BL: Drama Club started in 2005 in my backyard on Highland. There were six kids, and they all walked to get there. We had a shoebox for them to donate money into. [Eventually] the backyard got to be too small. So, we took it to the Lost Studio on La Brea, and we started charging for classes. We rent the space and it’s a lot -- $1,600 per month.
TNN: What kinds of activities do kids in The Los Angeles Drama Club participate in?
We’ve been doing three to four Shakespeare shows per year, plus [we participate in the] Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival. We also do yoga, improv, and we do a social justice theater program that teaches all about the different “-isms” – racism, sexism, et cetera -- and how to stick up for people, rather than just watch conflict.
Shakespeare’s plays can deal with some weighty subject matter for such young kids. Do you alter the plays?
We do not believe in paraphrasing in any way. They are speaking Shakespeare. We do edit for length, otherwise some plays would be 4 hours long. We try not to break the poetry or the scansion. We also cast first, so that then we know whose abilities we’re working with as we shape the play. We did Hamlet recently, and we cast four Hamlets [and they share the role] so we didn’t have to bastardize the play or those speeches you have to hear. We’re doing the same thing with MacBeth; we have three Lady MacBeths and they later become the three witches. And when we planned for Romeo and Juliet, we removed the sexual content and language.
How do the kids know what they’re saying, especially
when so many of the words used in Shakespeare’s time are no longer common?
We decode the language together, and [the students’] eyes widen and they say “that’s what that means?!” Our executive director Julia Wyson and I have private sessions with every single kid, after school, on our own time. When we’re in production, [Julia and I] go to their houses, we meet them at the theater, and we coach them outside of whole group rehearsal. We go over who they are, what they say, why they say that.
It must be gratifying to watch them grow as they handle the language. What’s the most rewarding part of your work?
One of the most rewarding things is seeing the light bulb go on in a child, especially in the kid who came in with what looked liked a tiny flame about to go out. When they prepare and perform, something changes. My favorite place to be during a show is the wings. I watch what happens when [the kids] come off stage and how they react when they finish. Watching the transformation from a kid in rehearsal to a young artist -- I get to catch that moment. That’s really cool. That’s why I became an actor, and I get to recreate that experience for them.
We know that you have your sights set on getting your own theater space right here in Mid-City. How’s that going?
This is where I live, and this is really what I’ve always wanted to do. Right now we’re in the Baldwin Hills library, and it’s super busy. People wander in, announcements go off while the kids are trying to concentrate. But it’s free and it’s close, so thank goodness for them, but it’s not a theater. That’s why we rent The Lost -- the kids get to do Shakespeare in a real theater, with a green room and a lobby and backstage and a light booth. Wouldn’t it be cool to have an actual theater space of our own? A haven for the neighborhood kids?
Why Mid-City? How did you come to live here yourself, why do you want to house LADC in this part of Los Angeles?
My father, grandfather, and great grandparents lived in a house in West Adams on Harvard and Adams. I grew up at Orange and 1st Street. When it came time [for me] to buy a house, I looked in Jefferson Park and then this house in Mid-City and it felt like the house. I witness the kids on my street -- there’s a need here. [If they come to LADC], for at least those two hours we know they’re not on an electronic, and we know they’re learning to communicate better and to make eye contact with other human beings. They’re learning storytelling, too. We need something to put Mid-City on the map. Why are we forgotten? I want to stick Drama Club right in the middle.
How much would you need annually?
We’ve been calling around about rentals on Washington and along Adams, too. There’s nothing under $3,000 per month, so $36,000 a year. It’s a lot. Or we could use spaces owned by the city, like Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. We’d obviously rather do that, and not have the funding go to landlords but to costumes and teachers instead.
Let’s talk about fundraising. Right now, how do you make ends meet?
For the last decade almost, we’ve been a word of mouth troupe. We’ve never advertised -- there’s no money for that. Word of mouth from the moms, and our executive director Julia Wyson built our beautiful website. We’ve also worked with the neighborhood councils in the area as well. We went to Mid City Neighborhood Coundil (MINC) first because it’s our neighborhood council. It was end of the funding line in July, and we asked for a $899 grant and we got it for Shakespeare in the City. The next week we went to the West Adams Neighborhood Council, announced who we were, then we went again the next month and we made our pitch. The board agreed to give us the whole $9,000 dollars right then and there, and in three weeks we had that money.
Your website mentions scholarships for those families who can’t afford fees. Are they hard to come by?
Whoever qualifies for a scholarship gets one. If they’re willing to get to the Lost Studio and they qualify, we make it happen. We make up for it in fundraisers and in the tuition of others.
You held an annual gala fundraiser in November. Tell us about it.
Our first gala Fundraiser has officially put us on the map. It was called “Tempest in a Teacup” - we served tea and wonderful food, thanks to a local merchant Foodink. We held it at the Magic Castle, and we were sponsored by SHOWTIME, so that all the funds raised will go directly to our arts and literacy programs. Performing Shakespeare opposite our kids was the infamous Jason Alexander, Keith David (Cloud Atlas), Laraine Newman, Alex Newell (“Unique” on GLEE), Jeremy Piven (Entourage), a Henson Muppet (Caveman!), Justina Machada (Private Practice), Moon Zappa, and Max Newfield (New Girl) and three comedians in Drag playing the Witches of Macbeth. Magicians performed from 2-3:30, then we held a raffle and we culminated with the benefit performances. It was a giant success. The work leading up to it was brutal, but it was all worth it in the end.
How are you going to spend the money?
We will use the $20,000 we raised to plan our next year without having to worry. We can plan to rent the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center if we have to. We can possibly rent our own space. $20,000 to us might as well be two million. A friend of mine started a similar nonprofit in a depressed, nearly deserted town in New Hampshire – first her theatre house came, then a coffee house opened. And now the town is thriving!! There’s something to be said about getting a functioning theater and a coffee house here. People will come and you will build community, a place for youth and the public to gather. That’s my vision for Adams or Washington. A theatre, a coffee house, a center! To be able to say to the kids living on 21st Street and Cloverdale; “Come on over to our theater.”
To read more about the Workshop CLICK HERE