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Students Reach a New Stage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

How lucky can a teenager get?

Students in two English classes at Hamilton High School found some other people to take a final exam for them Wednesday: actors.

Professional actors dropped in at the Westside campus to perform dramatic readings of plays written by students as a semester project.

The fledgling writers gave the actors top marks for their interpretation of their work. And curious classmates from other literature and language classes who packed a campus rehearsal hall to listen gave the junior playwrights an enthusiastic thumbs-up of their own.

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The 15-year-old writers sat mesmerized as the actors--all veterans of television and film--brought their words to life.

But they ducked their heads shyly after their final scenes when other students broke into applause and yelled for the authors to stand and take a bow.

Wednesday’s performances were part of an unusual writing course being taught by a private theater group at four Los Angeles campuses.

Along with Hamilton High, professional actors and playwrights hired by A.S.K. Theater Projects are working this semester with English students at Cleveland and Canoga Park high schools in the San Fernando Valley and Marshall High in Los Feliz.

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The program, which costs about $6,000 a semester per school, is funded by the Skirball Foundation, which will showcase samples of the students’ work Friday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.

The professionals teach youngsters the basics about plot, character development and dialogue before asking them to write a play that can be performed at the end of the 13-week program.

Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Rachal sat with his eyes tightly closed and his hands tightly clasped Wednesday as actors Paula Weston Solano, James Sie, JoNell Kennedy and Andrew Carrillo performed his 10-minute play.

Rachal’s fast-paced story centers on the freeway crash of a truck and car that temporarily paralyzes a boy and leaves his mother in a coma. But the tale is sophisticatedly told through crisp dialogue involving emergency rescue workers, doctors and the victims’ family.

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The idea came from a wreck Rachal was in two years ago, he said. “Except that we were hit by a van at 93rd and Broadway” that left him with a broken wrist and hip--not paralysis.

Professional playwright Monica Palacios spent the semester working with the Hamilton High youngsters. She said Wednesday’s performance was necessary to show them just how powerful their written words could be.

English teacher Dean Schenker said he was surprised by the work his ninth-graders produced.

“I was expecting the usual trite high school experiences,” he said. “They wrote about family tensions, making mistakes, about being an outsider or a newcomer. I was impressed by their willingness to bare their souls.”

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Colleague Ria Erlich listened proudly as the actors read plays written by her 10th-graders. The room became quiet as Johanna Castro’s ghost story unfolded and as a knee injury doomed a college basketball player in Kevyn Fricks’ play. The audience laughed as Albert Moody’s depiction of teen curfews was read aloud.

“I watched them during the readings. They were delighted when one of their lines got a laugh, or when the audience was quiet at a serious part,” Erlich said. “This has changed some of them--those that haven’t seen the relevance of taking an English class until now.”

Fifteen-year-old Markesha Black said writing her play about a father with an alcohol problem and then watching it move from the page to the stage certainly changed her.

“This has opened a door for me,” Markesha said. “I’ll be writing more now. My characters are alive.”

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