Summer, left, and Adela high five after rehearsing a song during a part a two-week program called Summer at the Center at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Thursday. The program is geared to help at-risk high school students. The group of 38 students will put on three free shows on July 31 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. (Scott Smeltzer, Daily Pilot / July 21, 2010)

COSTA MESA — While summer theater programs aren't hard to come by — they are a common summer staple at many arts centers — the Summer at the Center program at the Orange County Performing Arts Center isn't an average workshop.

Bill Brawley has coordinated the program, which allows at-risk youth to apply for a two-week music and theater workshop, since its beginnings 19 years ago.

"I really wanted to do something for kids that aren't given the opportunity," Brawley said.

Brawley is the artistic director of Young Americans, which coordinates the program along with the OCPAC and ACCESS (Alternative, Community and Correctional Education Schools and Services).

Along with acting skills, the students gain experience that will help them even after the two weeks are over. The program is designed so students not only get a good grasp of the art form, but also realize the importance of personality, confidence and perseverance in their lives.

"Our motto is, 'Yes, and?'" said Brawley.

Instead of questioning their ability to perform or memorize a piece, Brawley encourages the students to take challenges on with confidence — then he asks for more.

"If you expect they can do it, then they can do it," he said.

Brawley is excited about the new group of students, who began the program Friday. This year the theme of the production is "best," which will feature musical routines from Broadway, television and film.

At the end of Wednesday's morning rehearsal, Brawley said he was impressed by the team's voracity for the performance, which he calls "the most difficult yet." The students were learning a 15-page number from the musical "In the Heights."

"At first they were like, 'Whoa, this is a lot of work,' but then they just went for it," Brawley said.

Talena Mara, vice president of education for OCPAC, said the program has the opportunity to provide the local teenagers with a fresh start. During program interviews, Mara noticed some had gotten in trouble for substance abuse.

"I don't know exact numbers," Mara said, "but if I had to guess, I'd say 75%."

The OCPAC staff involved with the project believes that the program, which is available for teens ages 14 to 18, provides students with a valuable escape from a sometimes traumatic daily life.

Ernie Pereya, a 17-year-old from Fullerton, heard about the program at his high school. Pereya calls himself shy and although he'd never considered acting before, he said the program has made him "feel more comfortable and able to be myself."

While some are there for social reasons, other students aren't opposed to having their name in bright lights. Courtney Aoki, an 18-year-old native of Buena Park, was especially excited about getting acting experience.

"I've always wanted to be an actress, and this is helping me towards my goal," she said.

With arts programs cut from schools and the dropout rate increasing, the Summer at the Center hopes to turn the tides and encourage students to stay on track with their education.

"It's no question that the students that attend the program have a much better chance to graduate from high school, and many go on college," Mara said.

On July 31, all their hard work will come to a close. The students of Summer at the Center will present their closing performance to an audience at the Samueli Theater. Guests can attend the free show at three different times.

Though they've only had four days of rehearsal, Brawley said his new group of actors is pushing the envelope.

"What usually takes 10 days to learn, they've learned in three," said Brawley of his group, who will be performing numbers from Disney, Broadway and shows such as "Glee."

Students interested in the program should contact ACCESS at the Orange County Department of Education at (714) 966-4119.

IF YOU GO:

What: Summer at the Center closing performance

Where: Samueli Theater at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

When: 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on July 31