Up onstage in the Los Feliz Elementary School auditorium, a group of third-graders literally runs through an improvisational acting exercise, the instructor having directed them to scurry at each other from opposing wings, uttering such exchanges as "Are you late for school?" "I'm late for school!" as they cross paths.
We're practically in the shadow of the Hollywood Sign and a stone's throw from hip and artsy Los Feliz Village. But arts-related classes, including theater, have been stripped from Los Angeles Unified's public school curriculum in these tough economic times, and this instruction only exists courtesy of a nongovernmental group called the Hollywood Arts Council and its Project SOAR (Students Overcoming All Risks -- an appropriately hyperbolic acronym for a contemporary philanthropic organization, especially one involving children).
It's a program in which private contributions bring after-school arts classes taught by accomplished professionals to eight Hollywood-area schools and a population of 2,000 students deemed "at risk."
On this day, the kids partake in a jack-in-the-box exercise involving a kinetic imitation of said spring-loaded puppet, followed by a basic warm-up that has them standing in a large circle and sequentially belting out random animal sounds and exclamations.
No one would confuse this with the Actors Studio or a class at Second City, but then again, these are 8- and 9-year-olds who -- unlike the Sheens, Gyllenhaals and Paltrows of the world -- were not born with any apparent familial or situational leg up in the performing arts.
The image of Hollywood among many visitors and Angelenos alike may be that of an enclave populated by aspiring entertainment professionals, nightclubbing socialites and recently arrived white-collar elites moving into ultramodern loft condos. The reality is far different.
"Of the 25 kids in my class, only four of my parents were born in the United States," says Barbara Rosenblatt, a bilingual third-grade teacher at the Vine Street School, location of SOAR's hip-hop/jazz dance class, and an eager proponent of the project. "When we do family histories, I get stories about how Mom sneaked over the border."
SOAR executive director Shauna McClure implies that these Hollywood kids face some of the same urban problems as those at the worst inner-city schools, leading one to believe the facilities are infiltrated by drugs, underage sex, violence and gangs.
Firsthand testimony by some of the kids, however, suggests otherwise.
"Everybody's good here," says Helen Yzaguirre, a smiley, exuberant sixth-grader and aspiring dancer at Vine Street School. "I'm all buddies with everybody. We like to play around, and if kids go off the edge, the teachers maintain us."
Her dance class buddy Brian Rodriguez chimes in: "The kids here are, like, really, really polite, they're calm with you. There are some that act bad in school, but everybody here is really kind and generous."
It's not exactly the description of a cutthroat urban jungle.
Perhaps philanthropic leaders, like private entrepreneurs, need to massage the facts, inflating certain realities in order to sell their product in a competitive marketplace.
It's an ironic inversion of everyday life, a display of urban-problem envy ("Our neighborhood is as bad as that neighborhood!").
And then universality and fairness come to mind. While these Hollywood-area kids, growing up without socioeconomic advantage in the shadows of massive studios and production offices, deserve a break in terms of access to the arts, what about children in neighborhoods farther out and even less privileged -- the ones in nobody's backyard, that no L.A. movers and shakers seem concerned about?
It seems a shame Project SOAR can't extend south of the 10 and east of Vermont. But if you can't fix the whole world, at least start local, right?
"When you have impoverished inner-city children who are second-language learners, and you stimulate other aspects of the brain," says Rosenblatt, bristling with passion for pedagogical theory, "then this is a kinesthetic thing, and it will impact and improve their general abilities to improve in math, science and English. The middle and upper middle class doesn't have a clue as to how deprived they are of anything that we consider normal."
As is often the case, the children themselves put it in simple, personal terms.
"I've never had other opportunities to dance except in school, because my dad works at a company and my mom works cleaning houses," says the gentle-mannered, 12-year-old Rodriguez. "And my real mom works at a Chinese restaurant. So I have never had any arts classes or dancing classes because I've never met anyone who's a dancer or knows how to dance."
His touching story is matched by the refreshingly blunt and unfiltered words of SOAR's executive director. McClure says: "I want to capitalize on the guilt of the elitists. Whatever's bringing dollars to my program, whatever's bringing dollars to the arts."