“Fame, the Musical” is a tale about an eclectic mix of high school kids — some from hardscrabble backgrounds — who find family and purpose on stage.
So who better to cast in the production than an eclectic mix of high school kids, some from hardscrabble backgrounds?
That’s essentially the reality of a summer theater troupe for teenagers and young adults in San Pedro that will perform the show this weekend at the Warner Grand Theatre.
Much as the singers, dancers and actors who attend the fictitious Performing Arts High in New York City grapple with learning disabilities, weight issues or drug addiction, some of the real-life California kids portraying them come from families that have faced the hardships of poverty, abuse, neglect — even murder.
“We are living what we do,” said Marcia Barryte, director of the show made possible by a nonprofit group called Scalawag Productions. “It’s been a really strange experience.”
One of the leads is played by Isaiah Barrett, a newly graduated senior at Narbonne High whose mother nine years ago held him and his siblings captive in closets for four days until they escaped and turned her in to police.
Another, 18-year-old Tarah Wells, was only 6 when she witnessed the shooting death of her father in a dispute over a campsite parking spot. While the immediate aftermath was difficult, Tarah said the loss really didn’t hit her until her teenage years.
“I started to realize my have friends all have dads,” she said.
Around her freshman year, Tarah began to find refuge in creative pursuits.
“I started writing music and started to find ways to just let it out and not be so sad,” she said.
Financed largely by corporate groups and local donors, Scalawag Productions is a nonprofit founded in 2011 that offers summer theater training for students ages 14 to 22.
Tuition for the five-week program is $395, but company sponsorships are sometimes available for the those who can’t afford it. The size of the troupe is kept small, around 25, to better ensure one-on-one training and coaching.
Although some of the students come from the school of hard knocks, a disadvantaged background is not a requirement for participation. This year’s cast includes sons of single moms who struggle to make rent and daughters of CEOs who live on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
“It’s a lovely mix of kids,” said Gale Kadota, the producer of the program who co-founded Scalawag with Anthony Pirozzi. “They come from all walks of life.”
One young actor, Michael Mesias, also a senior at Narbonne High, lives in household so strapped financially the family was nearly evicted last month. Because his mom has a disability, it became too difficult for him to get to school for the last three months of this year and he had to be home-schooled.
Michael, an aspiring ballet dancer, portrays the fictitious Jack Zackowski, an aspiring ballet dancer from Russia.
In other cases, the similarities between actors and character aren’t quite as parallel.
Isaiah portrays Tyrone, the rough-around-the-edges dancing phenom who struggles to hide his dyslexia. Isaiah is far from dyslexic; he just graduated from Narbonne with a 3.8 GPA and this fall will head to UC Santa Barbara.
But Isaiah said he relates to Tyrone.
“I can see he’s going through struggles,” he said. “He’s not the richest guy.”
When Isaiah was 8, living in South Los Angeles, his drug-abusing mother not only locked him and his siblings and cousins in closets for multiple days, she warned that she’d kill anyone who escaped.
“She had weapons,” he said. “Me and my two brothers managed to get out and save my little sister and five of my cousins.”
The children ran to the nearest police station and turned her in.
Growing up, Isaiah lived with a variety of adults — his grandparents, an uncle, foster parents, his biological father — but learned early on to fend for himself. Even though he’s just 17, he rents his own apartment.
Isaiah is also an athlete — last year he played cornerback with Narbonne’s state championship football team — but he says he finds the most camaraderie in theater.
“You really make families on stage, it’s crazy,” he said.
The adults at Scalawag Productions look out for the students, he said, noting how Kadota gives him a ride every day to rehearsal from his apartment in Lomita because he doesn’t have a car.
Tarah, who considers herself reserved, plays the role of Carmen Diaz, a brash firecracker who makes an ill-fated trek to Hollywood with a sketchy agent in search of fortune and fame.
“She’s kind of the opposite of me — she acts on impulse and is very attitudy,” Tarah said. “She’s just spunky, and really fun to play because I’m just sweet. I think about things a lot and try not to do stupid stuff.”
Whereas Carmen’s struggles come as a result of her own choices — she became a stripper and a drug addict — Tarah’s troubles were thrust upon her by cruel fate.
In 2001, when she was 6, Tarah and her family were in an RV, looking for a place to spend the night at Morro Bay State Beach. The campground was packed, and the family noticed a van was taking up two spots.
Tarah watched from a window of the RV while her older brother and a cousin — both 11 at the time — went to knock on the door of the van to ask if the driver could make room for them. The driver, 42-year-old Stephen Deflaun, became belligerent. Tarah’s father, Stephen Wells, ran out to the van to scold Deflaun for being so rude to the children.
Wells and the two boys headed for the ranger’s station to report the man. Deflaun took out a handgun and started firing. A bullet hit 11-year-old Jerry Rios in the head, killing him instantly. Deflaun then took aim at Tarah’s dad and fired. Stephen Wells went down.
Enraged, Deflaun stormed into the Wells’ camper.
“He pointed a gun at us,” Tarah said. “He said, ‘Why did you have to F with me? Do you have a gun?’ ”
Deflaun, a paranoid schizophrenic, didn’t go to prison. Instead, after being found incompetent to stand trial, he was committed to Atascadero State Hospital.
At Narbonne High, Tarah, a singer who writes songs and plays them with her guitar-playing brother, discovered another form of artistic therapy: acting. She took a class in theater arts, and was struck by something the teachers said.
“They would talk about being different people, and getting into imaginary minds, and playing that character,” she said. “I remember thinking, when she was telling me that, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ Trying to be somebody else might make you feel better about what your life really is.
“Plus it’s fun and it’s a good way to stay out of trouble.”