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US City Officials Try to Use Art Program to Help Young People Stay Away From Crime

A performing arts program is giving young offenders the confidence they need to stay away from crime. The teenagers were released from detention camp for a recent evening performance in Malibu, California.

The setting was a small community theater, not far from the beachfront neighborhoods where some of Hollywood's best-known stars live. These young offenders come from a very different world. They are serving time for crimes such as selling drugs or robbery, confined in a detention camp deep in the Malibu Mountains. But tonight they are reading their poetry and performing comedy skits in a public performance. The show is called Locked up in Malibu.

The performance is partly improvisational comedy. The free-form style entertainment is especially difficult because it's unscripted. The audience offers suggestions and performers act on them, making up the scenes as they go along.

Troupe members Drew, Marcus, Gary, Chris, Andrew, Alsonso and Peter say these live performances teach them honesty and teamwork.

(First Member) "Whatever comes out of our hearts, we just act it out, and we just work together as a group because we are one together."

(Second Member) "We pull each other up."

(Third member) "That's what we really need out there. We can't let one person fall because once one person falls, we all fall. So we all give each other energy and bring each other back up. It's teamwork."

(Fourth Member) "We need courage. We just go out there and do our best. And we all have to work together. So it's like a group effort."

(Fifth Member) "Pretty much, we're all we've got, so we all have to work together."

Tim Perez, 19, an alumnus the group, spent time in camp last year, was released just before Christmas, and returned to take part in this year's public performance. He says his time in camp was hard, but something good came from it: a love for poetry. Now he writes his own.

"It's very therapeutic to me," he said. "A lot of times, a conflict may happen to me, and the first thing I'll do before I talk to anyone is hit the books with a pencil. And that's how I deal with a lot of things now, is express it through my writing."

Peter Ramirez, also 19, another alumnus of juvenile camp who finds solace in poetry, says he writes on many topics, exploring new facets of his personality.

"I have pretty much everything, from love, life, expression, and drama and all that stuff, but the majority of my poetry is in the love category," he said. "And that's pretty different for a guy my age, to express himself in that way."

Sandra Heyward, who teaches writing and poetry, says she has another role, helping these young men find jobs when they get out.

"My thoughts are not only that these guys are very, very talented and they need to be heard, but they also need a little boost to get jobs, and that's really what I want to do," he said. "When they get out of camp, I'm looking for jobs for them, I want other people to look for jobs. I want to expose them to the community, expose their talent to the community, which is happening."

Ms. Heyward's late husband ran a film production company, as does her son, and she uses her contacts in the movie business to help some of the youngsters find jobs. Peter Ramirez is now a management trainee at an advertising agency. Tim Perez is a production coordinator for a Hollywood studio.

Others now in camp hope to find a job in the entertainment business.

(First Member) "Yeah, I do. I really thing about that because it just brings the character out of you. People see the way you are. You're not trying to put a front on, but that's me. That's who I'm going to be."

(Second Member) "Some people really see that we're some sweet kids instead of gang-bangers, druggies, out there not knowing what they're doing."

(Third Member) "It's a change for us. Brings us into something real new, keeps us positive, (away) from all that bad stuff."

They may not end up in movies, but Sandra Heyward says they're learning self-expression and teamwork.