Sunday, February 5, 2017

‘Lightning’ to strike at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center this Thursday!

‘Lightning’ to strike Cultural Arts Center

Lit Live mounts play based on ‘Frankenstein’ creation

By Michael Aushenker

A creation story about the ultimate creation story marks the latest Lit Live production at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center.
“And Lightning Struck: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Creation,” which runs Feb. 9 through 12, tells the story of how Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley sparked the idea for her novel, “Frankenstein,” one of literature’s great archetypal stories.
Playwright Robert Weibezahl wrote the original script for “Lightning,” to be helmed by Simi resident Austin Robert Miller, a 21-year-old actor making his directorial debut.

‘It’s alive!’

The year is 1831, and Matthews, a visitor from the West, drops by Shelley with a request: to write the introduction for a new printing of her best-selling 1818 novel, “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.” Matthews tells the widow that he is interested “not the story of the creature itself but the story of how you came to create it.”
Shelley shares with the visitor her memories of the strange, stormy night in 1817 when a group of friends—Shelley, then-husband Percey Shelley, Lord George Byron and John Polidori—tucked inside an English mansion, engaged in a contest to come up with the best ghost story. Not a spoiler, but as suggested by the play’s title (not to mention history!), Mary Shelley won the gambit by a longshot.
Shelley’s now nearly 200-year-old masterwork surely ranks among the most influential pieces of literature of all time—having anticipated a roster of Gothic tales from Polidori’s “The Vampyre” to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
In the pop culture, Shelley’s central themes of man playing God, science gone amuck, and reanimating the dead have inspired everything from the 1930s Boris Karloff “Frankenstein” movies and Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy “Young Frankenstein” to “The Munsters,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Robocop.”

Preview of things to come

On Jan. 11, in the basement of the Cultural Arts Center, Miller led his cast through an intimate reading. The dry run commenced following an introduction by Simi Valley Arts Commissioner Steven Hayes. 
A Simi resident of 53 years, Hayes formed Lit Live in 2014. Including “Lightning,” the company has mounted five works to date, beginning with “The Dark Heart of Poe,” based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, in Miller portrayed a young Poe.
“And Lightning Struck” stars Kay Capasso as Shelley, Evan Smith as Byron, Jennifer Ridgway as Younger Mary, Alyssa Villaire as Shelley’s half-sister Claire, Schafer Bourne as Victor Frankenstein and Tom Mesmer as Frankenstein’s creature.
“It’s one of the more eloquent scripts that I have read,” said Cole Wagner, who portrays both Matthews and Polidori. “Robert beautifully tackles the intellectual (spirit) of the era.”
Following the reading, Mesmer, who relocated to Simi four years ago after 20 years in Hollywood, expressed his excitement for Miller as director. As actors, Mesmer and Miller had played older and younger versions of Hank Williams respectively for a jukebox musical.
“He has that confidence already,” Mesmer said. “This is right up his alley.”
Mesmer is no stranger to playing iconic characters, having portrayed everyone from the titular messiah in the Art Center’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the monstrous half of “Beauty and the Beast.”
For “Lightning,” Mesmer turned to Shelley’s novel for inspiration on how to portray Frankenstein’s creation, eschewing the more pop-culture interpretations as a slurring, inarticulate brute with neck electrodes lumbering around on platform boots. Come Feb. 9, Mesmer’s creature will appear zombie-ish, possessing cloudy eyes, long hair, bare feet and a cloak.
“He’s a like a sponge,” Mesmer said. “He becomes hyper-intellectual. So much that it hurts him.”

