Bruce Gevirtzman is a man who has known since age ten that bank vault, but his round, open face and direct gaze are like an exclamation point that commands attention. Along with his former student, 31-year-old Steve Cisneros, Gevirtzman is co-creator of Phantom Projects, a teen educational theatre group that is wowing Southern California audiences, especially middle and high schoolers, with four powerful plays about teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, prejudice and tolerance, and his newest play about self-image.
School since 1973. In 1976, he began writing plays to be performed by and for his students. At first, they focused on general social and political issues, but it was not long before his scripts started covering topics sensitive to teens. What sparked him?
“Watching kids suffer. Their ignorance on these subjects was baffling. In ‘86, I was coaching baseball and some of my players were involved with drugs. I’d get really upset and go on tirades in my class because it angered me that they thought these drug dealers were friends of theirs. So I wrote a one-act, 50-minute show, and we did it in all the classes every day for three days. We did a couple of night performances, too, and those raised about $2500, which we put into a fund for anti-drug programs. Sometimes, I have former students tell me later in their lives what an impact I had on them. That’s nice, because you don’t always know at the time if you’re getting through. I get a lot of letters from kids, too.”
He is also a self-styled “behaviorist.” He believes profoundly that “everything comes down to a behavior. Not a feeling; not a thought; but a behavior. Love is the way you treat somebody, not how you feel about them.”
Does that mean that love is a conscious choice? Gevirtzman pauses. “It is. If love is a behavior, if love is the way you treat someone, then it is a conscious choice. I don’t think it matters if you say you love someone, or if you feel like you love someone; what matters is that choice. We’re the sum of our choices. We make good ones and bad ones, but we always make them.” This is the philosophy that vitalizes all three Phantom Projects plays. Its empowering effect on teens and parents alike is making the troupe a Southland sensation.
The catalyst for No Way To Treat A Lady (Gevirtzman’s script advocating teen sexual abstinence) was the movie Kids. “I came out of the theatre and staggered over to the snack bar. One of my former students was working there, and she said, ‘You look like you just saw Kids.’ I said, ‘Yeah. I’m sure glad it’s not really like that,’ and she said, 'Oh, it is.’ I talked to her about it for a bit, went home, and a couple of days later I had the script.”
This is heady stuff. Gevirtzman admits he’s a “moralist” who gets “judgmental, but only about people’s actions and only when they’re illegal or immoral.” It’s not the mindset one imagines would appeal to the average rebellious teen. So how does he do it? “I don’t step into their lives as some kind of personal guru. I don’t always know if I’m reaching them. Sometimes you don’t know for days or years. You walk out of the class swearing you should have been something else, a doctor or a lawyer or something, and those are the moments when you have to remember the one kid who might have gotten it that day. And this doesn’t mean a social or a moral lesson; it could just mean how to write a better paragraph, or make a better oral presentation or how to understand a poem.”
“In an English class, we’re going to read, we’re going to write, we’re going to speak, we’re going to use critical thinking. The mechanics of this can only be developed through practice and through interest. I always try to put the work into a context they can use in their lives. In my senior class, all the literature we use is from newspapers, magazines and student writing. We have to make you practice. We have to make you interested.”
And one way he's kept them interested is with his plays. The icing on the cake is to have found his theatrical counterpart in a former student. He and Cisneros work easily as a team, each honoring the other's creative expression. Cisneros refuses to take any co-writing credits for the scripts, although he routinely tells Gevirtzman where cuts and rewrites are needed. And, when asked if there’s a “boss” in this relationship, Gevirtzman heartily blurts, “He’s the boss. I have no problem with that.”
Arthur Miller is Gevirtzman’s favorite playwright; Death of A Salesman, his favorite Miller play. He’s played Willy Loman in one production and Howard in another. Would he ever consider abandoning the classroom for the stage, especially when Phantom Projects goes “all over the place,” as it has begun to do? His smile chastens. The classroom and the stage aren't separate places for this man. He works with his audience every day. “You know what they say,” he quips. “Don’t quit your day job.”