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Locked up in Malibu-stories from the inside

Juveniles from one of three detention centers in Malibu get a chance to express themselves on stage.

By David Wallace/Special to The Malibu Times

Few people know that three of Los Angeles County’s 19 youth detention camps are located high above Malibu in the Santa Monica Mountains. Probably even fewer give much thought to the future of the camps’ inmates. Two exceptions are Malibuites Sandra Heyward, a playwright with international credits, and Susie Duff, a classically trained actor and veteran of Broadway, film and television. For the past six years they and, until his death last March, Heyward’s producer-husband Deke, have been mentoring and directing inmates of Camp Vernon Kilpatrick (one of the three facilities) in writing and acting. The first public performances by their students will take place Oct. 24 and 25 at the Malibu Stage Co. when several of their most talented discoveries will present “Locked Up in Malibu,” an evening of improvisation, poetry, hip-hop and song.

Heyward and Duff are so determined to keep the focus on the unusual talent that they declined to be photographed for this story (the young actors and writers can’t be photographed without Juvenile Court permission).

“We’re not the story,” Heyward says. “The kids are.”

“The quality of their work is amazing,” she adds.

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Duff agrees.

” can’t give it to them fast enough, they’re naturals.”

Duff’s commitment to the inmates dates from a story related by another “Malibu mom.”

“One of my friends, an otherwise highly educated mother, told me she had had a bad day with her kids,” Duff says. “So she drove them to the gates of one of the camps and told them, ‘This is where bad kids go.’ She thought she was brilliant, but I was staggered. So within 24 hours I went to the head of one of the camps and said I would like to teach a class. And I’ve been doing it since.”

From the beginning of her work Duff, has trained the children at Camp Kilpatrick in traditional improvisational comedy.

“I’m teaching basic acting skills,” she explains. “But since human beings are basically hilarious, the process allows the comedy to come out. I’m making it safe for them to play.”

Her students-several of whom will improvise themes suggested by the audience during the first half of the Malibu Stage show-are chosen through an unusual system: The children suggest who they think would work best as a member of the group, and their probation officer passes the nominations on to Duff. Those selected (usually a dozen) are then put through 10, two- to three-hour weekly classes.

First impressions are crucial in such an environment, and Duff meets the challenge head-on.

“I start off by saying, ‘I’m here because people of my sex and age and skin color are supposed to be terrified of people of your sex and age and skin color. Please don’t tell me why you got locked up here, because if I’m frightened of you, or don’t like you, or pity you, I can’t work with you as an actor. And from this second on, that’s what you are to me-actors. So let’s get to work.’ “

They are also assigned homework, both written (about what they have learned and what they like or dislike about it) and physical (a combination of yoga, dance and martial arts). “Then I take the last piece of news I’ve heard,” she says, “and ask them to tell me what it has to do with acting. These are among the most fascinating discussions I’ve had in my life. Out of that, we pull a theme for the day.”

She also utilizes classic improv exercises including “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” where her students have to rhyme a suggested theme in the same meter.

“It’s a killer exercise,” Duff says.

Another is “So’s Your Uncle Jake,” where they improvise job interviews, an exercise for developing characters.

In the beginning, Sandra and Deke Heyward planned to teach basic writing skills, but the process quickly evolved into one that has actually enabled some of their protgs to turn their lives around.

“It became, ‘What kind of a job do you want?’ ” Sandra reflects. ” ‘Who are you going to be?’ A couple of the guys have since gotten scholarships, a couple have failed miserably, and a couple are in prison. But those are the odds. There’s always a big chance of failure, but there’s always that other percentage…”

According to Heyward, all three of her students performing poetry, ranging from love themes to social outcry, in the last half of the show are as talented as any professional poets.

“They’re dynamite!” she says.

And that dynamite will be on stage in Malibu Oct. 24 and 25 for all to see. Tickets for “Locked Up in Malibu” are $10 and, with the cooperation of the Malibu Stage Company, the funds will be distributed among the players. More information and reservations for the show can be obtained by calling 310.457.4669.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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