Literary liberties taken

“I’ve always been more fascinated with the back story,” said Weibezahl, who described these personages as wealthy, intellectual “19th-century hippies.”  
“Byron was like a rock star,” Weibezahl continued, while Shelley was only 19 when she hatched the “Frankenstein” idea and 21 when she wrote it. 
Shelley proves quite quotable in Weibezahl’s play. At one point, she describes Victor to Matthews as “a visionary and a coward.” At another, Capasso as Shelley says, “I prefer the reality of today over the possibilities of tomorrow.”
“I created the structure. Some of the dialogue was quoted from letters,” said Weibezahl.
That structure includes intercutting between Capasso’s older version of Mary Shelley, circa 1831, and Ridgway’s Younger Mary, circa 1817. More scenes with Frankenstein and his creature appear in the play’s second act, when creator and creation philosophically go mano-a-mano.
After Miller’s mother, executive producer Brenda Miller, approached Weibezahl with the play idea in summer 2015, the playwright, a Thousand Oaks resident of nearly 17 years, embarked on writing it.
“He took that idea and he made something very beautiful,” Hayes said.
Weibezahl fine-tuned the script after an initial reading last summer. By October 2016, the production held auditions at Thousand Oaks’ Bridge Academy and North Hollywood’s Madeline Clark Studio.
Long before snagging the lead, Capasso, who kept a dossier on Shelley during rehearsals, held a fascination for the author, having seen a National Theater Live production of “Frankenstein” (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) eight times.
“Her mother was a huge feminist before it was really a thing,’ Capasso said.
Weibezahl did employ artistic license writing “Lightning.” While Shelley wrote a preface to her 1831 second edition, Matthews is made up.
“He is what I would imagine an educated, middle-class publisher (and Shelley fan) of the era would be,” said Weibezahl, who also parallels in his play the inextricable link between Victor and monster with that of Shelley and “Frankenstein,” “bound together forever,” as Matthews states.
Cole Wagner, who portrays both Matthews and Polidori, feels that, two centuries later, Shelley’s source material remains timeless.
“Every year, the fan base gets stronger,” Wagner said. “One-hundred years from now, people will still be talking about it.”

“And Lightning Struck: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Creation,” runs Feb. 9-12 at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 E. Los Angeles Ave. For information/tickets, visit

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Competing for Your Kids: Simi Valley Unified School District holds 2nd annual Career Pathways Expo

About 623 Simi-area parents and students attended Simi Valley Unified School District's Jan. 18 Career Pathways Expo at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley.

Competing for your kids

At its annual Career Pathways Expo, SVUSD implores parents to tour its specialized schools before Feb. 28

by Michael Aushenker

Simi Valley Unified School District is competing to get parents to tour its schools before the Feb. 28 cut-off for school of choice applications.
When the SVUSD held its annual Career Pathways Expo Jan. 18 at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, the district showcased its Pathways-enhanced secondary and elementary schools as some 600 attendees came inside from the rain to take in
what the SVUSD has to offer under the monumental aeronautic wonders of the Air Force One Pavilion.
As Career Pathways was only installed across some of SVUSD’s 28 campuses last year, the Pathways Expo is a relatively new concept for the district, having debuted at the Reagan Library’s Annenberg Presidential Learning Center last year.
Executive Director of Career Education Tiffany Morse at Ventura County Office of Education said last week’s expo was the first of its kind in the county.
“(The expo) showcases our ongoing work countywide to help parents and students see the value of Career Pathways,” Morse said. “Participation in a pathway can help students make informed decisions about what to do after high school. Giving families the chance to see all of the options at once can broaden their horizons of what’s possible in terms of future careers.”
This second annual Pathways Expo was the first to include all grades.
“We’ve brought in our elementary schools as well as our middle and high schools this year,” said event organizer Wendy Mayea, SVUSD’s assistant director of student support.
Also new this time around—the opportunity to deliver on-the-spot Naviance college readiness account access to students.
“We have started (utilizing Naviance) as early as in the fifth grade,” she said.
At the event, SVUSD Superintendent Jason Peplinski said that this year’s expo is the first year where the schools were embracing Pathways in full force.
Echoing Morse, Peplinksi said the purpose of SVUSD’s 28 Pathways concentrations is to provide parents and their children with choices while the expo’s goal is to flesh out what those choices entail.
“It’s option-based, it’s college and career,” the superintendent said. “The goal is not just college (preparation), it’s (the option) to work in the industry straight out of high school.”
The specializations serve as further edification for students passionate about the subjects.
“It’s not to say that if you don’t go (into a science Pathway), you don’t get (a) science (education) at your school,” he said.
Adult school Simi Institute for Careers and Education and independent study academy Monte Vista School Independent Learning Studies also tabled at the expo, as did Community Emergency Response Team (a.k.a. CERT), Ventura County Office of Education and Ventura County Innovates, providers of Ventura’s Pathways grant money.

