Young, not juvenile

Times Staff Writer

No fairy tales allowed; no fluffy bunnies need apply.

Grown-up youth theater comes to this year’s Edge of the World Theater Festival when three new plays for children and teens are performed Saturday at the 24th Street Theatre, joining the 50-plus works for mature audiences to be presented at various L.A.-area venues this month.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 02, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
EdgeFest phone number -- The number to call for reservations for the EdgeFest L.A. Future Project’s free presentation of plays for young audiences at the 24th Street Theatre in L.A. on Saturday is (213) 745-6516. The number that ran in Wednesday’s Calendar feature was incorrect.

Under the auspices of its new youth-centric L.A. Future Project, EdgeFest commissioned the plays from theater artists and companies known for their decidedly adult works: the Evidence Room’s Ken Roht, Steve Oreste of Vox Humana and Joe Jordan of Sacred Fools.

None had previously created works specifically for children. Their EdgeFest mandate? Be, well, “edgy,” but make the content appropriate for audience members under 18.


At the storefront Evidence Room theater on Beverly Boulevard in L.A., lithe twenty- and thirtysomething performers rehearse to percussive rhythms, deep, bone-vibrating keyboard chords and their own rising and falling chants and vocal harmonies.

Without dialogue, their movements -- dance-like, abstract, a deliberately indefinable mix of mythological and ethnic traditions -- create a visual narrative of contemporary young adolescent behavior and a close-knit, noncontemporary tribal community, shaken by a troubled young man’s violent act.

Upstairs in a battered Los Angeles Repertory Theatre rehearsal room above a gritty stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, Vox Humana company actors have assembled; one, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, portrays a man on trial for his life, charged with murdering his mother -- in revenge for her murder of his father. Other actors preen as TV news reporters who are exploiting the tragedy for ratings and their own celebrity.

Inside the no-frills Sacred Fools Theater, on a narrow side street a few blocks from Vermont Avenue in Hollywood, electric cords, power tools, sheets of plywood, piles of fabric and miscellaneous bits of rubble attest to a stage set under construction.


Moving through this obstacle course, actors are creating a fantasy world inspired by Arthur Koestler’s theory that systems, or holons, exist as individual wholes and as interdependent parts of other wholes.

These three plays -- “Tribe,” “Greek Family Tragedy ... Film @ 11" and “Holon, or What Whole Are You a Part Of and What Parts Are You the Whole Of?” -- were chosen from a dozen or so ideas submitted to Edge- Fest’s L.A. Future Project.

“It just seemed like the next boundary to push in the theater world,” said Carolyn Palmer, the L.A. Future Project line producer, of the need for new works for young people.

Each artist received a $750 stipend funded by the festival’s general fund and a reimbursement grant from the L.A. County Arts Commission. Each selection was based on content, Palmer said, “and on how original and daring their ideas seemed. We didn’t want to see a new take on ‘The Three Little Pigs.’ We were looking for theater that would be moving and intelligent the way adult theater should be.”


(EdgeFest is also offering one non-project youth theater show among its adult offerings, created by young people: the Young Players Ensemble’s “Mythical Dreams,” based on the teenagers’ pen-pal exchange with peers in Northern Ireland.)

“One of [my] guiding principles is that young people are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for,” Jordan said. “Any dumbing down is going to be obvious.”

In Jordan’s play, “Holon,” for ages 6 to 12, a young girl realizes her own uniqueness and the importance of her place in the world at large when she discovers that she is made up of smaller parts -- right down to the cellular and molecular level -- and is herself a vital part of a family, a town, a state, an ecosystem.

Her dreamlike adventures, enacted with original music by composer Brenda Varda and movement-intensive choreography, include encounters with a forest-protecting Treekeeper; a birdlike Flock of Words, who flutter themselves into sentences in order to be understood; a proton, neutron and electron; a hydrogen atom; and bickering world leaders.


