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From Fandom to ‘Phantom’

A former student brings his English teacher's.

by Michael Aushenker

May 18, 2000 | 8:00 pm

It all began when Steve Cisneros, as an 11th grader at La Mirada High School, was exposed to the plays of his English teacher, Bruce Gevirtzman.

For 27 years, Gevirtzman has been teaching honors English and American literature at the high school. And for 25 of those years, he has been writing morality plays that students mount asproductions each year.

Cisneros was so moved by Gevirtzman's plays that, for the past four years, he has been directingand producing productions of Gevirtzman's work for middle and high schoolers all over California, from San Diego to Oxnard.

"We planned the first year just to see what happened," recalls Cisneros. "I never knew it would get this big.Since Cisneros started his Phantom Projects (so named because students in theater production would create setpieces overnight), more than 100,000 teens have seen Gevirtzman's pieces, which take aim on issues they face every day.

"I love that the theater can teach people," says Cisneros, who tours with three Gevirtzman plays a year: ameditation on prejudice and tolerance called "Center of the Universe"; "No Way to Treat a Lady," about abstinence; and "Out, Out, Brief Candle," which tackles substance abuse. The veteran educator believes that in getting involved with these plays, students take away something more important than a self-esteem boost. "They need more direction and ethical guidance when they do the right thing; everything else will follow."

Contrary to stereotypes, Gevirtzman believes that "kids are smarter in a lot of ways. They're definitely more aware of social issues than ever before. Here [at La Mirada High] it's still very good. If anything,it's better." But then again, stereotypes are something Gevirtzman tries to subvert with his work. Case in point: his latest script.

"I'm working on a long one, a full-length, two-hour play that will be done in June," says the 50-year-old teacher and auteur. "It centers around the 20-year reunion of theclass of 1980 [and deals with] stereotyping in high school."

Cast with kids from all over Southern California, each Phantom Project features five to 10 young performers. And Cisneros loves the reaction that the 45-minute stage stories inspire."They really open up to us," says Cisneros of the young attendees. "And the actors talk about their own stories... It makes me feel very lucky that I haven't made the same mistakes when I was growing up. Part of it was self-control that we didn't make these same mistakes. So we're teaching self-control." The 21-year-old Cisneros adds that "we've had students come join us [as actors] the next year after they've seen our show."

The themes Gevirtzman employs come from his lifelong interest in politics. While talk radio programs "manifest my passion" for social issues, the playwright says that nobodyinspires him or keeps him current like his students. And he credits his success to the two-parent Norwalk household he grew up in.

"Personally I think my Jewish values are a big part of my life," says Gevirtzman, whose motherregularly attended his shows before she passed away last year. As for Cisneros, Gevirtzman is very touched by what the former student has done with his work:"The fact that he would think that much of me... I'm very excited by that."The next Phantom Projects will take place on May 24 at La Mirada Theater for the Performing Artsin La Mirada. For more information, contact (562) 902-0119

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