Locked up, yet free on the inside


The improv troupe, “Locked up in Malibu,” from the juvenile detention center, Camp Vernon Kilpatrick, along with a new group from another local camp, join a diverse group of storytellers for two performances Saturday at Malibu United Methodist Church.

By Laura Tate / Editor

They are “master deniers.”

They’re also locked up.

And, they’re just “kids.”

Yet local actor and director Susie Duff believes in them, and has devoted the past seven years to help free them-on the inside.

Duff works with the incarcerated youth of the Los Angeles juvenile detention centers, Camp Vernon Kilpatrick and Camp Gonzalez, both located in the mountains of Malibu, teaching them classical improvisational acting technique and exercises.

“Because so many had such a tough break in their lives, they are very limited [in their options],” Duff said about her work with the teens in a recent telephone interview.

Yet, Duff said, quoting Lauren Bacall, ” ‘Imagination is the highest kite you can fly.’ When you do the work on the inside, they can be free.”

The result of their work will be seen this Saturday at Malibu United Methodist Church in double-header performances in conjunction with storytellers from the program Tales by Sea, produced by Ann Buxie. Titled “Time and Again,” it is the second such combined performance of storytellers and improv by the locked up youth. This time, however, the young improv performers will come from the two camps, instead of just Kilpatrick-teens who have never met each other—and will include six storytellers of diverse backgrounds and heritage. “It’s bigger and badder than ever,” Duff said of the upcoming production.

The six tellers scheduled to perform Saturday are: Riua Akinshegun, an author, poet and world traveler whose work has recently been featured at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles; Michael McCarty, described by Buxie in a press release as “a world traveler whose experiences he brings to the stage with fiery enthusiasm and an eye for healing;” David O’Shea, a New York cabbie for seven years, “What more needs saying,” writes Buxie. “He survived with tales to tell;” the Cuban Irish-American Antonio Sacre, who has performed for the past 10 years on national stages as well as in “fringe” festivals; Ellen Switkes, a “mother with a fierce eye for what makes it all work;” and author/actress Lan Tran, a 2005 PEN/Rosenthal Fellow whose work has been feature on NPR .

The two scheduled shows Saturday will be different, Buxie said, who noted there would be time between the shows to get a quick dinner if one chooses to attend both.

To prepare for what Duff called a “very ambitious” production, the Malibu resident said she “prayed a lot” in addition to approaching the teens on the level of professionals.

“I just went in and [told them], ‘I’m going to teach you at the level of a master, of a master class,” she said. “‘My money is on you that you are able to step up.”‘

In addition to having never met each other from the two separate camps, the young men of Kilpatrick and Gonzales have never met the storytellers nor do they know what stories will be told. All they know are the names of each teller and the title of their stories. After each story is told, the improv troupe will take the stage and, with suggestions from the audience, “riff” on the tales, giving them back their story with their spin on it, with the eyes of a kid who is locked up,” Duff said.

Although Duff is the teacher, she said the teens she worked with are so bright and quick, that “once they get the concept, they school me.”

Her work done beforehand, the teens run the show from the “get go,” Duff said. In addition to the performance, they do the introduction and host the question and answer session afterward.

“People are amazed by the discipline they have to do this,” she said.

“[They] are working on a very sophisticated level here,” she added, explaining that with improv, the actors are the writers, producers, directors, choreographers and the scenery.

“Improv is to the world of arts what extreme sports are to the athletics – the ultimate taking of responsibility of ones’ self,” Duff said.

The youth from Camp Kilpatrick have performed at the Malibu Stage Co. in prior years under the moniker, “Locked up in Malibu,” doing improv as well as “slam” poetry. Duff worked with Malibu resident Susan Heyward, and, until his death in 2002, Heyward’s producer-husband, Deke, mentoring and teaching poetry and acting skills to the youth.

Duff believes the therapeutic benefit of being able to express themselves through acting, especially improv, is too great to ignore.

“What you have to learn as an improviser is to get to the heart of conflict,” she said. “You also have to get into resolving conflict.”

The number one rule in improv, Duff said, is “don’t deny.”

“To make it work you accept [what is said] and then add to it [in a positive way] to forward the story. You build the story,” she explained.

Although Duff said the “kids locked up are master deniers,” they “become on their feet, very adept at conflict resolution.”

Duff receives no county funding to help with teaching the locked-up youth, although she does receive private donations. Her goal, she said, is to get other improv teachers to go into other camps around the country. But for that, funding is needed.

“What’s the worse that can happen,” she asked rhetorically, “that our kids get better?”

“Time and Again” will perform Saturday, Dec. 3, at Malibu United Methodist Church, 30128 Morning View Dr., 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for each show. Reservations can be made by calling Ann Buxie at 310.457.2385. The church’s phone number is 310.457.7505.