)

While at Irvine, she developed an interest in left-wing literature, which led her to Britain about a decade ago. Political drama was flowering there in the late '60s and '70s, and Soto-Morettini earned a doctorate in the field from Oxford University.

"I was absolutely committed to doing political drama," she said with the slight accent she's acquired from living in England for a decade. "But as you can imagine, there's not much outlet for that in Southern California. I was in contact with a number of theaters (here about directing such work), but they reckoned they wouldn't get enough of an audience for it."

Soto-Morettini's next leap landed her at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, where she spent five years, ultimately becoming head of its acting department. The academy is renowned for its acting instruction and has produced such English superstars as Sir Lawrence Olivier. Nevertheless, Soto-Morettini came to see certain limitations.

The main drawback, she said, is that "for three years, for 40 hours a week, every bit of your time is proscribed, and that creates very dependent, pretty neurotic students." In part because of that, she quickly responded when she saw a want ad for the Liverpool institute.

Many arts professionals wouldn't want to leave such a cultural haven as London, but "I was actually perfectly ready to leave because it's very hard living there," she said. "I'd been there for six years, and I'd about had it with the commutes and bomb threats.

"Also I was very interested in what (LIPA officials) were trying to do, which is to give (intensive artistic) training but to balance that against a knowledge of the business."

That knowledge, in addition to enabling students to manage their own careers, can provide them with fallback careers or introduce them to undiscovered passions, Soto-Morettini added.

"What you generally know when you're 18 is that you love the arts, and you may know that you love music. But what you might not know is that you actually like producing records, for instance." The institute will further provide an atmosphere of artistic "possibility and freedom," Soto-Morettini said, at least according to McCartney. The famed musician discussed with her his relatively new avocation of painting and how, for him, the finished product "doesn't have to be good, it just has to be free."

Students "need to be able to do things technically," she agreed, "but still allow the imagination to flow into what they're doing, because finally, that will determine whether it's good, whether it strikes a chord in other people."

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