Project advisors offered suggestions about appropriateness; Jordan said his consciousness was raised about what theater for young audiences can be at an early L.A. Future Project workshop with 24th Street Theatre’s youth theater experts, Jay Mc- Adams and Debbie Devine, who underscored the genre’s case for credibility by pointing out that the Minneapolis-based Children’s Theatre Company won this year’s Tony for excellence in regional theater.

Jordan had to work a bit to convince some potential cast members and others, however.

“When I say, ‘Hey, I’m doing this piece for young people,’ this idea gets in their heads of, ‘Oh, you’re doing little bunny rabbits,’ something that’s dumb and cheesy. It takes me a while to get them to understand that’s not what we’re going for. We’re doing adult theater. The content may be different, but we’re not going to play down to anyone.”

Oreste, of Vox Humana, warned his actors of the possibility of “giggles, kids yelling out things” during more intense moments in his “Greek Family Tragedy,” and he toned down sexual elements, “but that’s pretty much it.”


Targeting an older audience, ages 14 to 18, Oreste is staging a piece of the “Oresteia,” a classic of Greek mythology containing multiple familial murders, and framing it as a satire of TV news and reality court TV shows.

The god-driven Orestes is on trial for matricide; his attorney is a well-dressed, rhyming showman (“my chart was done by Fate; in this case you must exonerate”); the vengeful Furies seeking Orestes’ eternal torment are the prosecuting attorneys; and two self-infatuated newscasters do the live broadcast.

Audience members will determine a guilty or not guilty verdict; two endings have been written for the show.

Oreste’s aim was to introduce young people to “other forms of literature,” he said, while spoofing the media with a “sensationalist and sound bite” approach that requires the audience to “make a quick decision on a weighty issue, just like things are covered in today’s media.


“It’s also to make kids aware that they might not be getting the whole picture just by watching the 5 o’clock news.”

After Saturday’s performance, he plans to reconstruct the play as a full-length drama for adult audiences.

Roht, a critically acclaimed artist whose trademark work encompasses intense adult themes, abstract movement and dance, created “Tribe” with his Orphean Circus ensemble to communicate to ages 8 to 15 a message of “nonviolence and social cooperation.” With ritualistic movement, partly inspired by German Expressionistic dance of the 1930s, with the voices of children whom he interviewed at the Boys and Girls Club of America in Echo Park and with an original percussive soundtrack created by steel drum musician Joseph Peck, the piece explores what happens when a troubled young adolescent loses control after his show-off strutting for some girls fails to impress them.

He becomes physically violent, taking his humiliation out on a friend; his fate is decided by an “archetypical, mythological council of elders,” led by former Martha Graham dancer Sissy Boyd.


Roht prepared his actors for their foray into young audience territory by telling them he “didn’t want to pander to people’s expectations.”

“Young people will embrace whimsical surrealism faster than anybody,” he said, “and I wanted to create something that was dark, so kids could feel it, as opposed to being told what a morality tale is.

“I wasn’t looking at it with any sense of limitation. I wanted it to be visually stimulating, constantly moving and always surprising -- but that’s sort of what I do anyway.”

Roht may adapt the piece as a “spine” to his upcoming “99 Cent Show”; he’s also considering a run at the Evidence Room as a Sunday youth matinee, with post-show percussion and dance workshops.


Meanwhile, Jordan’s “Holon” will have a full run at his home base, Sacred Fools, from Sunday through Nov. 1.


EdgeFest’s L.A. Future Project

Where: 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A.


When: Saturday only. Noon: “Holon, or What Whole Are You a Part Of and What Parts Are You the Whole Of?” 1:30 p.m.: “Tribe.” 3 p.m.: “Greek Family Tragedy ... Film @ 11.” (“Holon” begins a full run Sunday at Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood, Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; ends Nov. 1. $5-$10. [310] 281-8337.)

Price: Free, but reservations are required.

Contact: (213) 274-6516