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Prince of L.A.

Rafe Esquith's Shakespeare company is unique. The players are all current or former pupils of his downtown Los Angeles elementary school, and all speak English as a second language. Now this extraordinary teacher, whose fans include Oprah Winfrey and Kenneth Branagh, has been awarded an MBE for his work. Stephen Phillips met him in California

A Los Angeles primary school teacher isn't your typical MBE. But Rafe Esquith, who received the honorary title at the British embassy in Washington DC last month for services to Anglo-American relations, isn't your run-of-the-mill American teacher. Perhaps one of Mr Esquith's biggest fans, the distinguished thespian and Lord of the Rings star Sir Ian McKellen, put in a good word for him.

For the past 20 years, the 48-year-old has staged lavish performances of Shakespeare's plays with his troupe of young actors, the Hobart Shakespeareans, made up of current and former pupils from inner-city LA. It's an unlikely setting for the Bard. But Rafe Esquith's productions are a hit with his pupils, and patronage from Hollywood's A-list stars and celebrity fans such as talk show queen Oprah Winfrey has turned them into a beacon of inspiration for underprivileged youngsters.

Rafe Esquith works at the frontline of the American state school system. His school, Hobart Boulevard elementary, in a neighbourhood called "Koreatown" (reflecting an earlier wave of immigration), is one of the US's largest. It is home to a staggering 2,300 largely Hispanic five to 11-year olds and has, says Mr Esquith, been called an "education factory". Some 92 per cent of the students qualify for free breakfast and lunch; none speaks English as a first language.

Mr Esquith first used the plays of Stratford-upon-Avon's favourite son as a tool to help his 10-year-old pupils learn the language. But his initial efforts to hold after-school classes were frustrated by an LA education chief who said he should be offering something more academic. In a farcical plot twist, he was given the go-ahead when another administrator saw his students act, and said he'd never seen Shakespeare performed so well.

At the outset, Elizabethan drama "was a hard sell", concedes Mr Esquith. But the troupe soon flourished, with local children drawn by universal themes and characters with which they could readily identify. "Henry IV has an enormous amount of violence and hatred - what kids growing up in central LA wouldn't understand this?" In keeping with the contemporary urban setting, moreover, Mr Esquith's players wear street attire, and productions feature rock 'n' roll soundtracks.

After-school Shakespeare and conscientious instruction are all very well, he says, but too many of his pupils were losing their way once they went to secondary school. "When they leave, it's like going into an ocean of sharks," he says. So in 1988 he set up Saturday morning lessons to help former pupils "stay strong" in the face of the temptations of drugs and gang life. Originally designed as a bridge for 11 and 12-year-olds, it proved so popular that many have kept on coming well into their teens.

Meanwhile, the involvement of thespian benefactors such as Sir Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson has given a major fillip to Mr Esquith's efforts. He struck up a friendship with Sir Ian in 1987, when the actor brought his one-man Shakespeare show to a local theatre. Mr Esquith booked front-row seats and had his students write sonnets which he passed on to the English actor.

After the performance, Sir Ian invited Mr Esquith and his posse to his dressing room. "We were there for hours and I was in heaven," he recalls. "Ian said, 'I know something special will happen here', but friends just said, 'He's a nice guy but you'll never see him again'." Two days later, Sir Ian invited Mr Esquith and his class to San Diego, where he was performing. "He said, 'I'm gay and I don't have children, but if I had them, I would want them to be you.'" As good as his word, whenever he's in Hollywood, Sir Ian visits his pet project to perform acting clinics and provide emotional and financial support. In 1998, he invited the children to perform at Shakespeare's Globe in London. The party at Sir Ian's home afterwards was, Rafe Esquith says, the highlight of the trip.

Mr Esquith prides himself on never raising his voice to pupils, eschewing the boot camp-style approach to discipline sweeping many US inner-city schools, and says he is rewarded with respectful behaviour. Some 50 11 to 16-year-olds now attend the Saturday session, which helps prepare them for university entrance exams, and there is a long waiting list.

Travel is central to Mr Esquith's mission to expand his pupils' horizons. He frequently escorts the typically first-generation Americans to Washington DC's monuments and museums to acquaint them with their adopted land's cultural heritage. Equally important are trips to North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming to visit Native American tribes. The older children go on annual tours of Europe that take in Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

Mr Esquith also chaperones his charges around universities in New York, Boston and Chicago so they can see the possibilities if they apply themselves at school. He makes a point of staying in good hotels and dining at fine restaurants. "I want them to understand the life they're working for, and see that the whole world doesn't look like their neighbourhood."

None of this comes cheap. In the early days, Rafe Esquith worked evenings and weekends as a delivery man and a cinema usher to supplement his $40,000 (pound;25,311) annual income and fund his extra-curricular efforts. But things were eased when a former student, wanting to repay his mentor, helped incorporate Mr Esquith's class as a non-profit organisation. The designation permits it to receive tax-deductible charitable donations.

In 2000, Oprah Winfrey handed Rafe Esquith $100,000 (pound;63,276) raised through her "Use Your Life" award scheme. Earlier this year, People magazine ran a full-page advertisement to drum up contributions. He is used to such accolades. The Disney corporation named him American teacher of the year in 1992; he was Parent magazine's top teacher of 1997; and last year he won a hero award from People.

He isn't resting on his laurels, though. Next June, he and his wife, Barbara, will take the children on tours of Native American reservations, Italy, and a Shakespeare festival in Oregon. And that's during school vacation. "I'm scripted for the next three years," quips Mr Esquith, who credits his unflagging stamina to the kids. "I feed off their energy."

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