Inside Out Community Arts — a Venice nonprofit organization offering middle school students after-school art and performance workshops —has a few remaining openings for this session’s Neighborhood Arts Project.

The program is offered free of charge.

In the program, students will see a professional play, write and perform their own play and participate in parent and child workshops.

Actor, writer and director Jonathan Zeichner and actress Camille Ameen founded Inside Out Community Arts in 1996 to expand Zeichner’s arts-based violence intervention and prevention program started in response to the riots after the Rodney King verdict.

“I saw how this wave of anger swept up kids who had nothing to do with it,” Zeichner says.

Zeichner and Ameen focused on getting a program into the public school system to help disenfranchised youngsters in middle school, sixth through eighth grades.

Working in eight schools around the county, the four-to-five month “School Project” meets one to two times a week on campuses after school.

“Studies show most juvenile crime happens between 3 and 6 p.m. so those after-school hours are critical,” Zeichner says.

Zeicher and Ameen later started the Neighborhood Arts Project, which operates year-around and offers a similar after-school arts workshop.

Zeichner says many problems start in middle school as students cope with classic adolescent issues and begin to make decisions about staying in school, drugs, gangs and sexual activity.

He adds that studies show that youngsters involved in the arts have a 90 percent lower dropout rate than youngsters not involved in the arts and they also excel in other areas.

Zeichner says that many youngsters in the program don’t have strong role models, so the workshops show youngsters how to get a thrill by taking healthy risks, such as getting on a stage and performing in front of their friends or hundreds of strangers.

Ameen says an essential part of the mission is to encourage diversity and acceptance by “doing,” not by lecturing, and putting on a play is a natural way to work as a team.

Youngsters in the workshops discuss issues important to them, write a play, engage in parent and child workshops, go on a theater field trip, have a camping and rehearsal retreat and perform their work at a theater.

The workshops bring youngsters from diverse backgrounds together and help them see that art is a way to unite people, to capitalize on their differences and to create something together that couldn’t have been done alone, according to Ameen.

“All workshops introduce kids to new art forms and life lessons,” Ameen says. They “sometimes see things as black and white — I win or you win ñ but sometimes both win and kids become conscious that they have options.

“People get accustomed to doing things the same way and don’t question what they’re doing, which can lead to mediocrity.

“It’s the reason why deadly and dark cycles are repeated. A kid looks at an adult and says, ‘This is how to do it.'”

The workshops show young people new ways to do things to help break those cycles. For example, participants playing a scene are told that to resolve conflict they can’t use violence but must convince the other person of their argument.

Participants are youngsters eager and interested in arts, the shy, the belligerent and those with disabilities, according to Zeichner.

“Kids know it will be fun but also work and they sign an agreement saying they will show up on time and take risks,” Zeichner says.

Actors, writers, directors, painters, photographers, and other artists facilitate the workshops and are more like mentors than teachers.

The artists go through 20 training sessions and learn key words and intervention techniques so they can be as supportive of youngsters as possible, according to Ameen.

With two artists per 12 youths, the primary objective of the nearly two-hour workshop is to bridge cultural and socioeconomic differences, strengthen conflict resolution and communication skills and inspire creativity and a sense of self-worth and possibility in participants, according to Zeichner.

One participating youth said she initially thought, “Here come more adults going to tell me what to do and push me into something I don’t want to do.”

She changed her perspective when she discovered that the youngsters themselves would create and perform a play about their own emotions, covering topics such as racism and holding onto dreams, and develop the play.

“Most kids have never met adults like us,” Zeichner says. “If the kids are hyper we don’t suppress it. We say, ‘Okay, let’s channel that energy.'”

Using diversity to create unity, Inside Out Community Arts has accomplished a lot but is facing fiscal challenges and needs financial support to continue and expand its programs.

“Art is not a luxury, it’s nourishment,” Zeichner says. “The kids see older siblings making negative choices — selling drugs and making quick money — so we’re about expanding their menu of choices, giving them the tools, inspiration and a reason to make better choices and to respect themselves.”

Information: (310) 397-8820 or

Julie Kirst can be reached at