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ACTING : Workshop Helps Them Find Their ‘Voices’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

James Whittle has taught acting workshops for years. Now he’s teaching a weekly class exclusively for people who are HIV-positive or have AIDS. The difference, he says, is striking.

“There’s so much urgency and courage and energy and openness,” Whittle says. “Obviously, it has a lot to do with their time being limited. These people have a need to drop the niceties, the social etiquette; they have a need to speak the truth. They learned the acting exercises so fast, my hair stood on end.

Since November, Whittle has led “Voices,” a free Saturday morning acting workshop at the Fountain Theatre. The impetus for it came last summer when Whittle met with Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs, who run the Fountain Theatre. Whittle had been teaching acting classes out of the Hollywood Womens’ Club, and mentioned that over the years he also had experimented with a handful of all-gay acting classes.

“When he told me about his work, I said, ‘I want to make that happen,’ ” recalls Sachs, who thought it was crucial to offer the classes to the public free of charge. “Ever since I directed “The Boys in the Band” (in 1993)--when we gave our entire box office (receipts) to Equity Fights AIDS--I’d been looking for ways to continue the effort.”

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The burgeoning workshop “has been amazing,” Sachs says.

“The people who are coming seem to appreciate having a safe place where they can be heard and understood, where their secret is out,” Sachs says. “They seem to find it very supportive. One guy told me that he wanted to get involved immediately because he was running out of time.”

The specter of AIDS, Sachs adds, “is very present when we look around some weeks and a few people are missing, and we know they’re too ill to come. But it’s also proving to be a place to laugh and have fun, a great release valve and a place not to be treated with kid gloves.”

Whittle, 59, teaches techniques that he learned from his own teacher, Eddie Kaye Martin.

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“The exercises Eddie perfected were a series of repeats, one-word repetitions to get you out of your head,” Whittle says. “Then it’s nine lines and monologues: ‘Hi/What’s doing?’ You never know who’s going to start. You go from there into improvisation. That’s usually four or five months in my regular classes. Here, it’s five weeks. The emotional life and relationships are just pouring off the stage.”

Since the classes began, Whittle notes, the participants all have been men.

“We’ve had trouble finding women,” he admits, “and we have a deep need for them. Women fight the same battle (against AIDS), but there’s a difference; they have a different experience. And we need their nurturing. Gay, straight, young, old, black, white--we want to make these classes available to anyone who’s going through this. Yes, our primary aim is to educate. But we also want to do some fun stuff, silly, positive. And we’re looking for writers who’ll come in, participate, write for us.”

For Whittle, the educational and artistic endeavor is also cathartic.

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“I am a gay man,” he says. Two years ago he lost Kenny, his lover of 16 years; four years ago, he lost his best friend of 42 years--both of them to AIDS.

“After Kenny’s death, I did a lot of volunteer work,” he says. “It wasn’t enough. This is enough. But it’s not about me, it’s about them.

“I make it very clear that they don’t have to do my techniques. It’s my vocabulary, and I believe in it very strongly. But they make the rules,” he says. “They don’t have to be there every week--it’s OK. People can come back whenever they want, pick up wherever they left off.”

“Voices” is held every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. in Hollywood. Attendance is free; participants are welcome to join at any point. Information: (213) 663-2235.

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