IT'S SATURDAY morning at a local hotel and a 30-year-old lawyer/aspiring actress with a dream waits to meet a New York casting director. Now, this is only a workshop -- not an audition -- and she has absolutely no acting experience, but no matter. This is her big chance: She will be seen by the casting director for "All My Children." And in a business where the likes of Vanna White can spin the wheel of fortune and transform letter-turning into megabucks and public adulation, anything is possible.
So the casting directors -- there are actually two, both from New York -- finally arrive. They block the scenes with our actress, and so dazzling is she that they sign her right there, on the spot -- they don't even bother to get her on tape -- for a new role, created just for her, on "All My Children."
In your dreams.
Or maybe on a soap opera -- where the characters are forever young and thin, grandmothers are under 40 and wrinkle-free and people with no qualifications, but great pecs, can become heads of major corporations or TV journalists overnight.
But this is all-too-real life -- Saturday morning in Crystal City at the Embassy Suites Hotel. Still, there is enough high hope among the assembled company, a cast of 25 unknowns -- aspiring soap actors all -- to move a whole field of rubber tree plants, a billion kilowatt dam or two. There is the usual share of ingenues of both sexes -- impossibly fresh and indisputably young, oozing sex appeal. And surprisingly, there are just as many older hopefuls, roughly age 25 to 50, all with other viable professions already. There are lawyers, a doctor, a headhunter, an insurance salesman, a longshoreman, electrician and several flight attendants -- some complete novices, some with a little acting experience, perhaps a bit of training. All have paid $275 to work with two top casting directors (Joan D'Incecco of "All My Children" and independent Judy Henderson) for the weekend, and -- let's face it -- for the chance maybe to get discovered. Is there an actor here who isn't hoping to get The Big Break, and relocate to Pine Valley (the setting of "AMC") -- and Fat City?
"The casting director wants you to be the right person," insists D'Incecco. "It makes her life a lot easier."
But then, they're here to teach, not to cast roles. So the verdict for now is "no soap."
"Everyone thinks they can act," says Keith Clark of Actors Comprehensive Training (ACT) in Alexandria. He and wife Joan recruited D'Incecco and Henderson to bring to Washington four times a year an abbreviated version of the soap workshop they regularly teach in New York.
Even if there were such a thing as untrained actors of such natural ability that they deserved to be hired on sight, they couldn't sustain a career, say the pros. And only experienced actors could consistently deliver good performances on demand and under pressure. Who wants to give an actor on-the-job training during expensive shooting time? Knowing their way around a set -- the jargon, where to stand, how to move -- is what distinguishes professionals and it is what the workshop participants hope to learn here.
Even the minimally experienced at the workshop already know the complexities of the craft and the technical skills required, but the novices are about to get their first hard lesson in the acting life.
Richard Foster, of the George Hamilton looks (minus the tan), is here; so is Steve Samuels, Pacino-intense; Beau James, clean-cut but with an edge; and Anne Marie Mobley, a professional model who wants to break into acting. While you may not yet know their names, they're hoping to be regular fixtures in your grocery checkout line one day, smiling out from People magazine -- working stiffs no more but working actors.
For now, Foster, 42, one of the few full-time actors in the group, works mainly small parts on New York soaps -- "under fives" (a bit part with under five lines) and "day player" (more than five) -- and has just auditioned for a role on a soap. Samuels, 31, a Beltway bandit with his own computer company, is a serious student of acting and has done some modeling and bit parts. He studies at Washington's Studio Theatre and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City on Saturdays. James, a fortyish senior attorney in an Alexandria law firm and a member of Actors' Equity, has the most acting experience of the three -- in numerous commercials and local stage productions -- and is also up for a role in a soap.
They are as serious, hard-working, driven a group as you're likely to encounter in any profession. They need to be; it's a tough grind -- even with a much earlier start than they have, the odds of breaking in and succeeding are slim, say casting directors. Many have spouses, kids, other commitments, and -- between regular jobs and taking classes and auditioning -- work punishing hours.
