Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hollywood Heart

I’ll admit it. Teenagers scare me. Not in the sense that I think they’re actually going to do me any bodily harm, but I never know what to say to them. I always feel like some dufus uncle who can only ask “How’s school going?” or comment on how much they’ve grown. Plus, I was lousy at being a teenager. It was a miserable period of my life that I couldn’t wait to be over. All I ever wanted was to be a grown-up.

All of those feelings were churning around inside me as I drove up the extremely intimidating mountain road to the “Hollywood Heart” camp in northern Malibu last week. The sun was setting, and I was getting concerned that I’d never spot the large menorah where I was supposed to turn left (and off this terrifying road). A friend had asked if I would volunteer to teach an acting workshop for the campers who would range from 15–20 years in age. The week-long camp was established over 15 years ago to offer art and performance classes to kids from all over the country who are either HIV positive or whose lives are being directly affected by the disease in some way.

As I inched my Honda around the next hair pin turn, I couldn’t help wondering why a bunch of Jews (the most practical people I know) would have built a camp in this staggeringly remote location. Then I arrived and it all became clear. Perched high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, the views were spectacular and breathing in the cool ocean air instantly filled me with serenity. I pulled my corduroy jacket out of my car and slung my computer bag over my shoulder. I checked my appearance in the car window. I looked sort of like a teacher. Well, close enough. Following the signs, I made my way to the camp’s office where my temperature was taken (“a precaution against swine flu,” I was told) and was informed about the camp’s “Three’s Company” rule which basically meant that you should never allow yourself to be left alone with an underage camper. “Got it. No problem.” I replied.

I was then introduced to the camp’s workshop coordinator who asked if I would be willing to say a few inspirational words during dinner. Although, I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed, I agreed. Soon, I was ushered into the dining hall where 50 high-energy teenagers were gorging themselves. Not having been in a high school cafeteria for several millennia, I had sort of forgotten what the decibel level was like. Seated with a few of the kids and one of the college-age counselors, I made a stab at conversation, but eventually gave up since I’ve never been very good at lip-reading.

After giving my inspirational talk (which lasted maybe a minute), it was time to teach my class. The camp was offering many workshops for the kids to choose from (including cool things like a drum circle and hip-hop dance). I’d sort of pictured myself teaching a bunch of giggly girls and maybe a gay kid or two, but instead, I wound up with a small group of all boys who, having just ingested a generous portion of carbs, had energy to burn. My original game plan had included having the campers read a short scene from a play called “Golden Boy,’ but the scene I’d selected was a “boy-girl” scene, so that was now out the window. Plus my group seemed to have more than its share of comedians and keeping their attention for more than 30 seconds at a time, proved challenging. Initially, I tried a few theatre games, but then segued into some improv exercises which went a little better. I also learned an invaluable teaching lesson – engage the alpha dogs and the rest of the pack will follow.

The most poignant moment came when we were doing an improv exercise where one of my campers, a very shy African-American kid named “Kenneth” (not his real name) seemed reluctant to raise his voice or express any anger, even though in the improv we were doing, he’d been stood up by his study partner (who didn’t seem very sorry about it).

Kenneth shrugged his narrow shoulders. “I’m not a angry person.” he said. “That's okay,” I replied. “Neither am I, but sometimes it’s fun to pretend to get mad. In real life when we get mad and yell, sometimes that causes problems, but that’s the great part about acting. It’s all pretend. Nobody gets hurt.” Kenneth’s face relaxed a bit and although he never exactly got "mad," he at least seemed willing to let his scene partner know he wasn’t happy.

Finally, after 90 minutes of barely-controlled chaos, 8:30 arrived and the campers were herded away to their rooms to get ready for a dance that was planned that night in the cafeteria. Utterly spent, I picked up my bag and shuffled out into the night air. I’d paused for a moment to take in the view of the moon over the Pacific, when a man approached and extended his hand. He introduced himself as one of the founders of the camp and thanked me for volunteering.

Although this guy clearly didn’t recognize me, I certainly remembered him. He was a former studio executive who, eight years earlier, had shut down a movie I had worked my ass off on. “Hi,” I said, “Nice to see you again." I then explained how we happened to know each other. Not only did he not remember me, he didn’t remember the movie. Finally when I mentioned the name of one of the producers, he perked up a little. “Wow,” he said with an awkward shrug. “That was a long time ago, huh?” “Yes, it was,” I replied. Although the demise of the project had been a bitter pill at the time, it seemed sort of silly now as I listened to the shrieks and peals of laughter coming from the cabins. When I told my former employer how impressed I was with the camp, he replied that he was very proud of how, not only was it a great experience for the kids, but it also gave Hollywood people a chance to “not act like Hollywood people.” I agreed.

As I drove back down the scary (and now dark) road, I wondered if I’d actually managed to teach anything in my workshop. Probably not. But I was at least proud of my little inspirational talk during dinner. As I looked out at that sea of incredibly “unfinished” young people, I tried to remember who I was at that age and what I might have been able to absorb through my twin layers of insecurity and bravado. This isn’t exactly word-for-word, but basically what I said was this:

“You know some people go through their whole lives without ever really using their creativity much. They just look at life as this set of problems that somebody handed them and feel like there’s really nothing they can do about it except try to get by. What’s so great about a camp like this is that you get to come here and experience all kinds of cool stuff like music and art and acting and dance. And you get to use the most valuable thing we human beings possess: our imaginations. And the best part is that you don’t have to stop using your imagination when you leave this camp. You can apply it to anything in your life. To a job. To a relationship. To school. To your future. Always remember, you never have to just accept a situation and say “Oh, that’s just how it is.” If you use your imagination, you can say “Well, maybe that’s how it is now, but this is how it could be.” And that’s the beginning of having a game plan. And having a game plan is how you make changes. And the ability to make changes is secret to having a great life!”

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at


michelle said...

I'm inspired!


Katherine said...

fantastic story! and love the twist and the bitter pill not seeming so bitter anymore. it's all about time, too. it teaches so much!

Noah Pohl said...

Awesome story, David. For some reason, I love the way you structured the telling of it...