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Reality Check: The New York Reality TV School has been featured in dozens of television shows and publications. But how real is it, after all?
This sounded unappealing; I bristled at the thought of being taped and then forced to watch myself. I guess my dream would be to become the reality TV equivalent of Charlie Brown's parents. I recall reading an interview with a former "Real World" participant who advised getting naked or singing a Beatles tune in order to keep the cameras away -- it's expensive for networks to get rights to pop songs or to blur out privates. You could also just die: When a contestant on the first season of Sweden's version of "Survivor" killed himself post-taping, the producers largely edited him out.
In preparation for the worst, I put on lip gloss and my most slimming black T-shirt. But when I got to the little studio on the West Side where the next three classes were held, there were no cameras present. There was just me, six other students and Galinksy -- who was looking a little sad. Indeed, the small number of people and the lack of space gave the class a deflated feel. He began by warning us about post-show blues -- the depression that can sink in after a long-awaited audition, or after a show is done filming . . . or after, say, planning a big class. "You go in with all these high hopes, and then you leave, and there's no more glitz and glamour," he said.
For the first activity, we had to go around the room shaking our bodies while telling one another what we had eaten for breakfast. When an argument broke out over whether or not coffee could really be "eaten," Galinsky beamed. "This is great! This tension is exactly what they're looking for on TV!"
Then we had to act out one anothers' goals (which we wrote on strips of paper and traded). We were put into small groups and given five minutes to create song and dance routines about the goals. La'Verne, Deborah and I couldn't figure out what to do and ended up halfheartedly singing "Jingle Bells," pausing between choruses to read off the paper slips. "I want to be a well-developed actress on ABC Family!" I trilled. When we timidly asked the point of the activity ("It seemed weird," said Deborah, "the direction was so vague."), Galinsky told us that the pointlessness was part of the point: Did it make sense to make a raft to go get a flame from a tiki torch? The trick is to not ask "why" but to simply assume that the producers have a plan that will eventually cause everything to make sense. "Always reply, never deny, never ask why," he repeated several times.
BY WEEK THREE, class attendance had fallen to just four -- and three of us arrived half an hour late. (Only Lobke was on time; her parents had chauffeured her.) The class syllabus suggested a jam-packed session: "Learn how best to make a tape for submission . . . We will show how to make the camera work for you once you are on set and further explore: blocking, staging, wardrobe details and personally tailoring your look to your advantage." Instead, Galinsky lectured again about embracing random tasks, even when they seem silly. Then we did the breakfast exercise again.
During the last part of the third and fourth classes, we were indeed put in front of a camera, twice. The first time, we had to introduce ourselves in a quick and punchy way. La'Verne, Galinsky suggested, should spice up her intro by saying she's from the "Boogie Down" Bronx; Deborah got praised for her clever triplet, "I was born in Boston, raised in Connecticut and ruined in New York." The second time, we were told to confess two secrets -- one that belonged to us and one that a classmate wrote on a slip of paper. I sucked in my tummy for the camera and then confessed that "I like drugs" and "I like teasing my lovers with naked pictures of myself" -- and I'm not going to tell which one was mine. But when all was said and done, we learned we hadn't actually been recorded -- the point, Galinsky said, was just to see how it felt to watch ourselves on the monitor while we were talking. When asked later why we didn't make the tapes or follow much of what had been outlined in the syllabus, Galinksy wrote, via e-mail, "I reserve the right to alter/adjust the curriculum based on the composition and interests of students attending."
Deborah called me a few weeks after the class ended to voice her disappointment. She was worried about the fate of show ideas we'd mentioned -- did they now belong to the school? Were we being filmed the whole time without our knowing it? "The class description said we'd be provided with a tape of ourselves that would then be critiqued by a casting director, but we never did that," she said. "I asked Robert, and he said that we'd do that separately if I wanted, but I keep e-mailing him and calling, and he hasn't responded." She paused. "Do you know a good entertainment lawyer?"
Fact is, Galinsky's already busy on other projects. A few days after our very first class, Portfolio magazine's Web site posted a story about a TV idea he was trying to sell. It sounded familiar: a reality show about him starting a reality TV school. He's quoted describing it as "an uber-meta-circular-[expletive] of camera seducing camera seducing cast seducing viewer."
The Russian-nesting-doll aspect of the ploy left me feeling uneasy, but if my classmates understood that they were pawns in a Charlie Kaufman-esque charade, they didn't seem to mind. Galinsky had e-mailed the Portfolio story to his address book, suggesting that people comment. Most positive responses were from people who'd been in class; the consensus was that a few hours of stretching, shaming, lecturing and spatula flipping really could significantly change one's life. "He encourages the student to break down fears and build confidence," wrote one. "His class makes the student step out of their skin and be who they really are inside," wrote another. La'Verne called Galinsky a "master." Either I was abnormally immune to the school's transformative powers, or there was something here I was missing.
I found the answer where one finds most things: on Craigslist. In the "gigs" section, I came across an ad fishing for actors who could portray reality show hopefuls with "amazing" personalities in a show about a reality TV school. "The New York Reality TV School is now doing preliminary casting for actors to play staff and 'students' in the pilot," it read, going on to ask for "actors, comedians, models, musicians and performers." The "audition" would be participation in one of the one-day seminars. It had been posted shortly before my final Saturday class.
This might explain why the personalities who showed up for our last session seemed a little over the top and why some had their tuition comped. The tarot card reader who cried when mentioning her recently deceased mother -- brilliant method acting or maudlin slice of reality? The statuesque New Jersey man whose business cards showed him flaunting his rippled abs, who told me that he "deserved" to be on television then hit the ground and did one-hand push-ups -- character sketch or character quirks? It also made me suspicious of the pupils who tidily provided focal points for the media that once again swarmed in: a French pharmacist for a French TV crew; a machinist from Oklahoma for Oklahoma City's News 9. (While the Oklahomans say their joint appearance was just a coincidence. The pharmacist, a part-time actress, copped to responding to a posting on NYCastings.com. It had asked, specifically, for someone who had lived in France.)
Galinsky says "any student so far" might be considered for the possible show, so presumably, even the paying pupils such as me had been unknowingly auditioning. That would mean, I guess, that a spot on a reality TV show really could be in my future. Set your DVRs: I'll be the naked one singing "Yellow Submarine."
Anna Jane Grossman is a New York-based freelancer. She can be reached at GrossmanAJ@gmail.com.