EIGHT YEARS AGO, when Vince Brown took his first acting class at Joy Zinoman's Studio on Rhode Island Avenue, he was not looking for a new career. Bored with his job as a mid-level manager with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he was just "hoping to meet some girls."
Today, his financial success on public television and the professional stage is such that he can consider quitting his bureaucratic job.
Brown is one of many drama students who have discovered a lively second life in front of the footlights. Even students who don't hope for professional stardom have found that a beginning acting class can be a great way to open the mind, find romance, gain self-confidence or insight into the theater or simply liven up a wintry day.
The options are almost endless. The stagestruck can study everything from "Introduction to Shakespeare" with members of the Folger Theater acting company to mime with professionals at Glen Echo Park.
Classes are held in such eclectic settings as theater basements and church lobbies, and they attract adults of all ages and occupations -- people like Joan Gilbert of Rockville, a teacher with the Montgomery County Public Schools, who "never aspired to be the next Meryl Streep."
"I've never laughed so hard as I did in Richard DeAngelis' class at the Round House Theater . . . at myself and at other people," she says. "I took the class with a friend and it was not a threatening experience at all, even though every time he gave us a new exercise, all I could think about was, 'You've got to be kidding . . . me, do that?' "
For Laurie Haaf of Washington, studying acting in a rehearsal room atop Ford's Theater fulfilled "a dream I had all my life but deferred while raising a family." An administrator with a legal services program, Haaf says the class offered by New Playwrights' Theater aided her professionally by "helping me learn to improve my ability to communicate sales ideas."
For Tom Cochran, a D.C. resident recently returned from the University of Wisconsin, that same class provided a bridge between the security and camaraderie of college life and his venture into the working world. He also found the class "an incredibly opening experience. I've never done anything creative before except writing, but, especially for men, who are supposedly less emotional and vulnerable, and less able to express their feelings, acting is a challenge."
He pointed, in particular, to a class exercise in which each student tape-recorded a moving or humorous personal experience, then transcribed, edited and performed it as a monologue for the group. Pairs of students swapped monologues, and "it was incredible," Cochran said. "We had men doing women's stories, and in some cases the person presenting someone else's monologue was more believable than the person who originated it. You came to feel close to the other people in the class."
Sometimes the older the student, the happier the success story. Two years ago, Carol Leahy's "prize student" in her class at Glen Echo Park was Newton Jaslow of Alexandria, then newly retired as an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission. "I was knocking around, doing various volunteer activities to keep from going crazy," says Jaslow, now 70. "But I couldn't find a niche for myself."
Inspired by Leahy's tutoring on everything from warmup exercises to audition techniques, Jaslow, whose only previous theatrical experience consisted of working as a porter at a Broadway theater for seven years during the Depression, won a role as the judge in the courtroom drama "Nuts" that played at Silver Spring Stage last year. After five weeks of that community theater production, the play was moved downtown to the Source Theater, where, for his three weeks' work at the small professional theater, Jaslow earned a typical non-Equity actor's salary of $48.60.
For her part, Leahy, executive director of Silver Spring Stage, advises that standards are high even in community theater and prospective actors must study their craft. "You have to understand how to move on a stage, how to sit, how to project your voice and how to build a character," she says. "The day of the inexperienced amateur saying, 'Oh, what fun it would be to act in a play,' and jumping right in is over.
"I can tell at auditions who has studied and who has not. Colleges are turning out drama majors by the hundreds, and those who cannot be absorbed into the professional theater find an outlet in community theater. Even if you are born with an innate talent, it needs to be nurtured."
Are acting classes a place to search for romance? "Sure," says Vince Brown. "They're a big social thing. You don't necessarily mean for anything romantic to happen but when you're working together intensely on a scene, for example, one thing leads to another."
The reigning legend concerns Zinoman's "Advanced Shakespeare" class, which thus far has matched five sets of Romeos and Juliets in real life.
Classes can also provide an incentive to improve appearance. Betsy Hughes, a Potomac resident who has studied locally, was told by a director that if she didn't lose 30 pounds, she would never get anything but fat roles. "That did it," says the now svelte blond. "I lost the weight and have gained a lot of self-confidence as well as some 'slim' roles. Ask my husband. I'm not the same person anymore. He has to take care of the kids more often."
Students who stick with the theater life can find a new world of creative friends. Retiree Jeanne Harris has found that "when auditioning for community theater, I continually run into people I met in my first acting class. I enjoy their vitality and energy."
Now the 58-year-old Harris is thinking about taking a new step -- assembling photos and resumes and making the rounds of the local casting agencies. "With all those grey- haired ladies selling products on TV, there just has to be a place for me," she says.
The office of Central Casting in D.C. warns that it is difficult for an amateur to succeed in the commercial market, where professional competitors typically boast a college degree in theater, as well as extensive performance experience.
But as Leslie Jacobson, head of the Acting Department at George Washington University, puts it: "Thieves never think they'll get caught, and actors always think they're going to make it. A few of them do, and everyone who aspires to the stage can benefit from studying."