Sharing hidden worlds through stories and improv

Storytellers, from left, David O'Shea, Lan Tran, Antonio Sacre, Ellen Switkes, Michael McCarty and Riva Akinshegun in front. Will McGarry / TMT

Young men from two local juvenile detention centers perform improvisational skits in conjunction with storytellers from the “Tales by the Sea”


By Sara Rosner / Special to The Malibu Times

Move over “Saturday Night Live,” the youth from the juvenile detention centers Camp David Gonzalez and Camp Vernon Kilpatrick are here with their own unique take on what they call “the art of improv.” Thirteen youths from the centers performed in correlation with six professional storytellers in a production entitled “Time and Again,” at the United Methodist Church of Malibu on Saturday.

The production, which was put on by the centers’ theatrical troupe, Locked Up in Malibu, began with a personal introduction from each of the centers’ cast members, who ranged in age from 14 to 18, and come from a variety of different backgrounds. One young man, Richard (last names are not allowed by the state Division of Juvenile Justice to be used), pointed out that they all share their current residence in common.

“We hail from two different, let’s just call them ‘gated communities,’ nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains,” Richard joked.

The storytellers also reflected some diversity with the experiences they shared with the audience. Michael McCarty, director of the storytelling program, the Griot Workshop, spoke about fighting for civil rights in Chicago in the 1960s, while Ellen Switkes talked about her daughter’s tumultuous journey into female sexuality, and David O’Shea told the audience about his experiences as a New York City cab driver.

In between each storyteller, the youth would put on an improvised skit based on the story they had just heard for the first time. The young men showcased their versatile talents and impersonated everything from cows and fish to politicians and God.

“I thought it was extraordinary,” audience member Wendy Kamenoff said of the youths’ performance. Kamenoff, who produces the storytelling series, “Tasty Words in Santa Monica,” said she was especially impressed with the youths’ resiliency.

“The mistakes were my favorite part, there was something refreshing about it,” Kamenoff said.

Though the young men made it look easy, they had practiced and prepared for nearly two months before the show, working with Malibu resident Susie Duff, who has mentored and taught improv technique to the youth of Camp Vernon Kilpatrick for the past seven years. One of the members, Tyron, spoke about the difficulties of improv after the first performance.

“At first it was kind of difficult…just thinking on your feet, but I got used to it,” Tyron said. “I had fun doing it.”

Switkes said the boys performed better as the show continued.

“As the show went on, you could see them getting more and more relaxed,” Switkes said.

After the storytellers had performed and the youths had finished their final skit, the young men invited all the storytellers to the stage and told them how they had been affected by each tale.

One young man, Gary, was especially touched by Switkes’ story about her daughter.

“My parents used to tell me not to hurt girls, but I didn’t listen,” Gary said. “Now that I’ve heard your story as a mother with a daughter, it made me look at it a different way now.”

Anne Buxie put on the production in coordination with her storytelling program, “Tales by the Sea,” which she has produced in Malibu for more than 11 years. She believes in the value of storytelling and that the program will help the young men to express themselves and become better members of society.

“It’s just another way to get them integrated back into the community,” Buxie said. “If we don’t start to hear each others’ stories, how in the world can we expect to create peace?”

O’Shea agreed, saying that storytelling and improv gives these young men a unique opportunity to work together.

“Everyone has these worlds and these worlds are hidden from us,” O’Shea said. “They had to share…No one left each other out in the end.”

Tyron said the performance had taught him a great deal about life and about himself. “I learned when you go out and do your best, it will come out the best,” Tyron said.

Though there are no performances planned definitely for the future, Buxie said she is considering working with the young men again in the spring of 2006.