After landing the lead in several school plays at Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles, Leora Weinstock, 13, decided she wanted to be a professional actress. Her mother, Judith Weinstock, combed the city in search of just the right acting teacher. It wasn't long before she made a startling discovery.
"All of the acting classes for teens in Los Angeles seemed to be on Saturdays," recalled Weinstock, a Los Angeles lawyer. "But we're shomer Shabbos."
Then Weinstock stumbled upon Jewish Children's Theater, an acting program targeting children from observant Jewish families. Most classes are on Sundays at the Westside Jewish Community Center, which is located on Olympic Boulevard south of the Fairfax district.
A few years ago, writer-producer David Brandes ("The Quarrel") and his wife, actress Deena Freeman Brandes, faced the same obstacle as Weinstock with their own daughters, who are also actresses. To solve their dilemma, the couple founded the Jewish Children's Theater in early 2004.
"I wanted my daughters to be studying the craft while auditioning," Freeman Brandes said. "Since they couldn't go to classes on Shabbat, I thought, 'What if I teach the classes?'"
Freeman Brandes, 49, played April Rush on TV's "Too Close for Comfort," guest-starred on shows like "The Golden Girls" and "Newhart" and has appeared regularly in commercials and video game voice-overs.
Now, Freeman Brandes says teaching is her "second calling," a claim she backs up with boundless enthusiasm, an encouraging smile and an ability to listen to student input.
In a city where nearly everyone is an aspiring actor, writer or director, it is surprising perhaps that Jewish theater programs for serious child performers are few and far between. A few local organizations, including The Stacey Cane Youth Theatre, a musical theater workshop, and Kol Neshama, a summer arts program for Orthodox girls, pride themselves on providing serious training and putting on Jewish-themed plays.
In addition, several Jewish day schools have drama departments. Their focus, however, is typically on producing shows rather than the serious training of actors.
Jewish Children's Theater emphasizes teaching acting technique. Through acting exercises and improvisation, Freeman Brandes' students learn how to act, rather than how to memorize lines and build sets.
While sessions usually end with a low-key performance for parents, the focus is on acting techniques, improvisation, theater games and even a commercial workshop. Classes begin in the fall, and kids are welcome to join mid-session.
In a special summer class called "Fairy Tale Workshop," Freeman Brandes repeatedly reminded her young students not to turn their backs on the audience during improvisations.
"Remember to open up!" she instructed a girl who was pantomiming the story of "The Three Bears." The girl promptly adjusted her stance as she continued to improvise. In this particular workshop, children ages 5 through 14 created a new take on a fairy tale. During winter break, the program will offer a similarly structured workshop called "Superhero and Princesses Camp."
While the Jewish Children's Theater is billed as a class for the child professional "or kids who just want to have a fun theater experience," the Brandes' feel their classes offer much more. "It's kind of a theater experience for life," David Brandes said. "It gives kids confidence and they learn to think on their feet and express themselves."
Since enrolling at the Jewish Children's Theater last year, Leora Weinstock has gotten an agent, averages two auditions a month and recently completed her first professional gig, a part in a short film for Los Angeles-based Jewish Impact Films.
Weinstock attributes her success to her classroom experience.
"I think that because of Deena's classes, I've gotten more confident during auditions," said Weinstock, her blue eyes sparkling. "I feel like I'm a better actress."
Classes begin Sept. 11. For more information on Jewish Children's Theater, call (310) 556-8022 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the Stacey Cane Youth Theatre, call (818) 422-0966. For more information on Kol Neshama, call (310) 659-2342 or visit www.kolneshama.org.