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Honing their craft, making their mark

Times Staff Writer

“Anybody here ever have a dog?” Raymond Parker, an actor, stand-up comic, writer and acting teacher, calls out to his class. The hands of roughly 20 of the 30 students fly up. “Did you ever wonder what your dog was thinking?” he asks.

Let’s face it. Who hasn’t?

So he tells the three students on stage that they’re all playing dogs, two-legged dogs. “Don’t close your mind,” he says. “Show me what they’re thinking.”

It’s as though a light bulb goes on over the head of student Nick Weiland, and he laughs, and says, “Yeah. I love it,” and starts claiming his territory on stage as royalty: Prince, king of the dogs.

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From the curb, 438 S. Market St. in Inglewood looks like a warehouse, with barred and heavily curtained windows and dingy glass on the front door that allows only scant light inside. The building is uninviting.

But walk through to the open space inside, and it’s a hive of cheerful activity. About 30 people are practicing dance steps in front of a wall of mirror. In the back room, another 30 or so are taking turns at improvisation skits. And in the tiny music studio, a couple of students are listening to chords and dreaming up lyrics.

The place is Performing Arts Studio West, a privately owned and state-funded acting, music, dance and production studio staffed by entertainment-industry professionals. The studio’s clients are people with intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, mild retardation and seizure disorders. It’s the realized dream of John Paizis and Randy Klinenberg, longtime friends and entertainment professionals.

Over the decades -- especially when between jobs -- the two of them fantasized. “We wanted our own studio,” Klinenberg says.

Now they’ve got it, though not exactly the studio they envisioned. Rather, it’s the one that opportunity presented, and they say it’s even better than the dream.

Paizis is the founder and director, and Klinenberg is the managing director of the studio, a training and career management center for performers with intellectual disabilities. It’s a one-of-a kind shop in the entertainment and disabilities services industries: Where other centers in the county and the state might have music or dance therapy, the Inglewood studio has daily acting, dance and music training. It has a production studio to record the songs clients write and a management team that places people in jobs in the entertainment industry.

Able to accommodate 60 clients, it always has a waiting list.

“It’s the only place like it in the country, possibly the world,” Paizis says.

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Show business was always Klinenberg’s career. He was a radio deejay, a sound engineer, a videographer, a rock ‘n’ roll band manager. Paizis acted in summer stock theater in Connecticut, had rock ‘n’ roll bands called Kid Twist and World Affairs and once was the voice of a Jim Henson ostrich puppet.

But Paizis often depended on day jobs to pay the rent -- and those bread-and-butter jobs reflected his other love: working with people with disabilities. He was a special-education aide, then an instructor and, finally, an administrator at a day program. His mother had been a special-education teacher; his cousin had a developmental disability. “I know what this population can accomplish,” he says. “They respond in such a positive way when you treat them with respect.”

So in 1997, when the day program Paizis administered shut down, the old studio dream resurfaced, prodded with some urgency by his recent joblessness. He came up with a proposal for the long-imagined studio, only this one would be for actors, dancers and musicians with developmental disabilities.

Mike Danneker, executive director of the Westside Regional Center, which is responsible for programs for people with cerebral palsy, mental retardation and autism spectrum disorders, loved the idea. “John went from training people and having a day program to getting people jobs in the industry,” Danneker says. “Sometimes I just sit here and scratch my head and say, ‘My God, how does he do it?’ He’s not just giving them something to do, singing ‘Kumbaya.’ We’re talking about getting them a job.” Sometimes a serious job, such as a role on “ER” or “Saving Grace.”

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Except Paizis, no one who works at the studio had previously worked with people who are mentally challenged. “When John put this together -- I’ll be honest with you -- I was put off by this population,” Klinenberg says. He’d never been around people with developmental disabilities, and the little he knew about them largely reflected society’s discomfort with those who look and act differently from what’s deemed “normal.”

Meeting aspiring, disabled performers put an end to that view. “I’m so attracted to people with talent, by seeing something inside their soul,” he says. “These people are talented.”

The program began with five clients. They practiced song, dance and improvisation. They occasionally went out to senior citizen centers, where a confined and isolated audience always appreciated anyone who came in.

As their numbers grew, they staged their own productions. Word got out that the performers were good. Growing numbers of disabled performers, or people who wanted to learn, wanted in on the program.

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Meanwhile, Paizis expanded the staff. “I wanted people who didn’t have a lot of prior experience with this population,” he says. “I wanted people who had experience with the industry.”

He added as music director Joe Seabe, a songwriter who once had a band called SicVicki. About 50 of his songs can be heard on various television shows and movie soundtracks.

Together, Seabe and the class write songs. He plays a few chords. People call out how it makes them feel. Then they look for a hook, a theme. “They just start throwing down lyrics,” he says, the same process any professional songwriting team uses.

Making it all pay off is Carmel Wynne, director of talent. She came to L.A. from North Carolina to become an actress. Now she makes sure the studio’s clients have professional head shots and resumes. She monitors casting notices and arranges auditions. She, or other staff members, stick with the clients during auditions and filming. “They come in with their own entourage,” she says.

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Increasingly, she finds herself answering incoming calls from people looking for talent.

“This is the happiest place ever,” Seabe says. He knows his words might feed a kind of saccharin stereotype about people who are mentally challenged. But he can’t help it, he says. It’s how he feels.

“Every morning I come through that door, and I get greeted and hugged,” he says. “You can’t bottle that. It’s real. It’s all real.”

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susan.brink@latimes.com


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