Talent, tenacity, education and passion can lead to a successful career as a thespian

By DEBRA BEYER , Special Advertising Sections Writer

Professional actor and teacher Al LeBrun always opens a new class at Cal State Northridge by asking his students, “How many people here want to pursue a career in acting?”

Naturally, most students raise their hands.

Then he says, “If you can be happy doing anything else, do that thing. Otherwise, if acting is the only thing that’s going to make you happy in life, stay here and take it on. But it’s tough!”

Janie Geiser, standing, teaches students about props during a CalArts class. The Valencia school offers bachelor's and master's degrees in the performing and visual arts.
The road to fame and fortune, or even just getting work as an actor, is bumpy at best. An aspiring thespian with dreams shaking hands with an Oscar, Emmy or Tony has to be not only talented, but tenacious, as well. Actors say that it takes much more than a head shot, a résumé and a sparkling smile to get the audition and, hopefully, the job.

“It takes dedication, perseverance and skill to keep working in this business,” said LeBrun, who is on a commercial for Gibson guitars. “But it mainly takes that magic combination of being in the right place at the right time and then being prepared.”

Becoming a convincing actor doesn’t happen overnight, said Marissa Chibas, head of acting at California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) in Valencia, which offers a college degree-based training program in the performing and visual arts. “The actors with well-rounded training and experience have more longevity because they have a foundation to draw from and the flexibility to respond to what a director is looking for.”

Actors say whether you’re going for television, commercials, film or stage, the first line of business is to find a quality acting class, school or theater program and start developing your craft.

Actor Richard Crater, who teaches acting at his Hub Theater in North Hollywood and works as a casting director, said many newcomers to the industry think taking a commercial workshop is going to be their quick ticket to success.

“Commercials are the easiest to get into,” said Crater, who has co-starred on numerous TV shows and in such films as “Cocktail” with Tom Cruise. “We can all wear blue jeans and drink diet soda, and a workshop will help you know how to read a cue card and deliver some lines. But, the stage is the best training ground because, as an actor, you have to learn to deliver the arc of the character.”

“Theater training as a basis is so important because it helps you understand storytelling and it’s for a live audience so you get no second chance,” said Dawn-Lyen Gardner, a Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and Julliard graduate who has acted in numerous theatrical productions, TV and film. “When you’re first starting out, ask yourself what your real interest is. If you’re trying to find out what you want to say, then start in theater because it demands more self-exploration.”

Someone just getting started might want to take a course at one of many local schools or studios, like TVI in Los Angeles and New York or The Acting Corps in North Hollywood, that offer classes in everything from acting technique to scene study and cold reading. Theater courses also are offered through local playhouses, repertory companies and such community colleges as Los Angeles City College, which has an acting conservatory and individual classes available.

“Finding an acting class is just like trying on clothes — you have to find something that fits,” said LeBrun, who leads an improv group at The Actors Circle in Los Angeles. “Find a teacher you’re comfortable with. There are grade-A coaches — if casting directors see the name on your résumé, they’re going to pay more attention to you. But, it still pays to audit classes and see if you’d learn and grow there.”
Well-known classical-based schools in Los Angeles and New York, like the Academy of Dramatic Arts, the Stella Adler Academy of Acting and Theatres or the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, provide full- and part-time programs.

For more intense study, most Southern California universities, including USC, UCLA, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton, have schools of theater with undergraduate and graduate programs that feature a faculty of working professionals, celebrity and industry guest teachers and an impressive list of alumni.

Private, arts-based colleges like the respected Julliard, New York University and Cal Arts also could be considered.

“An actor is a detective of human behavior, so knowing different styles and cultures is important,” said Chibas of Cal Arts. “Undergrads come in very hungry and are still discovering their direction and voice. Part of my job as a teacher is to help them uncover their particular path.”

Children with a yen for acting could benefit from a school with an arts emphasis. Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA) (grades 7 to 12) or Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) (grades 9 to 12) are fully accredited institutions offering an intensive academic and arts curriculum, with students admitted by audition.

“Our school functions like a conservatory, with students learning everything from voice and literature to movement and stage design,” said Lois Hunter, chairwoman for LACHSA Theater and Dance. “We feel it’s important to learn about many artistic genres to support your growth as an actor. The famous singer Josh Groban graduated from our school as a theater major and is one of the strongest actors I know. He got his big break acting on ‘Ally McBeal’ and was asked to sing on it The rest is history.”

