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LOS ANGELES TIMES - Weekend Calandar Section
June 18, 1998

The Language of Life by Robin Rauzi
Actress-ESL teacher finds wealth of dramatic material in refugees' stories.

There's this thing about theater-types: They see plays everywhere.

Actress Stephanie Satie was working at her "survival" job, teaching English as a second language to immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. She taught advanced students, the ones who needed conversational practice. In that classroom, while just trying to speak the language, Satie's students began to tell their personal stories.

Satie remembered one woman in particular, an emigre from Russia who had been a miner. She talked about her helmet with the light on it, about going down into the dark tunnels, about how much she loved and missed being a miner.

A light came on over Satie's head, too. Around her were not only students, but stories and characters. "The ground started shaking for me," Satie said.

She's shaped those stories into Refugees, her solo play that opens Saturday at the Sweet Lies Theatre in North Hollywood.

In Refugees, Satie is not only the teacher, but also the students in an ESL class. In rehearsal last week, she dropped easily into the Russian accent of Larissa, a woman who took out a personal ad to find a husband who would be her passport to the United States. In Moscow, Larissa was a master of the divining rod - using a stick to divine information about invisible forces. "Unfortunately, there is not such a demand for my skill here," Satie said, in Larissa's deadpan voice.

Like Larissa, the characters in Refugees are inspired by real-life students, though many are composites of students from Satie's seven years as an ESL instructor. When she started to put the pieces together, she called director Anita Khanzadian, a director she knew who had worked on other non-narrative solo shows, in addition to critically acclaimed work with Interact Theatre Company. At first, Satie didn't know if these wildly varied stories could be put together as a play.

"I sat down and listened to her do this wonderful material. I said it's doable. It's tough, but it's doable," said Khanzadian.

Rather than perform it as a series of monologues, they have structured Refugees like a class, weaving the discussions and tales together. Real-life experiences such as Satie's always feed into your craft if you're an artist, Khanzadian said. "Here she does something responsible and grown-up, and she comes back with material."