Gold mine for the stage struck
Conservatory’s acting classes are for everyone — on and off the autism spectrum
By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer 04/24/2014
When students from the Thousand Oaks-based Gold Coast Theatre Conservatory take to the stage for this season’s production of The Gold Rush, it won’t be with much fanfare. There has been minimal promotion. Just two performances are offered, and only one is open to the public. The venue is the relatively small Scherr Forum at the Civic Arts Plaza. Large-scale performances just aren’t Gold Coast’s style.
“We started out [in 1994] being the one theater company that focused on training young people, as opposed to putting them in productions,” explains Stephanie Wilson, Gold Coast’s founder and artistic director. “We offer opportunities to perform, but the real focus is on training.”
Specifically, classical training. Stage combat, monologues, character breakdown, comedy, diction. Wilson studied the Meisner technique, a type of method acting, and she brings that body of knowledge to the conservatory’s curriculum. Students learn to be in the moment and are taught to own the movements and line readings necessary for performance and make those their own, without mannerisms or even props. “Listen and respond” is a large part of the process.
If this sounds a little high-concept for the third to 12th-graders enrolled in Gold Coast’s classes, keep in mind that it’s one of the few youth theater companies in Ventura County that offers professional-level lessons. “Our goal is to create actors,” Wilson emphasizes. “Yes, we’re entertaining the audience, but [the kids] aren’t performing — they’re acting. I don’t even let them wear makeup.” For students seriously considering acting as a career, Gold Coast is a gold mine. But plenty attend for the sheer love of theater — and take home more than just an introduction to method acting. “We try to give them the skills to fit in when they go to high school or college,” she says, “as well as the skills they need for business; so many people aren’t comfortable standing up in front of an audience. Even just the skills for an audition: how to behave, dress and conduct themselves in the waiting room. These translate to college and job interviews.”
Gold Coast also offers the Acting Academy for Autism, the only program of its kind in the area. Wilson’s daughter, Elizabeth Angelini, was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 12. The theater became her creative outlet, and gave her the opportunity to practice many of the social skills that children on the spectrum struggle with. Now an education specialist in moderate/mild disabilities, Angelini helped her mother establish the academy in 2011 and joined the faculty, which includes two other special-needs teachers. “We researched all the theater programs [across the country] that focused on children with autism,” Wilson recalls of the academy’s early days. “We weren’t reinventing the wheel, but we took the best from these programs. Kids learning social skills through theater have less stress than kids just taking the social skills class.”
Academy classes aren’t widely different from the mainstream courses, but they do rely more heavily on rhythm and repetition. Aides are welcome, and the curriculum is tailored to the needs of the students. There’s also a lot of shaking hands, saying “hello,” making eye contact. “There’s been a large increase in the number of kids with autism, and the need for them to learn social skills is huge,” Wilson stresses. “I want my kids who have special needs to be able to navigate the real world.” Carla Ames, whose 14-year-old son, Andy, has attended Gold Coast since he was 10, has been impressed by his increased confidence and other leaps he’s made in his personal life. “There are a lot of benefits to be had,” she says. “Theater, acting, improv — it makes them focus on the things that kids with autism often don’t: feelings, emotions, facial expressions.”
Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson started sending her son, Wyatt, to the academy when he was 11, and was blown away by both the pleasure Wyatt got from acting and the caliber of work he performed, including recitations from Shakespeare. As the executive director of ACT Today!, a nonprofit focused on autism awareness and treatment services, she recognizes how Gold Coast fulfills students’ deep-seated need for self-expression. “We tend to underestimate our children with autism, and a program like this can unlock the joy and love that’s there,” Alspaugh-Jackson explains. “Many of them are great actors; many have a great ability to mimic. It helps them gain so much self-esteem and really helps with socialization. Their personalities come out in this program.”
Some students who start in the Autism Academy eventually join the mainstream classes — and some have even gone on to perform in regional theater companies. Andy Ames recently played Lazar Wolf in the High Street Arts Center’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. His mother says the conservatory gave Andy the skills he needed to fully explore his passion. “I think he’s got some natural ability for it, but without the Gold Coast classes and performances, I don’t think he would have been able to transition as successfully as he did.”
Both parents credit Wilson and her staff for their dedication and creative approach to teaching this somewhat challenging demographic. But as Wilson explains, “That’s necessary for any kind of group art. It’s a lot of work. They all learn from each other. It takes everybody working together.”
For more information, visit www.goldcoasttheatreconservancy.com.