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Amateur Knights

Wilson in the Ivar (Photo by Drew Reynolds)

Theater as part of life — there’s a radical concept. The idea comes from Edward Wilson, a Briton who took up digs at Hollywood’s Ivar Theater complex last November to establish the Los Angeles Young Actors Company. For 17 years Wilson ran England’s National Youth Theatre, a kind of student company where teens and young adults put on plays with soaring standards. National Youth Theatre productions have toured throughout Britain, and Wilson’s production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, with a cast of 100, performed at the Moscow Art Theater in 1989.

Wilson’s idea is not for a conservatory, a university or a star-making machine — though NYT alumni include Sir Ben Kingsley, Dame Helen Mirren, Ian McShane, Alfred Molina, Michael York and Orlando Bloom. Rather, the point is to provide a hub for volunteers to experience the teamwork, discipline and artistry it takes to succeed in a play — as well as in all walks of life.

“At the heart of the Los Angeles Young Actors Company,” Wilson says, “is the philosophy that young people learn about themselves, each other and wider society through active participation in the theater — whether it be onstage, backstage or in front of the house. I’d like to provide the opportunity for young actors to play Othello at age 22. Even here, I’ve found plenty of young actors who want to do the stage and don’t have the outlets to do it. In L.A., a town that’s full of aspiring actors, the notion of youth theater tends to be about children’s theater; our youth theater is more about student theater.”

Wilson was recently appointed executive and artistic director of the California Youth Theater, whose outreach programs include the Migrant Education Performing Arts Workshop, a three-week theater workshop for children of migrant workers scheduled for August at Cal State Long Beach. CYT owns the Ivar, which Wilson is using as a rental house. Still, he says he doesn’t wish to chain his productions to the venue’s 284-seat space or its “Brick Box Theater (flexible seating allows for a variable capacity up to 99 seats).” (The Ivar was formerly home to the Inner-City Cultural Center and, before that, a strip club.) For his first project, Wilson wants to restage Murder in the Cathedral at St. Vibiana’s, downtown.

The question of funding such a venture, however, has proven to be “tricky,” but probably no worse right now than in England, he says, even though NYT is funded by an array of donors and foundations and Arts Council England.

“At the moment, we have a proposal before the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency. The outlook of young actors is no different from back home. The fact that Britain has a longer theatrical history is not that significant.”

A larger point, says Wilson, is that in a show with 80 young actors, their friends come to see them, and some of them join the theater, “and it spreads through communities, and it’s a way of keeping the theater young.”

Sir Ian McKellen, who served as NYT’s vice president and spoke to the Weekly by phone from London, says that very few of the NYT participants become professional actors.

“And that’s not the point,” McKellen explains. “It has to do with development, with the building of citizens. Amateur theater is the underpinning of British theater. There are a lot of amateur groups that put on plays, and a lot of these groups are at least as good as what you’ll find in London’s professional theaters. Practice is what makes you better at it.”

McKellen never attended a drama school and remains unconvinced of its necessity: “You may need to go to a chair-making school if you wish to make chairs, but an actor simply needs to work on the stage, any stage, a lot.”

This week McKellen will be at UCLA to perform a one-man show of scenes and reflections, Ian McKellen Live On-Stage (a revision of his one-man show A Knight Out in Los Angeles), as a benefit for Los Angeles Young Actors’ Company.

“The need for live entertainment is never going to go away,” he says. “I know we’re getting obsessed with media, robotic and interactive technical devices we can hold in the palm of our hand. But at the end of the day, storytelling will continue.”?

Sir Ian McKellen performs Ian McKellen Live On-Stage at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse to benefit Los Angeles Young Actors’ Company; Sun., July 23, 7 p.m. (310) 825-2101 or ?www.uclalive.org.


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