'Growing out of the darkness of ignorance and hate' through theater

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Could a complete theater education be the ultimate in the liberal arts, a strong foundation for the mature pursuit of happiness? Yes, says the Theater of Light School of Performing Arts -- and it offers as evidence of its belief a story of unusual growth and achievement.

It started in America's bicentennial year as half-a-dozen unemployed actors and actresses roamed the streets of Hollywood for space where they could use their time creatively between jobs: They rehearsed a play one of them had written for the others.

In four years it has grown into a community of 50; an accredited trade school with ambitions of eventually conferring a liberal arts degree; a neighborhood arts center beginning to achieve wider community outreach; small troupes of actors and apprentices taking live theater to kindergartens, schools, and homes for the elderly; and a small center for producing opera, musical comedy, and serious plays.

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One of its recent productions is William Gibson's factual drama of the revolutionary teacher whose tough but loving discipline inspired Helen Keller to develop from a blind, deaf, and uncomprehending little savage into a radiantly creative person.

"The Miracle Worker" won the Theater of Light a news spot on a major Los Angeles television station, picture coverage along with the compliment "sound and touching" in the Los Angeles Times, and an accolade from the Hollywood Drama-Logue: "impeccable artistry down to the smallest detail . . . should be seen by everyone with an eye for theater and the need for talent of the higest order."

The Theater of Light is only one of about 200 equity-waiver companies in southern California. But as a school, it has brought a rare modern life to the originating ideals of Western theater.

Tracted to its ancient Greek roots, the theater is a place of and for "beholding." But we do not "behold" what merely gratifies our senses, according to masters of language. Rather, we "behold" any spectacle that excites our admiration, our astonishment, our pity, or our love. The Theater of Light's revival of "The Miracle Worker" managed to excite them all.

Actor James Loren recalls his early dissatisfaction with the academic study of drama at a big university. Trained there to be an "objective collector of information," he journeyed across America -- from theater school to repertory company -- in his quest to become "sensitive, whole human being."

But his thorough study of dramatic literature helped, too: It enriched his skill to put school philosophy and the first school catalog into words.

Know and learn thyself.

In stage movement class one evening, a young woman in a mask, walking almost gracefully, heard from her observing classmates: "She is tense and rigid in her neck and shoulders."

Why? She faced a challenging fact.

Paul Roman, the school administrator and an acting instructor, explains it: "As I studied acting, I had to change as an individual."

Learn thyself too well to kid thyself.

"Self-indulgence" is a frequent target among these teachers. From this they did not exempt some of the finest acting schools on both coasts which had otherwise helped them to "see that you have to care about the person."

They shun emotional binges.

"Art is based on discipline -- it is not a form of anarchy."

"There must be a balance of craft and heart."

"We are opposed to the traditional back-biting and harshness of the theater."

No one will take real-life credit for the starring role in this group -- at least not to a reporter:

"The Theater of Light is not a personal showcase or a launching pad."

There is even a quality in rules and atmosphere which among today's relaxed mores might seem akin to a historical enemy: the Puritan. But their arguments are rational:

"You're the instrument: you can't be worn down, tired, coughing. And teachers must set a good example." Experienced theatergoers remark on the fresh grace of the performers and the absence of tired eyes under the greasepaint.

"You have to care about the person -- see something in him or her that's worth changing." Paul Roman was recalling a couple of new recruits with "no talent -- what am I going to do with them?" But their "willingness to learn, willingness to persist" yielded "results you can hardly believe.That is so rewarding."

They teach one another. Classes are very small. A total of about 80 students last spring. You watch ballet exercises. A tall, slender student becomes the ballet instructor's teacher in the next class.

"To develop all-around talents such as were cultivated by the big studios in the '30s and '40s" -- that is a major aim of the school.

Offerings range from the history of theater (no takers while I was there) to a television commercial workshop, where beginners struggle to look both lively and natural in front of a video camera.

It has been almost all do-it-yourself. The original half-dozen actors and actresses grew to 10 while they built their stage in an almost nonstop six days and nights. It was just right for the 99-seat maximum the actors' union allows for productions that give actors practice without pay.

Two or three more rooms became necessary as the school grew. Their original hosts, the United Methodist Church here, began to charge them rent, which has risen to $36,000 a year. Also, a 10:30 p.m. curfew, required for security reasons, is hard on both rehearsals and performances.

Yet they manage.

In their practice of education, they seem to be in tune with the theme that Helen Keller in her later years perceived in her own life: ". . . the thought comes to me that like the little deaf, dumb, and blind girl I once was, mankind is growing out of the darkness of ignorance and hate into the light of a brighter day."

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