Shortage of 
teens cuts beloved 
summer 
programs

07/17/2014

A dearth of interest in the Dance Palace’s Summer Stock Players, a teen theater program that for decades has staged an eclectic mix of productions, forced the nonprofit to cancel it this summer. They also severely scaled back a counselor training program for adolescents, which teaches skills like C.P.R.

It’s a first for the nonprofit that executive director Dan Mankin attributes in part to a declining population of teens in West Marin and the difficulties that families with children face in finding affordable housing. Competition from other local programs for the dwindling cohort of youth might also have contributed to the cancellation, he said.

“Summer Stock is one of my favorite programs,” said Mr. Mankin. “I wanted the community to know we love these programs…But at some point we said, ‘Well, we can’t make it happen if there’s not enough teens.’ And its part of this whole trend in West Marin where its harder for people to be here.” 

Declining enrollment has long been a topic of discussion at Shoreline Unified School District, which in the last decade has gone from 701 to 509 kids, a 27 percent decline. West Marin School had just nine students in eighth grade this past school year. Though that number is projected to jump back up a bit, Shoreline’s overall population is expected to fall to 450 kids in three or four years.

Typically the Dance Palace has 10 or 12 teenagers in Summer Stock; last year they had just five, some technically too young to participate, and the small program meant a smaller audience, too. The counselor training program used to have anywhere from four to eight teens in each of the two sessions; this year, they have just two in each.

The organization tried to recruit more heavily, Mr. Mankin said, visiting the schools and printing flyers in English and Spanish, “but the reality is that there’s a shrinking pool of teenage kids, and some of them want to do other things.”

One option this year was a summer enrichment classes at West Marin School, which partially overlapped the schedule for Summer Stock. (It’s been held in previous years in Tomales.) That free, half-day program might have drawn seventh and eighth graders away.

The Dance Palace hopes to find a way to recruit enough teens next year to restart the program. The strength of their musical theater program for younger kids offers hope that some of them might graduate into Summer Stock, though Mr. Mankin added that enrollment in summer camp for children also declined a bit this year.

But for years—and hopefully in the future—Summer Stock has offered local kids an opportunity to perform in plays from melodramatic comedies to period pieces to weighty, existential dramas.

Gene Ptak, the first director of Summer Stock, earned a bachelors degree in theater from a small Kansas college but dropped out of a master’s program in Illinois in the 1960s; he and some friends got a bus and headed out to San Francisco, and he ended up in Marin. 

He joined the Dance Palace’s adult theater troupe and was later invited to lead a theater program at West Marin School. He later worked as the drama teacher at Shoreline for 13 years.

He fell in love with the energy and talent of the young kids and started a theater program for them at the Dance Palace in the 1970s. But he had no interest in plays that pandered to them. “I never liked to do corny stuff and I’ve always been known to be a little experimental,” Mr. Ptak said. 

Though some kids asked why they couldn’t do a musical like “Grease,” he held firm. “I said, ‘I’m not gonna touch that with a ten-foot pole…We did some heavy stuff, but there has to be some moral, profound, intelligent, human, mind-searching stuff, not just superficial nonsense.”

Instead he produced a number of postmodern American classics, including Arthur Miller’s classic, “The Crucible,” and Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.,” about the beleaguered Job.

For “J.B.,” they turned the Dance Palace into a circus tent—where the play is set—using fabric they got from Christo’s Running Fence, a 24-mile long art installation that crossed dozens of ranches and dived into the ocean for two weeks in 1976. The story, a modern retelling of the biblical tale, reimagines Job as J.B., a New York banker; his children die and his wealth vanishes. One circus vendor, Nickles, represents Satan and urges him to commit suicide; the other, Zuss, representing God, says he should promise to submit to the Lord. He instead turns to his wife, Sarah, for comfort and rebuilds his life.

“They loved it,” Mr. Ptak said of the kids. 

They also performed “Summer and Smoke,” a Tennessee Williams play about sexual desire and the ultimately unconsummated but charged bond between two protagonists, Alma and John. 

“It’s a beautiful, sad play. Williams is one of the great poet playwrights…That first scene at the angel’s fountain is so beautifully written,” Mr. Ptak said.