Raising SVUSD’s game

Overall, SVUSD administrators and faculty are pleased with the feeder program set up by Pathways, with Katherine Elementary feeding into Valley View and Simi Valley High School, with its health science and medical technology focus; Arroyo Elementary, Sinaloa Middle School and Royal High coordinating on foreign language, academic and global studies pathway; and Crestview Elementary, Hillside Middle School and Santa Susana High School concentrating on creative arts, technology, and science.
 “The inclusion of elementary (via Pathways) is extremely unique,” Mayea said. “I don’t know of any other district doing that right now.”
Hillside definitely made an impression on attendees with members of its Culinary Arts department doling out class-made apple tarts with lemon curd to demonstrate the possibilities at its food service and hospitality focus.
“It used to be home ec, now it’s culinary arts,” said Royal history teacher Brian Dennert, who noted how Pathways has reinvigorated his high school’s curriculum across the board.
Indeed, the sophistication and savvy of netting parents was on display via Royal’s Food Service & Hospitality brochures, which touted its Food & Nutrition classes and its specialization of food science and service, dietetics, hospitality and tourism.
Allison Morr and Maria Baro teach junior kindergarten and third and fourth grade, respectively, at Crestview Elementary School.
The instructors were on-hand to discuss Crestview’s Creative Arts, Technology and Science Academy (CATS), which feeds into Hillside Middle School and Santa Susana High School via Pathways. Morr, who has been with Crestview for four years, and Baro, on her sixth year, said that it wasn’t difficult for them to adapt as teachers when Crestview transitioned into a Pathways school.
“We were already teaching multiple subjects so we’re kind of used to it,” said Morr, with her son, Crestview kindergarten student James, 5, assisting her at the table.

Crestview Elementary teachers Allison Morr and Maria Baro
For a decade, Robert Rennie has taught woodwork at Simi Valley High School.
“It isn’t just a general education class,” Rennie said.
Students interested in his class may choose to continue in the furniture-making or construction industry, he said. Even if they don’t pursue such trades, his kids will be well prepared to the kinds of 3-D thinking that goes into white-collar professions such as engineering, he observed.
“They added wood to (California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo),” he said.
Rennie said he is good friends with David Sorenson, his wood shop counterpart at Royal High. However, he did point out that there are no wood shops at Hillside Middle School and Simi Valley High.
Flanked by his top students, Santa Susana High School instructor Luke Golden, from the middle of the expo floor, explained his Filmstock festival and other components of his filmmaking program to curious Simi parents such as Jocelyn Oriondo.
“We’ve seen it just grow these past couple of years,” he said of his program.
It’s well known throughout the SVUSD circles that Santa Su’s filmmaking curriculum is very popular and difficult to get into, so it begs the question if teachers such as Golden even need to attend the expo.
“You never know,” Golden said. “It’s popping right now but it hasn’t always been that way.”
In truth, Oriondo didn’t have to be there, she said, as her son Oscar is very happy attending his neighborhood school, Valley View Middle School. However, the sixth-grader, who is very interested in the arts, wanted to attend the expo and see what else was out there, as well as survey potential choices for high school down the line.
“It’s very helpful,” Oriondo said of the expo. “They can see earlier which schools will be best to provide extra enrichment.”

