Thug to thespian: Young offenders take the stage

They are free from their barbed-wire probation camp for just two nights, but they hold their audience captive with comedy. With buzz cuts and baggy pants, these teen felons and minors with misdemeanors have taken the stage in one of America's most affluent communities.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Fernando H., I am 15, and I have been locked up in Malibu for nine months," says a young Hispanic male, stepping into the spotlight at the Malibu Stage Co., a small theater nestled in the coastal hills.

Trained with an arsenal of classical improvisational techniques while incarcerated at the nearby boys' detention center Camp Kilpatrick, the teen improv troupe is probing age-old notions of arts as rehabilitation – and taking audience cues for roles as varied and incongruous as Pancho Villa on "Meet the Press."

The idea of arts programs in prison is as old as prison itself. But last week's première of "Locked Up in Malibu" was, some say, the first time a group of juvenile probationers has gone before the paying public beyond the cellblock walls.

It comes in 90 minutes of unrehearsed, small-skit theater, "slam" poetry, hip hop, and song. In an evening that ranges from slapstick to serious, the 10 teens take their skit suggestions from the crowd of 120: Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in a bowling alley, George Bush and Al Gore on a game show.

In one classic technique, the teens bounce between genres – comedy, horror, romance – at a caller's command. Kevin and Mariel, two African-American teens, launch an improv as brothers playing rugby in a space station; suddenly, the caller shouts out "Romance!" and Mariel, a wiry 15-year-old, immediately swoons over his bowling ball. The audience roars.

The riffs are spontaneous and raw: Beyond the merely funny, they are debates on pressing issues of the day, current events, even personal comments – packaged with pratfalls, face-mugging, mime, and noise. Each boy is author, producer, director, musical conductor, choreographer, and stunt coordinator.

"You've heard of extreme sports; this is extreme responsibility for your life," says show director Susie Duff, a classically trained actress and veteran of Broadway, film, and television. "This is a great way to rehabilitate youth because the No. 1 rule is that you don't deny, and you deal immediately, creatively, with everything that comes at you. The whole world that a gang [member] comes from is about denial and blame and why problems are someone else's fault.... That doesn't work in improv."

Pushing the arts envelope

In the past decade, adult crime has decreased while juvenile crime has risen. States have passed more legislation imprisoning younger youth – often with funds that critics say deplete education and social-service programs. With some evidence that recidivism rates decline among arts participants, a search is on for creative ways to produce tangible results for young offenders.

"By attempting the dramatic elements of improvisation in public, by using teen probationers, and taking the performances to venues far from where the kids grew up, this program is really pushing the envelope on the idea of arts training in prisons," says Grady Hillman, author of a guide to such programs for the National Endowment for the Arts. Enroll-ing troubled youth in such training, he says, could do far more than the programs do for adults.

And the Camp Kilpatrick program, he and others say, is cutting edge. For one thing, it attempts one of the most difficult forms of performance – the unscripted world of improv, an art that even top actors avoid for fear of humiliation. It's ambitious, too, because it's being tried with minors in one of the country's largest probation departments: Los Angeles County.

After incubating for about five years, with only in-house performances for other camp members and administrators, the troupe is entertaining a venue that is, for the most part, the antithesis of their own roots.

"It is very, very difficult for guys like these to be vulnerable in front of each other, let alone grownups from a far different strata of society," says actor A. Martinez ("L.A. Law"), a Malibu resident who caught last Friday's premiere. "They are showing real courage and talent."

Beyond boosting the youths' emotional literacy, self-esteem, and self-presentation skills, the performances show the public imprisoned youths' potentia, given better education and training. At an impromptu question-and-answer session after the performance, the audience quizzed the boys openly. Parents, family, school colleagues, and the performers themselves expressed surprise and delight at their new awareness and self-control. Malibu residents and celebrity actors such as Martin Sheen ("The West Wing") voiced support, as did top Los Angeles officials.

"I was very, very impressed with what this program has been able to achieve in such a short time," says Dick Shumsky, chief probation officer of the L.A. Country Probation Department.

Question ranged from how prisons socialize youth towards further violence to why acting might help youth offenders become more responsible.

"One of our problems ... is that we lock kids away and the community never comes down to the jail ... to see them as just what they are ... kids," says Hunter Hurst, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. "This program opens the window."

Sandra Heyward, a Malibu playwright who has mentored youth in probation camps for several years, also hopes the idea will help kids find jobs. She's working with area corporations and animation houses to develop internships for "grads."

Improv's behavioral boost

Opening a window into the world of juvenile lockups was precisely the reasoning of Ms. Duff, a Shakespearean-trained actor, who after a long career on Broadway and foreign stages, decided to take her improv idea to local probation authorities. A Malibu neighbor had horrified her with the story of driving her own son up to the barbed wire fence of a local camp and cajoling him, "this is where bad boys go."

"I thought, for all our privilege and education in Malibu, we are putting that mind-set into our own children that these are bad kids, unworthy and unable to be rehabilitated," says Duff. "There is hardly a youth anywhere who can't be dramatically helped with behavioral, emotional, and social issues by learning improv."

She and others like the idea of teaching improv to youth because the techniques – openness, vulnerability, and surrendering street-hardened attitudes – can carry over. "This requires discipline, openness working with the group, and developing trust," says Hillman. "In facilities that don't have such programs, juveniles learn just the opposite."

Duff hopes to replicate the program statewide and beyond. So far, her work has been volunteer. But officials say that despite such success, there are hurdles: funding, finding quality teachers, and fairness. "The more successful programs like these are, the more you hear voices of those who say, why aren't they teaching great lessons like these outside prisons,?" says Hurst. "And within facilities ..., how do you provide equal access?"

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