One of his campers, Lauren Pizzi, not only went on to direct the program for a few years but is today an actress in Chicago, he said.

Another of his former campers, Julie Cassel, who now teaches eighth graders at West Marin School, said she got involved in the first place because Mr. Ptak was her theater teacher in school. The program brought her out of her shell and was a “transformative experience,” she said, though at one of her first rehearsals she was so embarrassed to sing that she made everyone leave the room so she could practice once by herself. 

She remembers the ambitious plays Mr. Ptak chose. When she was 16, she played a housemaid in “The Skin of Our Teeth.” “It’s this really weird play, and there’s this regular family but there’s an Ice Age coming…In one scene, I had to wear fishnet stockings and smoke cigarettes on stage.”

In “J.B.” she played Zuss; for all but one performance, she played him angry, as Mr. Ptak wanted, though she envisioned a more mellow deity. “The last night, I played it my way. What the heck could Gene do? He said later, ‘You know, you were right. We should have done it your way.’ It was the first time an adult said something like that to me. That was really empowering,” she said.

The tradition of producing strong plays continued into the twenty-first century. Brenden Hickey, who grew up in Inverness, was in six or seven productions throughout the 2000s with his brother, Ryan. His first part was the lead in Woody Allen’s “God’ when he was 12. (“Some of that stuff that was written was way over his head at first,” his father, Jeff, said.)

Brenden also acted in plays like “She Stoops to Conquer,” a 1773 comedy by an Irish playwright, and “Dirty Work at the Crossroads,” an 1890 melodrama. “It was a Dudley Do-Right, Rocky and Bullwinkle hijinks, damsel-in-distress-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks kind of melodrama. The whole audience got into it,” he said.

Attendees threw not just harmless light food like popcorn but even water bottles; Brenden managed to catch one mid-monologue, take a sip and keep going.

Later that same night, Brenden, who was playing the villain Munro Murgatroyd, was lying dead on the stage after getting sliced in half by a train; his evil performance was apparently so convincing that a little girl in the audience ran up and started stabbing him in the hand with a fork.

The character made a lasting impact on Brenden, too. He dyed his blond mustache brown in recent years, he said, so that “it looks exactly like the mustache I had when I was a cartoon villain. Every once in a while, I look in the mirror and lines come back to me.”

They sold standing-room tickets for those shows. “The room was absolutely packed and for those kids that’s a pretty amazing thing: to feel that kind of energy and not just because they’re kids and they’re cute. They knew they were nailing it,” Jeff, Brenden’s father, said.

Brenden went on to assist the director of Summer Stock after he graduated high school and took directing classes at the College of Marin. But he also just enjoyed getting to spend time with other creative kids of different ages, which doesn’t always happen during school hours. “It was sort of a coming together of like-minded individuals of all ages, and I definitely forged some friendships I have till this day,” he said.

Petra Lamberson, who was in “Dirty Work” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” also said it helped bridge the gap between teens in Point Reyes and Tomales, particularly for those too young to drive, and gave her a new sense of self, too. “Personally I was back and forth between Point Reyes and Berkeley…It was a fun way for me to be in Point Reyes and see my classmates and friends and have a community at that age when I had no independence, no car. It was a good social outlet.”

Ms. Cassel, the eighth grade teacher, said her 17-year-old daughter has also acted in a few productions; this year, she said, she might have done it again but she was too busy, with an internship and other activities she’s taken up. Her tiny eighth grade class, she added, just didn’t seem to have anyone really interested.

She agrees, though, that the shrinking student body represents a larger problem for families in West Marin: “I do agree with Dan. The housing issue here impacts the schools greatly. [There’s a] lack of affordable housing and lack of good-paying jobs.” The loss of the Coast Guard families that once lived at the Point Reyes housing complex has also contributed to the decline of kids, she said.

Though West Marin has long been discussing the challenges for families with young kids, Jeff Hickey was still surprised at hearing of Summer Stock’s cancellation, though it is hopefully just temporary. “We had so much fun. God, that’s so sad. That is such an institution,” he said. “This news is kind of shocking to me. I figure it would be a given that there would always be a Summer Stock program.”