Pathways a better path

Aldo Calcagno, the principal at Arroyo Elementary School’s Foreign Language Academics Global Studies (FLAGS) Academy, manned the Arroyo booth with linguistics teacher Catherine Crowley. He and Dennert explained that when VC Innovates began enlisting schools to participate in Pathways, they requested that SVUSD high school teachers take a thorough survey.
“What staff do you have that have (special) skills?” Dennert said teachers were asked.
Based on the survey’s feedback, VC Innovates designated the high schools with a concentration, then worked their way down the chain to middle and elementary schools, linking them on academic pathways.
Amy Burns, who has taught math and science at Royal for 17 years, said she had to adapt to her school’s pathway and begin teaching her robotics class, which was quickly twinned to two classes of 36 kids because of its instant popularity. Two semesters into her pathway curriculum, she credited Royal’s Dan Schuster for helping make the Pathways transition.
“He really helped me decide what I should teach and how I should teach it,” Burns said. “His computer class kids are mentoring my kids.”
She added that the addition of classes taught by Brett Knizek and the recent import of Chromebooks to Royal have also helped round out this curriculum.
“The robots is pretty cool,” said Burns, who added that her class last semester staged a tug of war between the robots they had built.
Standing a few feet away from Burns, Royal media teacher Alicia de la Torre offered different nuances at her program than Golden’s filmmaking classes at Santa Su.
“Not all of our students are looking to get into the entertainment industry,” de la Torre said of Royal’s slant, which is more digital, broadcasting and media arts than cinema.
As part of Pathways, her colleague, Royal graphic arts instructor Adam Lev, started a game design class, which found instant success with two classes enrolling 38 students each.
De la Torre and Lev are grateful to be on the Pathway path. Until last year, it had been six years since the department had its hardware updated. Thanks to Pathways funds, Royal’s digital arts department recently received 38 brand new iMacs.
“It’s been fantastic,’ Lev said. “We’ve been kind of on our own little island. Recently, (administrators have) come on board.”

Good attendance, great promise

Perhaps dampened by some hard rain during rush hour, attendance, at 623 people, seemed slightly off from projections after last year’s event took organizers by surprise and attracted 1,000 people to the smaller Annenberg Room at the Reagan Library.
Nevertheless, Peplinski appreciated the robust turn-out and he commended his SVUSD faculty and teachers for “being here on their own time.
“I’m thrilled. We thought last year might have been an anomaly. We’re really grateful.”
The takeaway for Mayea and SVUSD from this year’s expo is that the Simi families appreciated the added energy of having “more student participation this year,” Mayea said. “I was conscientious about (making that a priority).
“Overall, the organization went great. People really enjoyed being able to go from school to school and connect with the programs a bit more strongly.”
Burns, who finds the expo an excellent vehicle “to let our community know what our schools are doing,” fell into a conversation with Simi father Rick Patterson while son Ryan, 11, stood at his side.
“Is this like a project-based experience?” Patterson asked Burns.
Ryan, who attends Wood Ranch Elementary, talked about a project at his school where he had to build a tower out of newspapers.
Patterson explained that his boy wants to make his own videos and work on animation. Burns informed them about the possibilities toward that end at Royal.
Following the conversation with Burns, Patterson said that he thinks the expo, which has schools competing for students, is a great idea.
“The competition makes them up their game,” said Patterson, whose family has already found the Pathways Expo useful — last year, his wife attended with his daughter, now 15. Based on this 2016 visit, his daughter decided to pursue filmmaking at Santa Su High, where she is also delving into areas that he never thought he’d see her strive toward.
“She’s loving ballet and I’m very proud of her,” Patterson said. “She’s on stage. She’s thriving at it.”
Patterson added that researching the schools online is just not the same as attending the Pathways Expo.
“You’re not seeing the enthusiasm and the competition,” he said.