Ten years ago Steve Cisneros was an unlikely theatre director. A 17-year-old senior at La Mirada High School in L.A. County, he had been appearing in an original play penned by his language arts teacher, Bruce Gevirtzman. Titled No Way to Treat a Lady, about teen pregnancy, resonated with the young Cisneros, who wanted to share the play with students outside of La Mirada High.
"I just loved the idea that there was theatre that was giving a message, helping people my age," said Cisneros, now the artistic director of the Phantom Projects Educational Theatre Group. "I said, 'What if I just took this play and offered it to schools outside of [my] high school?' "
The idea led to a five-month tour of No Way throughout L.A. high schools. "At the time, it was rehearsed in my parents' garage, and we had a $2,000 budget," he said. "Now we do 12 shows a year with a $200,000 budget."
Phantom's teen-appropriate plays are now produced both at the La Mirada Theatre of the Performing Arts and in Southern California schools—some of which can offer only a makeshift stage and a few light bulbs. The groups' productions are a mix of literary classics—such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and The Diary of Anne Frank—and Gevirtzman's other original plays, written for and starring teens: The Center of the Universe and Out, Out Brief Candle.
On May 23, Phantom will debut Gevirtzman's first original play in eight years, Through These Eyes. The playwright, who has taught at La Mirada High for 35 years, said the play was commissioned by Cisneros, who directs the production. "All of these plays have, at their core, issues dealing with self-control as a way of solving the problem," the teacher said of his work. "Steve wanted something to talk about kids trying to figure out who they are, what they stand for, where they're going, and how other people look at them."
The result is a collection of scenes and monologues that feature teenage characters contending with pressures to look and act in a proscribed way—including a girl battling an eating disorder, an overweight and insecure student, and a boy who tries to appear more masculine by acting tough and hiding his emotions.
Cisneros said the plays' social messages resonate with the teen audience because the moral messages are coming from their peers. "To hear it from a bunch of adults and teachers—which they do—it kind of goes in one ear and out the other. But the teen-performing aspect, which is then followed by a postshow discussion with the performers, is what really makes those connections," said Cisneros, who estimated more than half of the young actors involved in Phantom Projects were former audience members.
Unfortunately he's has had to exclude more kids as the program has grown. "We had 50 kids trying out for about 12 parts," he said of the auditions for Through These Eyes. "There's so much talent to pull from, but it's difficult because you don't want to turn so many kids away." To accommodate more young artists, Phantom will hold its first Young Artists Workshop July 21: an evening of entertainment completely written, produced, and performed by artists 25-years-old and under.
Armed with grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency and the city of La Mirada among others, Cisneros is expanding Phantom by adding more productions. It still amazes him that an idea he had at 17 has grown into such a widespread nonprofit. "[Theatre] is a very effective teaching tool," he said "It [is] a great way for me to combine my passion for performing arts and teaching messages I thought kids should be learning."
Through These Eyes premieres May 23 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Performances are at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $5-$15. For more information, to apply for the Young Artists Workshop, or to purchase tickets, visit www.phantomprojects.com.