Kids Create in Theatre Palisades Unplugged

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer

Last September, Lara Ganz and Caitlin Tortorici took a leap into the unknown with 15 kids.

Instead of doing a pre-written show like they had done before, Ganz, the Theatre Palisades Youth director, and Tortorici, a Crossroads teacher, helped the kids, ranging in age from 9 to 14, to create their own troupe called Theatre Palisades Youth Unplugged.

“The idea was no fancy costumes, no fancy sets, just kids’ true voices telling their true stories,” Ganz said.

Co-directors Ganz, a former actress who is studying for a master’s in drama therapy, and Tortorici, who did both theater and drama therapy in college, incorporated special techniques to create a safe and supportive atmosphere for the kids to delve deep into themselves and share their ideas with each other. Then Tortorici, also a writer, crafted some of those ideas into scripts that the entire group transformed into a December show, Express Yourself.

Theatre Palisades Youth Unplugged directors Caitlin Tortorici (front left) and Lara Ganz, holding her son, Callum, 9, and their dog, Coco. Behind them are Ray Ganz, 7, and Unplugged thespians Safiyah Dawuni, 14 and Chelsea Trotti, 14. Photo: Amy Kate Connolly

Theatre Palisades Youth Unplugged directors Caitlin Tortorici (front left) and Lara Ganz, holding her son, Callum, 9, and their dog, Coco. Behind them are Ray Ganz, 7, and Unplugged thespians Safiyah Dawuni, 14 and Chelsea Trotti, 14. Photo: Amy Kate Connolly

In the process, the kids, some of whom already knew each other, bonded in an even deeper way. They also got to expand their skills through writing, directing and creating something unique that both the audience and the kids treasured.

“It was like a Christmas miracle,” said Tortorici, who grew up in Pacific Palisades. “The show was like eavesdropping on kids playing. It was like getting to read a kid’s diary.”

The wildly varied three-hour show included movies, dances, songs, poems, monologues and skits.

Some were uniquely humorous creations, such as a girl playing “Careless Whisper” on the tuba while a boy took off layer after layer of sweaters. Others used real-life situations. For example, one girl became a hated teacher renamed Mr. Hades in her skit. Still other pieces were political in nature as the show came on the heels of Donald Trump’s election, so these skits helped the kids process that event.

“Instead of feeling helpless, you get empowered by making art out of it,” Ganz said. Throughout the experience, the group shared their wishes for closer friendships, expressed sometimes feeling anxiety or depression, and exposed their innermost thoughts to each other. Tortorici described the process as “contagious vulnerability.” Ganz noted,“When they express those true feelings to each other, it just melts everyone.” Ganz and Tortorici used snippets from drama therapy to help stimulate ideas. For example, the kids once drew pictures of significant moments in their lives and shared their meaning with each other—always voluntarily. Another time, they chose a favorite song and wrote new, personal lyrics to it. The song and the drawing both are a “distancing technique” that makes it easier for people to examine and express their emotions. These expressions then became the beginnings of the skits that evolved into their show.

In the process, Ganz and Tortorici got to see beyond the veneer that the children sometimes present to the world. For example, one friendly girl, who tends to express herself with a bit of sarcasm in regular life, chose to create a dance from a favorite song.

“She did the most breathtaking dance,” Ganz said.“It was powerful. It was profound.” “Most people were crying during it,” Tortorici said.“I don’t think I had ever cried during a dance before. I also felt intensely honored that she would do it for us.” Crying was a pretty normal part of their creative process, Tortorici added. “We probably wept every time we met, but then we would also die laughing at every class.” Ganz, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA, added, “It’s a really intensive six weeks. Parents are like ‘I don’t know if they can do anymore of this. You’re spending a lot of time together.’ The kids love it. They become so close, but they’re exhausted.” Palisadian parent Jennifer Taghibagi, whose daughter Ella, 12, participated in the project, was impressed by the “truly entertaining, impressive and touching” show, but she also cherished what the kids gained during the creative process.

“This program is so much more than memorize your lines and follow the director’s directions,” Taghibagi said. “Lara provides a safe and encouraging atmosphere, which allows the actors to take brave risks, resulting in greater self-acceptance and self-esteem. Caitlin is able to understand and connect with the actors in such a genuine way—her energy and passion for what she does is contagious—and everyone bonds and grows under her direction.”

Many of the fall participants were anxious to join the spring TPY Unplugged venture, which began this week and will culminate in a 7 p.m. June 4 show at the Palisades Woman’s Club.

For Ganz and Tortorici, who also recently worked together on Paul Revere Middle School’s Hairspray and TPY’s Madagascar Jr., which also featured Ganz’s children Callum, 9, and Ray, 7, in the cast, this new venture is a particularly special one.

“Unplugged is really our passion project,” Ganz said.

“We want Unplugged to take over the world,” Tortorici added.

The women met in early 2016 while standing next to each other and singing in voice teacher Dana Green’s women’s choir. Green had been Tortorici’s childhood voice teacher, and both Tortorici’s singing voice, which Ganz tried to emulate, and her presence appealed to Ganz.

“She was the fun little pixie,” said Ganz, who was co-directing James and the Giant Peach with Dorothy Dillingham Blue at the time. For Xanadu Jr., TPY’s next production, Ganz stepped forward to direct the company solo, and she invited Tortorici to join her team.

Tortorici was excited to work on the project. “I call Lara, Princess Charming, because she found me in the choir and brought me into this awesome life.”

Their collaboration expanded from there. This summer they will be coordinating TPY’s summer production, Beauty and the Beast,with Ganzaga in directing, while Tortorici, who attended both St. Matthew’s and Crossroads, acts as the musical director.

Ganz, who previously studied with the Groundlings and Larry Moss Studios, found that their skills complimented each other, not just with the pre-written shows, but particularly with Express Yourself, where Tortorici’s writing skills shone.

“We make up a whole,” said Ganz, whose husband, Jon, is an environmental engineer. “Her skills and my skills together make up what we need.”

Tortorici, a 2009 Whitman College grad- uate, said Ganz’s loving, warm personality really made the whole process special.

“She’s like everyone’s mom,” Tortorici said. “After Xanadu, she gave every kid a rose and a love note. Every kid feels so appreciated. The kids can really talk to her. I realize how I didn’t have that growing up, and I am amazed by it.”

If you are interested in the program, email Tortoricisoup@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *