There are many of aspects of life in the theatre that drive one into the ground – rejection, harsh criticism, plays languishing in drawers and computers, the fear that our labors of love will never be produced.
And then there are the times in that life when we feel nothing but joy. One of those times for me was the three years I spent as a mentor to young playwrights in a program called HOLA (Heart of Los Angeles), which was then hosted by Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire.
I was in a workshop called Wordsmiths at the LATC with Kitty Felde when she was looking for volunteers and I, always sucker for long drives on a Saturday, raised my hand.
A group of us, Kitty, Melanie, Dan, Dick, Jim, and more, met Saturday mornings with kids from the neighborhood, who were different ages, from seven to twenty. We plunged into writing. We started with a scene and wrote to the clock. I think we had five minutes. Everybody, kids and mentors, read his or her scene out loud and then we moved on to crafting the plays.
Kitty taught with a simple technique to jumpstart the process. Before beginning the play, we would write our Protagonist Profiles with these headings; Name, Age, Family, Habitat, Job, Greatest Wish, Secret Fear, Antagonist, and Extras. Here’s one: Name: Orgel, Age: 47, Family: None, Habitat: The backroom of a pound with only a cot and a hat tree, Job: Watering and feeding the dogs, Greatest Wish: To have a dog of his own, Secret Fear: That he’ll be alone for the rest of his life, Antagonist: The owner of the pound, Extras: He is skinny and tall with a big moustache.
The play grew from there.
At the end of each session, we went to the youth hostel in San Pedro for a weekend of polishing and cooking and fooling around. Kitty’s husband, Tad, would take the kids on a hike and terrify them around a campfire with ghost stories. We all took turns cooking meals and cleaning up, kids and adults played basketball and collected shells on the beach, and in between, we wrote, wrote, wrote. Each kid had a mentor and we had time to forge a working relationship.
We ended with a performance of the plays, some at the church, and one memorable one at the Central Library, in which the plays had been inspired by a trip to the Armand Hammer Gallery. A play called Return of the Landlord featured a spectacular use of black light.
Many were very talented, and one teenager, Paul Park, had a collection of his plays, called Out of the Park, presented at the Evidence Room. All the kids were fearless (or learned to be). Their stories were fresh (sometimes silly, sometimes sad, sometimes scary), and all gave me an insight into worlds I would never have been a part of without them.