Young actors in the old tradition
The house is packed. The opening curtain is minutes away. The pressure is on.
You’d think the actors would be knotted up with jangled nerves.
But no. Not this troupe of thespians.
They’re on a backyard trampoline in a nice little Artesia neighborhood, and the suburban air is perfumed with aromas from nearby Indian restaurants.
Half the cast is rising up like rockets, led by the boy who plays Charlie Brown, the other half falling back down to earth.
No jitters. No worries. No agents.
If only the director can get them off the trampoline.
“All right, let’s go,” says Athena Diaz, who leads the cast of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” out to the front lawn of her home, not far from where the 91 intersects the 605.
She’s the director. This is her backyard theater company.
“Our theater . . . is approximately 12 feet long by 10 feet deep with 2 small side stages,” she explained in an e-mail she sent me last month. “We use large pieces of material or shower curtains for our side and backdrops.”
The cast of this year’s play, “Charlie Brown,” ranged in age from 4 to 13, she wrote. “I should tell you that this is all about the kids. We do not allow parents to watch rehearsals, so the first time they get to see the show is opening night.”
She invited me to see the play, and since it sounded right up my daughter’s alley, my wife and I decided to make the trek on a Sunday evening in late September.
We knew we’d found the right place when we saw the sign on the house: “Show Here Tonight.” The audience, mostly neighbors, was still arriving for the summer’s final performance, but Peppermint Patty, Linus, Schroeder, Lucy, Snoopy, Woodstock and the others were oblivious as they prepared for the show. They stood in a circle holding hands. Does anyone care to say anything, Athena asked?
“I’m glad this is our very last show, but glad we’re doing it again,” said Hannah Wald, who plays Marcie. “It’s good to see all you guys. Break a leg.”
Woodstock, age 4, and also known as Laci Berecochea, wanted to say something.
“I got my new baseball uniform today.”
“That’s great,” said Athena, who turned to the others and asked:
“Are you ready for the squeeze?”
Athena put a firm grip on the hand of the actor next to her, and the squeeze pulsed from one kid to another, a creative current making the circle.
They were charged.
Athena’s 3-2-1 Action Kids’ Musical Theater has been wowing Artesia for three summer seasons. First they did “Annie,” then they did “Honk,” an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Ugly Duckling.”
This season was a little trickier because Athena won a contest that meant she got to spend a month studying Danish in Denmark, the homeland of her mom’s family. So she wrote out the scripts before her trip, told the actors to be sure and study their lines, then returned for three triumphant performances at the end of the summer.
The run was supposed to have ended weeks ago, but an encore presentation was added to the schedule because Artesia, population 16,000, couldn’t get enough of the show. On the night we went, a hundred relatives, neighbors, friends, and two former Artesia mayors sat in a sea of folding chairs. Children clustered on blankets in front of the stage.
Bougainvillea cascaded over the back fence as the sun disappeared behind the top of the house. Athena’s mother, a homemaker, and her father, a gardener at the Beverly Hills Hotel, sat in the front row, smiling proudly as Athena took the stage to thank everyone for coming, with a very special thanks to her grandfather. He did, after all, allow the cast to rehearse in his air-conditioned house on blazing summer days, and the whole cast jumped into his pool when their work was done.
And now it’s showtime.
Hunter Berecochea bounds onto the stage as Charlie Brown, the kid who can’t catch a break. His kite won’t fly. The little red-haired girl doesn’t know he’s alive. He strikes out with the game on the line.
“Charlie Brown has what you call a failure face,” Lucy tells Linus. “Notice how it has failure written all over it. Study it carefully. You rarely see such a good example.”
Hunter has not just become Charlie Brown, he is the embodiment of childhood disappointment and desire. The kid’s got chops, even if his voice has been changing during the production, so I consult my program to check his credentials.
“I am 13 years old and am keyed up to be playing the role of Charlie Brown,” he has written. “Some of my work includes Horton in ‘Seussical,’ Artful Dodger in ‘Oliver!’ and the Cowardly Lion in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ”
Hunter has also noted in the program that this play will hold special memories, in part, because he is sharing the stage with “my ornery, yet very cute sister, Laci. I’m really proud of you, BUG!”
Laci, you will recall, plays Woodstock.
Not to speak out of school, but, knowing how artistic types can be, I had asked Athena if she had any “difficult” personalities among her cast members.
Not really, she said. Well, Woodstock did have some creative differences in the beginning.
“She just had a mind of her own and didn’t want to take direction,” Athena said. “She’s supposed to act like she’s in love with a worm and hold up a little paper heart and rip it in half because her boyfriend broke up with her. Whatever. But she didn’t want to do that.”
The entire production might have been thrown into crisis, if not for Athena’s years of experience, which taught her that every director is first and foremost a psychologist.
“We stopped saying, ‘Please rip the heart now,’ and started saying, ‘You’re going to rip the heart.’ ”
In the grand opening scene, the entire cast sings “You’re a good man, Charlie Brown,” with Lucy and Snoopy and Linus and Peppermint Patty and Snoopy and Schroeder and the rest of the gang working the stage and winning the audience. Charles Schulz would be proud.
Athena is in the second row, running the sound board and monitoring everything, including audience reaction. This all began when she was 10 and gazed with admiration at her two older sisters, who were both in community theater. Athena had been training in her spare time at Musical Youth Artists Repertory Theatre and the Youth Cultural Arts Foundation, and on a whim, she decided to start her own theater company.
She rounds up friends and neighbors, shops thrift shops for costumes and props with her sister, Anisa, who is playing Lucy, and by the way, she seems destined for Broadway.
The two sisters choreograph and lead the entire production and write the programs too.
“It’s awesome,” says John Lyon, a former mayor. He tells me that kids who were painfully shy two summers ago and content to play low-profile bit parts have now bravely stepped forward for lead roles.
With entertainment this good, who needs the nearby Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts? Lyon says he called the mayor of Cerritos to invite him to an earlier performance.
“I said, ‘Are you ready for opening night at the Artesia Center for the Performing Arts?’ ”
The evening air is a late-summer balm. The giant amorphous metropolis beyond is filled with peril and darkness that can swallow a child’s dreams, but here in this backyard there is innocence, there is community, and the world is young.
Woodstock, by the way, nails her scene on cue, tearing the paper heart with gusto.