A ‘Dream’ Fulfilled at Washington Prep

What’s so hard about performing the Bard?

The language, for one thing, plus the challenge of making characters from distant times in strange clothing seem real, especially to a contemporary teen-age audience accustomed to reality shows featuring characters with a long list of social and psychological problems.

Yet with the assistance of skilled mentors and teachers, it can be done, as the theater students at George Washington Preparatory High School have demonstrated the past two years.  In 2011, the school staged a successful production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and, this past June, followed that up with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  On October 19 and 20, the school will stage “Dream,” again with a new cast, since many performers in the earlier version have graduated to college.

Graduating and going to college is typical of the Washington Prep kids who gravitate to the stage; Dr. Melanie Andrews, a former actress and head of theater arts at the school, said 37 out of 40 members from the Class of 2012 are furthering their education at such esteemed institutions as the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“I have extremely high standards,” said Andrews.

For the past three years, Andrews has directed Washington Prep’s theater program.  In taking the job, she returned to the area where she was raised and, during her teen years, spent valuable time at the Inner City Cultural Center.  At the center she trained with several extraordinary performers, including Ozzie Davis, Ruby Dee, Beah Richards, and Ethel Waters.

The training paid off nicely.  In her early 20s, Andrews traveled the world in professional productions of such musicals as “Dream Girls,” “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “Showboat,” and “The Wiz.”  She also acted in many classical plays.

A few years later, however, Andrews was forced to retire from the grueling tour schedule due to health reasons.  Scaling down her stage activities, she became increasingly involved in teaching and directing young performers.  Over the last several decades, Andrews has directed more than 100 high school, college, and professional productions, including Shakespeare.  “No matter where I am, I do Shakespeare,” she explained.

Last year, Washington Prep students performed “Zoot Suit,” the riveting Luis Valdez play about the 1940s zoot suit riots in Los Angeles that 30 years ago launched the career of Edward James Olmos.  Washington Prep has also staged two plays written by Andrews with socially-conscious themes: “Positive Secrets,” about AIDS during the hip-hop era, which the school performed at the California State Youth Conference, and “Stop,” which depicts in dramatic form the sex trafficking of young girls.

And then, there’s Shakespeare.

For high school students from any socio-economic background, performing the world’s most famous playwright -- comedies, histories, and tragedies -- is a major undertaking, fraught with potential pitfalls.  The fledgling actors must treat the material with the seriousness that it demands, and hope that an audience of peers and parents is persuaded.  If not, watch out.  In the theater, there are few catastrophes to compare with truly bad productions of Shakespeare.

Andrews is quite familiar with the dangers, but at Washington Prep, she also has a strong ally to help guarantee that once the curtain rises, all will be fine.  During the past several years, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Los Angeles has partnered with Washington Prep, and the adjacent community, in various ways, including arranging screenings of films in parks and at summer camps and assisting with play production.

Javier Barbosa, a Washington Prep student with professional actor mentor, Phil Rhys.

Katy Haber, one of the founding members of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Los Angeles, built the connection between the organization and the school.  Haber started  her career in the film industry in England working on Ronald Neame’s “Prudence and the Pill” and then worked with Sam Peckinpah in Cornwall on the 1971 seminal film “Straw Dogs.”  A few days after the film wrapped, Peckinpah returned to the States and phoned Haber and asked her to come to America and become a permanent part of his team.  She ended up working on eight of the director’s films, including “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” and “Cross of Iron.”

Haber also produced “Blade Runner” with Ridley Scott and headed creative affairs at Island World Productions, developing Movies of the Week and reality programming for television.

During the 1990s, Haber became very involved in homeless issues in Los Angeles, serving as executive director of the Dome Village Transitional Homeless Community for 14 years while serving as a board member of BAFTA LA.  As a result of her work with the homeless, Haber got involved in inner city youth programs, primarily in the gang prevention arena.

Hearing their stories, Haber got a vivid sense of how these kids, many of them LAUSD students, were growing up with little or no access to the arts and culture that children in the more affluent parts of the city have always  taken for granted. In 2005, a member of a gang intervention group called CURE approached Haber about screening movies in Helen Keller Park where rival gangs were claiming young lives. Under the umbrella of the BAFTA Los Angeles’ Community Outreach and Education Program and in collaboration with CURE, LA County Parks and Recreation and Hollywood Outdoor Movies, Haber and her Committee Co Chair, Paul Heller, award-winning producer of “My Left Foot,” “David and Lisa,” “Withnail and I,” “Enter the Dragon,” and “The Annihilation of Fish,” among many more, helped launch the Inner City Screening Program at Helen Keller Park screening over 20 movies over the past six years.

Before the program could be implemented, however, Haber played shuttle diplomat, arranging a gang truce to allow movies to be shown in a tent at Helen Keller Park, which was disputed territory.  The sight of a middle-aged English woman sitting down with warring LA gangs to forge an agreement at the Museum of Tolerance in the presence of Rabbi Abraham Cooper allowing unobstructed access to a public space sounds like a film of its own – especially since the effort succeeded.

The first movie BAFTA LA screened at Helen Keller Park in 2005 was the award-winning documentary “Mighty Times, The Children’s March.”  Numerous other films ensued including “Gridiron Gang,” the true story about a team of kids at a juvenile detention center who form a football team under the guidance of their counselor a man named Sean Porter, played by Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. The tent, which can hold up to 200 people, was filled to capacity for the Q and A after the screening with The Rock and Sean Porter himself.

Due in part to the popularity of the BAFTA LA Inner City  Film Project, the County of Los Angeles is building a new community center at Helen Keller Park, that  will incorporate a permanent screening room, with the projection facilities donated by Warner Brothers,  that is scheduled to open next year. Haber said BAFTA LA will show films at the new location.

The first screening at George Washington Prep was “Antwone Fisher” starring Denzel Washington. The real Antwone Fisher who wrote the film, together with Malcolm David Kelly, who played Antwone as a child in the movie came to the event and participated in a lively Q and A session with the students. 

A subsequent screening of “Why Shakespeare” at Washington Prep, led to a Romeo and Juliet workshop with BAFTA LA professional actors, performing scenes from Shakespeare’s play with students in a school class room.

This opened the door to Melanie Andrews’s intention of making Shakespeare a core component of the Washington Prep theater department and afforded Haber and Heller and BAFTA LA a new opportunity to partner with the community.  High school students of any kind require extensive training in order to perform Shakespeare, and who better to offer it than British actors comfortable with the text?

They provided critical assistance on “Romeo and Juliet,” the debut Shakespeare production Andrews directed at Washington Prep, and, later, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  “At first, it was like they were reading a foreign language,” said Andrews, of her young actors’ struggles with the material.  “It was painful.”

But with the guidance of the BAFTA LA mentors, who served as dialogue coaches and drama teachers, the students learned not only to perform their roles, but above all learn and comprehend Shakespeare’s words.  The entire experience of staging “Romeo and Juliet,” from rehearsals through performances, was turned into a documentary, produced by Heller and Haber and directed by Mel Stuart entitled “Shakespeare in Watts.”

The latest Washington Prep production of “Dream” will take place Friday, October 19th, at 1 p.m. and Saturday, October 20th, at 7 p.m.

Thanks to the efforts of Andrews, Haber, Heller and the BAFTA LA mentors, Shakespeare in Watts is not just a film title, but a regular occurrence.  Leave it to Haber to sum up her role with a storyteller’s flair:

“We’ve been on a wonderful journey, and it all started with a movie.”



By: Tom Waldman

Posted: October 12, 2012