'Small but Mighty' Kind of Says It All

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Yo, yo, yo. My name is Prince Joe. . . ."

Not the familiar lingo of your typical fairy tale, but 13-year-old Chase Landers is not your typical Prince Charming.

At that awkward age when a boy's feet mature slightly faster than the rest of him, Chase glides across the floor in lumbering gym shoes, his chin high, his gaze fixed above an imaginary audience.

The rehearsal room at the Santa Monica Police Activities League (PAL) is more cluttered dance space than Enchanted Forest. But the mirrored walls in the tiny studio reflect the bows and pirouettes regally performed by Chase and fellow actor Felicia Carter-Aaron, 15.

Their play is "Poison Apples," one of six "Small but Mighty Plays" being presented by the Virginia Avenue Project Friday through Sunday at the 24th Street Theater in Los Angeles.

The project, named for its original location in Santa Monica's Virginia Park, is a theater-mentoring program aimed at kids looking for direction, a sympathetic ear or just something to do. Some are latchkey kids, others live in single-parent homes or where crowded conditions, substance abuse or violence are a part of everyday life.

"We say 'children growing up under difficult circumstances,' " says Leigh Curran, artistic director and founder of the project, who balks at the term "at-risk," because she believes it implies a certain ethnicity. "Some of our Latino kids grow up [poor] but their families are intact and they care about their futures and take their schoolwork seriously, [while] we have white kids who are trying to commit suicide."

About 80 kids participate each year in the Virginia Avenue Project. Among its programs are the One-on-One and Two-on-Two acting workshops. In One-on-One, each child is paired with an adult mentor who is a professionally trained actor, writer or director. The Two-on-Two workshop, produced only every few years, teams two child actors with two adult mentors, a director and a writer.

"They're great, quality people," says Kathe Mazur, an actress and four-year veteran of the project. The mentors, who are volunteers, treat the kids as "colleagues," Mazur said. And while the work with the kids is rewarding, the mentors are also given the opportunity to expand creatively, into writing and directing.

"I love the kids, they're incredibly interesting," says Mazur, who's directing one of the "Small but Mighty" plays. "It's really all about your relationship with the kid--they're trusting you, up there alone with you, and you are trusting them."

Building relationships is at the heart of the six theater workshops.

"Our whole objective is to get them thinking creatively about what they want to do with their lives," says Curran, a writer and performance artist. "We don't want to turn out actors and writers as much as well-rounded human beings."

Alfonso Garcia was 7 when he and his sister, Veronica, then 9, walked into that first acting workshop in 1992. They had often participated in other activities at the youth center, just a short walk from their one-bedroom apartment, which they shared with their parents and three older brothers, in the predominantly Latino neighborhood surrounding Virginia Park. The Garcias were in the first group of students in the initial workshop, a One-on-One.

Curran teamed up with Alfonso Garcia, the little boy with sensitive brown eyes who was so shy that he had a reputation around PAL as "a kid who doesn't talk."

"A lot of us saw Alfonso's first play 10 years ago," recalls Patty Loggins-Tazi, who was PAL program director at the time. "After the production he was coming up to us, all excited, 'Did you see it, did you see it?' We're like, 'Oh my gosh, he's talking to us.' "

One thing troubled Curran about the initial class--that the kids "didn't know what their imaginations were."

"It was scary, because they were kids and they had no capacity for creativity or imagination. That began to change through the work that we were doing."

The idea for the Virginia Avenue Project was borrowed from the 52nd Project in New York. Curran, a New York transplant, was part of that nonprofit theater program in the 1980s. It began as a way of forming a truce with the kids at the youth center across the street who vandalized the theater. Introducing them to the stage, the thinking went, might inspire some mutual respect. The rapport with the kids went far beyond anyone's expectations, and the 52nd Street Project still exists more than 20 years later.

When Curran, 57, moved to Los Angeles in 1990, she rounded up a pool of supporters and found a location at PAL to start the Virginia Avenue Project.

"Oftentimes people think kids don't know what's going on," says Loggins-Tazi, now director of PAL. "You watch these plays, especially the ones [the kids] have written, and you say 'oh my gosh, look at what they know and look how they perceive the world.' It's much deeper and more thought-provoking than anyone gives kids credit for being."

For Garcia, the workshops were "just a whole new way of being able to express myself that wasn't introduced before."

Garcia, now 17, is the only child remaining from the first workshop nearly 10 years ago. The shy little boy has grown into a 6-foot-4 senior at Santa Monica High School. With long black hair draping over his shoulders, a silver stud in his tongue and an imposing physique in jeans and a sweatshirt, Garcia could be an intimidating figure on the street. But on the stage, he's a soft-spoken young man who enjoys poetry and loves to write.

Before a recent rehearsal, sitting in a room at PAL, where he's spent much of his youth, Garcia talks with Curran and Mazur, his current director, about graduation and where he should go to college--he's been accepted to four state colleges--quite a different path from his three older brothers, one of whom was an unwed teenage father, the other two in and out of trouble with the law. He credits the Virginia Avenue Project with helping him in school, especially with English and creative writing classes.

This weekend, Garcia will make his final appearance as a student with the Virginia Avenue Project. Paired with his good friend Elizabeth Preciado, 16, in "Who You Gonna Be?," their play is a product of the Two-on-Two workshop. The play is one of six one-acts written for the kids based on interviews with them, hence, "Who You Gonna Be?" is about more than just two people who meet and become friends.

"You're riding that fine line of wanting to inspire the kids and not wanting to use so much of their personal lives that it's difficult for them to do," says Richard Coca, who wrote "Who You Gonna Be?"

"With Alfonso and Elizabeth, they're at that place where you're kind of finding yourself and who you're going to be, so I wanted to write a piece that kind of validated not necessarily who they are but who they can become."

Coca, an actor who plays the Latino counterpart to Brad Pitt in the new film "The Mexican" and appears in the upcoming Steven Spielberg film "Minority Report," has been active in the Virginia Avenue Project for eight years.

"We get kids from every level--kids who are rough kids and kids who are incredibly shy," Coca says. "The program teaches them to appreciate the language, the program teaches them to communicate and to express their feelings."

The Virginia Avenue Project tries to open up the kids creatively, but it also teaches business skills, such as how to manage money, so they can meet the world with more than just an imagination.

Participants also take part in field trips to local theaters and, during the summer, attend a retreat in Ojai.

Garcia won't be making the trip to Ojai this year. Instead, he'll be earning money for college, at his job at Santa Monica Place. He vows, however, that his connection to the Virginia Avenue Project is not coming to an end.

"I've been thinking about how I can come back and be an adult [mentor]," he says sincerely. "And I will do that."

* "The Small but Mighty Plays," 24th Street Theater, 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles. Admission is free but reservations are required. Performances Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m. (310) 330-8860.

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