Just inside the redwood doors of the Maryland Academy of Dramatic Arts in Bethesda, a visitor is dazzled by bright yellow flyers that blare: "training makes the difference. Actors are not born. They prepared for their careers!"
On the wall to the left, newspaper clippings chronicle the successes of former students who have -- in the seven years the academy has been in operation -- earned bit roles in major movies, television shows and local productions.
Another wall is covered with awards and plaques. Over the years, the academy has received dozens, and in 1978 it won "the only endorsement of a private school the Montgomery County Federation of Teachers ever made," boasts the director, Ralph Tabakin.
Behind this proud display is a studio crammed with spotlights, television cameras, videotaping setups and 16 actors and directors. On this particular day, a "noncommercial, pre-pilot" taping of "The Case of Rape" is in progress.
It is a documentary of a mock trial designed to instruct para-legal professionals in courtroom techniques, and it is also a training ground for student actors.
Tabakin -- himself an accomplished actor, former program director and prime mover behind the formation of the Maryland Arts Council -- says this is only one facet of this "nonprofit, tax-exempt foundation for the performing arts."
The academy offers courses in crisis intervention, documentary production, talent marketing and professional confidence-building. It has three resident and touring companies in which to develop proficiency in these areas.
The Maryland Children's Theatre presents light entertainment and serious dramas as educational experiences for both audiences and actors. The George Spelvin Experimental Theatre -- so named for H. L. Mencken's anonymous, behind-the-scenes theater character -- performs new plays by unknown playwrights and unknown plays by more familiar dramatists. The third company, Plays For Living, dramatizes community or industry-related problems. Often the companies perform free for PTA groups, nursing-home residents and country clubs.
Of the two dozen fulltime students, some are described as "just out of high school," or "average persons going to college." There are also construction workers, attorneys and foreign exchange students.
Most of them want to be actors-not bit players, but stars. Others are there to improve speaking and public relations skills.
Sculptor Bonnie Teague of Arizona says she is working on developing her own personality. "Many of us artists forget we must promote our art work at shows or receptions and be aware of what we're saying, doing. Everything about the overall effect needs to be thought through." Her goal is work at a gallery in New York or Atlanta.
Clint Mesle, after acting in high school, was disappointed with the theater department of a particular college. He turned to the academy and says he now is doing better.
A technical director for the academy and one of the first to be graduated from it, Jack Crowley, said, "You don't receive proper training in college. They're not teaching us where we can find work. After all, acting is 20 percent show and 80 percent business."
Teachers and executives who want to improve their public speaking come to the academy because it is "more private and casual than a college classroom."
Sandra Stephan was shy and not interested in college grades. "Besides," she submits, "this is closer to my home and I am better able to learn a craft." The academy does grade students midway through each of its semesters, and they are critiqued by a panel composed of members of performing arts unions.
Madolyn Doress, the academy's registrar, declares. "This is not a get-the-money-and-run operation. A student receives personalized attention, including those worthy students unable to pay the tuition. We like to get them out working as fast as possible."
The academy screens all applicants and accepts students of all ages. Class sizes are limited to a maximum of 10, and tuition is a fraction of what students would pay, even part-time, at any college.
The release-time theatrical program, consisting of three-hours of theater-arts training per day, allows high school students to earn extra credits while still in school.
Tabakin maintains the academy has supplied a sizable group of actors to the Washington-Baltimore-Richmond talent market, especially in the area of industrial films, and, he notes, "films need actors."
Tabakin says there are as many opportunities here as in the New York City area. "Many can practically earn a living just making the rounds of trade shows and ad agencies," he suggests.
But the academy has been "trying to stay low-key," he says, "because of the various theater schools in the area. With our credentials, we don't feel the need to compete for bodies." The academy has not been aggressive in seeking financial subsidies. "Multiple forms to obtain minuscule grants cannot justify the time spent on them," Doress explains.
Nonetheless, significant grant recognition would be welcomed, because it would allow for the purchase of more expensive equipment, and expansion.
Joseph pinckney, an acting coach and longtime professional acquaintance of Tabakin, calls the academy "a one-of-a-kind place." He speaks of the personal pride, time and effort Tabakin invests in each student's training.
Watching Tabakin nervously tugging at his director's cap, shifting his pipe, in his mouth as he corrects and compliments each performer, one is convinced of it.