The fortunate ones have their own businesses and, schedules allowing, can take time off for auditions. But eventually, like Foster has done, they may have to give up the financial security of established careers, get part-time jobs or temporary work to be more available for last-minute callbacks and auditions. Things happen fast, especially in television, where "two days is an eternity," says D'Incecco.
They make constant sacrifices -- all for the chance of breaking into a killing field where, says Foster, "Ninety-five to 99 percent of everything is rejection." Where talent and training aren't everything, but luck, intelligence, sheer determination, timing and the right looks play equally important roles.
"You get a break on the basis of looks," explains Samuels, "then you show them what you can do."
So who needs the aggravation? For some at the workshop, acting is a lifelong dream, never fulfilled.
"When I saw Jack Nicholson in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' that scene where McMurphy sticks it to the nurse, the whole theater got up and cheered," says Foster. "I remember deciding right then that's what I wanted to do with my life."
Joy Zinoman, artistic director and founder of the Studio Theatre in Washington, says acting is a difficult and demanding profession, "but there's also tremendous satisfaction in being able to illuminate life for the rest of us."
"You'd better love acting, and can't live without it," D'Incecco tells the workshop. "Because if you don't, all the rest of it will kill you." TAKE ONE
This and other pronouncements drop from the casting directors' lips on this Saturday. The assembled crew takes notes; some even tape record the session.
In acting, like any other profession, there are what D'Incecco calls "steps" -- rules and standards. "And even Paul Newman has to audition," she says.
"Like any other profession," says Samuels, "It's who you know and what you know."
And an actor is a business concern. Says Dorothy Neumann, a local theater director and acting teacher, "Actors need to have computers and mailing lists at home" -- just like any other small business or freelancer.
At the Embassy Suites workshop, Henderson and D'Incecco cover training -- the importance of classes in voice and movement, of learning the craft of acting. Most teachers agree the only way to learn is to study stage acting. Though they will give some instruction during the sessions here, this is not a class in acting technique but in the unique technical skills required for soap opera acting. In the workshop they review head shots, resumes, unions, interviews, auditions; describe the difference between contract and non-contract roles, "under fives," and "day players" on soaps, and show audition tapes -- pointing out who got hired, who was passed over and why. As we watch the tapes it is fairly obvious who's good and who's better and who got cast. But it is one thing, we will soon learn, to identify good acting and quite another to be able to produce it.
The casting directors also discuss what turns them off -- and on -- in actors, and how they work to cast roles. "If I see you work, and all I write down is 'tall'," says D'Incecco, "you can be sure I'm not going to call you back in again to see if you got taller."
Audition as much as possible, they suggest to the actors, for the experience. "The more you audition the better you get," says D'Incecco.
And for actors short on resumes, Henderson stresses, "Think of auditioning and taking class as working."
"In auditions you have to be 150 percent there," instructs Henderson, "because you may lose 50 percent in distractions, or another 25 because of the actor you're assigned to work with. And 75 percent won't get you the job."
While the major markets for actors are New York and Los Angeles, there is still plenty of work here -- especially the bread-and-butter variety -- with industrial films (a good training ground for beginners) and commercials. After a mini-boom of TV and film productions here a few years back, says Samuels, those opportunities have suddenly dried up.
As a prelude to blocking and rehearsing the scenes each actor will tape the next day, the workshop instructors describe a typical shoot on a soap. It is a long, fast-paced working day, from 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening, with a daunting amount of lines to memorize, and last-minute changes in scripts right up through the director's "notes," given after the dress rehearsal. An episode is taped in one day.
One after another, pairs of actors get a taste of the soaps. Henderson and D'Incecco block the scenes, circling the actors, prodding and positioning them like props.
Soap operas are "a game of inches," Henderson tells the class. Shots are tight and the casts of soap operas are a close group, of necessity. They must really be on top of one another. (No wonder there's so much romance on soap sets.)
"Watch the video monitors and see what happens to the space," she commands.
