Locked up in Malibu brings down the house

The group, Locked up in Malibu, from Camp Kilpatrick performed improv and comedy skits to a standing ovation. Heather O'Quinn / TMT

The group from Camp Kilpatrick performs to a standing ovation. The storytelling group, Tellers and Talkers, tells inspirational, moving tales.

By Ryan O’Quinn

Special to The Malibu Times


magine seeing a reenactment of how the Seychelles Islands are responsible for making crayons or how two sisters trying on a prom dress at a yard sale suddenly morphs into a scene where a traffic cop writes a speeding ticket. If you are thoroughly confused you were probably not in attendance as the improv troupe “Locked Up in Malibu” brought the house down as the opening act of the “Tales by the Sea” storytelling festival Saturday night.

The six-person improvisational comedy team is literally locked up at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile detention facility near Malibu. Saturday’s performance at Malibu United Methodist Church, this particular group’s first public performance, earned a standing ovation from the packed audience.

The group’s director, Malibu resident and actor Susie Duff, has been working with this group of teenage boys for only three months and has managed to turn inmates into comedians and more importantly, has taught them about life and about themselves.

“The number one rule in improv is don’t deny,” Duff said. “We take a suggestion and say ‘yes, and…’ Teaching that rule to kids who are masters of denial is the hardest part and takes most of the work.”

Duff decided to take on the volunteer position when she heard someone refer to the juvenile camps as the place where “bad kids” go. She decided to open up their world by teaching improv. She went from teaching in a laundry room at the facility seven years ago to growing the program into one of the most popular electives.

“They are all incredibly talented because they’re kids, they are natural actors,” Duff said. “The question is not talent, it’s maturity. I always say to them ‘I’m not your probation officer, I’m not your mommy, I’m not your judge, I’m not your teacher, I’m a director and this is a professional master class and I’m going to teach you as if you were professional actors.'”

The training style certainly paid off as time and time again the group had to hold for laughs as they played a variety of games and acted out nonscripted scenes that were based on audience suggestions.

Duff said she told the boys at the beginning of the class that she did not want to know their offense or why they had been incarcerated because she wanted to view them only as actors. She said one of the performers confessed that he had been called a lot of things but never an actor.

“Turning these guys into little stars is anathema to me,” Duff said. “This is about rehab. My position is you can do this work and not like yourself, but not for long. You have to feel good about yourself to continue to do this work.”

Following the performance, the feeling was unanimous among the crowd as one audience member shouted “come back again” and the group improvised a rap based on their “new friends in Malibu.”

“The first thing I thought was, you have criminals in front of you,” said audience member and actor Leta Rector. “Seeing this shows me that when everything is stripped away and they don’t have to hide, everybody wants the same thing. In the scenes they were using words like love and hugs. I’m so impressed with their bravery. It may be the first time anyone has ever said to them ‘you did well.'”

Duff said she would love to see the arts receive the same attention at the 19 juvenile facilities in Los Angeles County as is afforded to the sports programs. She also has dreams of seeing other cities around the country adopt the idea and possibly eventually a “Locked up on Broadway.”

“I feel great,” said one performer named Jack (last names cannot be published). “It was like a big release. People look at us as criminals and I thought they weren’t going to laugh at us, but the crowd was out of control.”

The performance by “Locked up in Malibu” was only the warm up act for the rest of the night’s bill, which consisted of five professional storytellers known as “Tellers and Talkers.”

The group of African Americans related stories that ranged from childhood memories of segregation to historical tales and songs about figures in American history. The entire evening, which focused on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was emotionally moving and all the while uplifting.

“Tales by the Sea” was started 10 years ago by Rev. Larry Peacock at Malibu United Methodist Church and has been headed by Ann Buxie ever since. Buxie said the storytelling festival will continue with another evening planned in the near future and said the Camp Kilpatrick teens will definitely be returning.

“It really takes a lot of wherewithal to get up there and do that,” Buxie said. “We need to be building bridges all the time and that’s why this group works so well with storytelling.”

More information on “Tales by the Sea” can be obtained by contacting Ann Buxie at 310.457.2385.