If your child is the class clown, a practical joker or extremely shy but with a secret yearning to act, there are places where he or she can perform and have talent nurtured, especially during the summer.
On a Sunday afternoon at the L.A. Connection Comedy Theatre in Sherman Oaks, six boys and two girls, ages 5 to 14 are eagerly waiting to take the stage for their turn at improvisational games. They all have a mischievous twinkle in their eyes, especially David, 5.
When his mother is asked how he happened to begin training so young, she says: "He actually began at 4 1/2. He was always the class comedian, and a family friend suggested this group and he's loved it ever since. He's done commercials and been in two television pilots."
Janiece Minnick, who conducts the session, asks a newcomer to take the stage and questions the 10-year-old boy, who definitely is not shy. He says he came to the group because he saw them performing and wanted to join. He also notes that he has five fish and two brothers. Minnick then leads the children in group exercises where they learn to react to things, using all their senses.
Janiece, her husband, Josh Minnick, and Jonathan Lally all take part in training the children. They are performers and students of Kent Skov, who founded the L.A. Connection group 21 years ago. After the children spend two hours doing improvisation, they perform for parties that are booked at the theater at 3:30 p.m. each Sunday. At these events, members of the audience are brought on stage to participate.
Skov came to Los Angeles in 1975 after performing with the acclaimed improvisational group the Committee in San Francisco and soon was seen in plays at the Actor's Theater as well as appearing in his own two-man show. On television, Skov was a cast member of five television series and did guest spots as well. He formed L.A. Connection in 1977 as an adult improvisational troupe, and now more than 85 adult performers are part of the group. Nine different shows are done at the theater with adult performers and two shows with the children.
The troupe also goes on the road to private parties at homes and restaurants. Skov sometimes performs at the theater at the 9 p.m. Saturday show. He has created some of the improvisational games taught to the children. His former students include Matthew Perry of "Friends"; Hank Azaria, now in "Godzilla"; Sharon Lawrence; talk-show host Stephanie Miller; Jon Lovitz and other "Saturday Night Live" performers Will Ferrel, Victoria Jackson and Chris Kattan, to name a few.
On humor in children, Skov says: "One signpost is a child who delights in pranks. But the withdrawn child can also surprise us. Filled with fantasies or comic observations, a shy child can spring to life given the opportunity."
To prove his point, Skov cites his high school classmate Robin Williams, who, Skov says, didn't display his frenetic comic genius until after graduation.
Skov says improvisation opens communication skills and helps in life far beyond theater.
"The difference between regular theater and improvisation is that kids draw on their experiences and learn and grow from other kids' experiences," he says.
Though he was always outgoing and gregarious, Skov says: "As my experience widened, I learned my lack of knowledge in other areas. Part of humor is cleverness and intelligence. This is gained by practicing and learning more. It's a must to learn current events."
When he was with the Committee, he was told to read the newspaper.
"Humor is based on references. If the audience cannot relate with your references, they won't laugh," he says. "You need a wide range of references, much more than in any other type of theater."
Comedienne Toni Attell, who has had a successful career on stage, television and film, has been training children for some time. She now manages some of her students, including an 11-year-old boy who will play Pugsley in the newest "Addams Family" television special. She teaches acting for movies, improvisation and stand-up.
Attell says: "Acting takes children away from peer pressure. They have the moment to become beautiful and show their special quality."
Some children will act up out of insecurity or perceived inadequacies, she says, and will go to elaborate lengths to get attention. Although Attell is beautiful, she didn't feel that way as a child.
"I felt ugly," she recalls. "Then, at a Saturday show for kids, I was asked to get up and do an improvisation as the ugly sister in Cinderella. It was my first time on stage and people laughed. The feeling was so glorious to me. For the first time in my life I felt that I was worthy."
For children who want to perform in musical theater, there is the Golden Performing Arts Center, which has year-round and summer programs offering children 7 and up, including teenagers, the opportunity to be in a full-scale Broadway musical. Now under the direction of Ted Goldenberg and choreographer Anna Rubin, the group was started by Goldenberg's mother, Meredith Kurz, who had been a Radio City Musical Hall Rockette in her teens and studied dance all her life. She first opened a dance studio in 1983 and, in 1985, her daughter, Laura Golden, added the musical theater division.
During the summer session the younger group will perform the Broadway musical "The Wiz," and the teenagers will appear in "Crazy for You." Children receive training in acting, singing, dancing, stagecraft and all aspects of theatrical production. This culminates in a polished show, complete with a fully orchestrated score, professional lighting, sound, sets, costumes and makeup. One hundred children are divided into four casts.
Goldenberg says there are various reasons why children come to the workshop.
"Some are working actors, and about half need something to do that gives them self-esteem," he says. "Theater is not as judgmental as sports, and some children are not sports types. The other half need something productive to do.
"The exhilaration of being on stage is like nothing else. Also, there's no age discrimination. They all help each other and it's a great team-building experience. It also helps academically because the children have to learn lines."
He adds that the very shy children thrive.
"They are the sweetest, nicest, shyest offstage and, then, because they have the need to be onstage, they bloom."
Tammy Kelman and Lisa Kakassy began Broadway Bound Children's Musical Theater Workshop two years ago. As students at Cleveland High School, they loved theater and continued their interest in college, Kelman at Cal State Northridge and Kakassy at Cal State L.A.
Their aim is to give boys and girls 8 to 14 the opportunity to perform in a full-scale Broadway musical while having fun and creating memories that will last a lifetime. They take only 30 students, to make sure each child can shine. Every participant has a part in the show and also receives training in acting, dancing, singing, set design, costumes and makeup. The result is a full-fledged Broadway show with proper sound and lighting. The summer camp session will perform "Bye Bye, Birdie" at Valley College.
Kelman says, "Many parents have said their children became different people because of the self-confidence they gained by performing."
She said some parents enroll their children because they want them to make friends.
"Our kids come in brand new to everyone and develop lifetime friendships," she says. "Theater is like that. You work for such long hours and support one another."
Whether your child has a sense of humor or performing ability, encouraging your child's playful side is one of the best gifts you could give, says Art Linkletter, father of five and former host of TV's "Kids Say the Darndest Things."
"Even if he or she isn't funny, nurture your child's humor, because humor is one of the most important qualities in life today," Linkletter says. "If you develop it, then the unexpected and cruel things that happen can be softened. It gives you a bumper against life."
* L.A. Connection Comedy, 13442 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 784-1868. Ten week session held Sunday afternoons for ages 5-14 features improvisation and comedy games. Fee is $200, $30 to try one session.
* Golden Performing Arts Center, 23233 Saticoy St., #107, West Hills, (818) 887-9178. Summer theater day camp held Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday through Aug. 7. Six performances of the "Wiz" will be presented. Fee: $745; includes all production costs. Sibling discounts available. Summer teen theater open to junior high and high school teens. Rehearsals Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings from 5 to 9 p.m., June 22 through Aug. 14. Final performance of "Crazy for You," Aug. 16. Fee: $375. Weekly extended day care available for younger group.
* Broadway Bound, rehearsals at L.A. Connection Comedy Theatre, 13442 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 340-8222. Musical theater summer camp, June 22 to Aug. 9. Fee: $750. Extended day care available.
* Toni Attell, private coaching. (213) 812-3912.