Sure enough, move an inch or two in an extreme close-up, and you're out of the shot -- or out of focus. With space so limited, unnatural and awkward movements become necessary. When a soap actor in a medium close-up holds an object, it must be held unnaturally high -- at the bosom for women, tie-height for men -- to be seen on camera.
Scenes are done in only one take, so you must be exactly on your spot, as the scene was blocked.
"If you're not on the spot, you're not in the shot, and we have to do it again," says Henderson. "And if we do it again, we're into expensive overtime. Everyone goes nuts and you're off the show."
If you think acting in a soap looks like fun, think again. Says Henderson, "Tedium is the medium."
While they take a break, I steal a look at my neighbor's "sides" (actor-speak for the pages of a "script"). The scene is a tryst between Lanie and Charlie, and the male character's background is provided, in great detail. It is written: "The unlived life takes its toll, and in a way that is not always immediately traceable to the origin of the pain." This sounds more like a cross between Freud and Dostoevski than "One Life to Live."
I start up from the script as an on-stage Erica snarls, "You sound like a desperate woman to me," at another actress. (They use actual scripts from "AMC," but the workshop actress is no Susan Lucci.)
"And then the hormone ferry waves her magic wand," goes the next scene, as an older brother (played by the longshoreman), describes puberty for a younger actor, and coaches him on asking Flossy out for a date. The longshoreman/actor hams it up -- rolling his eyes and making faces, and D'Incecco stops him. As he hands his brother a note to the teacher he has just written, Henderson cautions the younger actor to really look like he's reading it.
Watching, you are quickly disabused of the idea that acting is easy.
As Beau James argues with Anne Marie Mobley, his stage wife, Henderson barks orders: "Keep your head straight!" "Listen and respond!" "Keep it moment to moment!" "Sit up!" "Don't whine!" "You're blocking his shot!" "Let's see the pain in your eyes, not in the gestures."
Pain in the neck, this acting.
Before the next break, the actress whose script I had eyeballed does her scene. She takes off her glasses -- it's a love scene. And for a minute we forget we're in class:
"You're so beautiful, I want so much to kiss you," breathes Samuels. We all edge forward in our seats, mesmerized.
Now that's acting. A STAR IS BORN?
It's breakfast time on another Saturday morning at the Embassy Suites Hotel, and there are families lined up for the morning feed at the buffet line. In the absence of Ninja Turtles and Super Marios -- and in the face of sugared cereal -- the kids are acting up.
Meanwhile, not far away, behind closed doors, much bigger kids are acting up.
"I know police brutality, when I see it," an arresting young man with Harry Belafonte looks howls as he goes flying backwards, miming taking a punch, wiping imagined blood off his face.
Just how many different ways can you say that line?
Defiantly: "I know police brutality when I see it."
Accusingly: "I know police brutality when I see it."
Resigned but bitter: "I know police brutality when I see it."
Hollywood casting director Al Onorato, teaching a $275 workshop in auditioning for films, instructs the actor to do it again, with different motivations: "Okay, now this time you recognize the cops." And a third time: "This time your best friend was killed after being arrested in this same precinct a year ago."
The class is much smaller than the soap workshop and the average age is older, around 30. The Skippy Peanut Butter boy from the '50s (who hasn't acted since) is here; so is one of the Calvin Klein male underwear wearers from the ads; and an actor who has worked as Patrick Swayze's assistant on "Dirty Dancing," as a double for James Spader and as a corpse -- his role consisted of being "hanged till death." Then there is the actress who almost got the bit part of an airline ticket agent in "Broadcast News"; she's a real-life flight attendant who keeps getting typecast. She has already worked successfully in commercials but wants a bigger challenge, to move beyond lines like "The Xerox machine is broken."
Onorato covers "cold readings" -- when there's no opportunity to see the audition script in advance -- and talks about how to dress for an audition.
"Should you dress for the part?" asks the flight attendant.
Can a middle-aged fledgling actor make a living this way -- and find happiness?
Tune in tomorrow . . .
Barbara Ann Curcio, who last wrote for Weekend about self-improvement gurus, has abandoned her secret desire to become an actor.