Gardner started acting as a child in community theater, commercials and episodic TV. She enrolled in the LACHSA filmmaking program as a teenager.

“Going to LACHSA was such a huge step for me,” she said. “It is so intense and focused and allowed me to get in touch with what I really wanted to do.”

OCHSA is a public charter school with 10 conservatories, including Film and TV and Music and Theater. Students are immersed in courses like Acting Technique, Dramatic Literature and Improvisation. And, they are cast in any of a dozen productions a year and can participate in agent showcases.

The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (with such alumni as Tim Robbins and Carol Burnett) offers summer acting programs like the UCLA Arts Camp, with one-week camps in such areas of focus as Musical Theater, Sitcoms, Performance for the Camera and Theater Acting. There’s a six-week Acting and Performing Institute for high school students, and individual theater, film and TV summer courses are available for students of any age.

Another popular training ground for kids and adults alike is local theater companies such as South Coast Repertory (SCR) Theater in Costa Mesa. Many successful actors have been through its seasonal Youth and Teen programs, two-week Summer Program and Adult Conservatory.

“Going through an in-depth program like this is wonderful for children, especially in the teen years, because developing their craft and themselves as artists is an amazing life experience,” said Hisa Takakuwa, SCR’s Youth/Teen Conservatory Director.

Courtney Stallings completed most of the youth, teen and adult programs at SCR, has performed in numerous SCR productions and now works there as an education assistant.

“I’ve been acting since I was a little kid, in school plays and local theater,” said Stallings, who will help direct a play this summer. “People get into acting and want to jump in and do a show but it may take six to nine months of doing scenes and acting technique before you’re even ready to audition.”

Granted, many child actors land career-establishing roles long before they take on serious study. As a child in New York, Daisy Eagan went to audition for a small role in the musical version of “A Christmas Carol” and ended up getting the lead as Tiny Tim. By age 9, she was in the cast of “Les Misérables” on Broadway, and at 11, became the youngest actor to win a Tony, for her role in “The Secret Garden.”

“It seemed like I was playing Little League and then all of a sudden was acting on Broadway,” said Eagan, who recently starred in ‘A View From the Bridge’ at SCR. “Looking back, I know I would have benefited from more training.”

Many SCR students, as well as those from arts-based high schools, go on to get their degrees in theater.

“Just that I went to Julliard is a huge foot in the door with casting directors and theater, but, business-wise, a degree won’t further your career necessarily,” Gardner said. “However, to continue learning and to complete a program builds confidence and experience that is invaluable.”

“The cream really does rise to the top to a certain extent,” Takakuwa said. “If you complete your education and get a variety of training, you’ll have more knowledge and life experiences that will make you a better actor.”

Once some training and skills are under his belt, an actor needs to start auditioning. It’s important to have a good head shot and résumé and to find the right combination of representation, Eagan said.

“Decide who you are and what you want and find representation that knows your path and believes in you 100%,” she said.

Then, to keep the phone ringing, get as much experience as possible.

“Work in non-union or student films, do community theater, take acting classes, read Backstage West magazine,” said Ilyanne Morden Kichazen, spokesperson for the Screen Actors Guild. “And, be careful. You should never be asked to part with your money to get a job. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

It pays to see lots of theater and read film scripts and plays constantly, experts advise.

“What stands between you and almost every acting job is a reading,” said Karen Hensel, SCR’s Adult Conservatory director. “Being able to bring those words up off the page is vital.”

“Someone once told me that you have to be an interesting person to be an interesting actor, and that’s so true,” Stallings said. “What really matters is always having a variety of quality training, education and experiences to bring to your performance.”

Debra Beyer is a freelance writer based in Glendale.

Studying acting schools

Southern California is teeming with places for thespians to hone their craft. Most colleges and universities offer theater arts programs. Many local playhouses and theater companies provide single workshops and intensive study, and acting schools are almost as plentiful as Starbucks in the Los Angeles area. Therefore, actors and experts recommend asking these questions when choosing a place to refine their skills for stage and screen:
How long has the school or program been in action?
Does it have a good reputation among actors, casting directors, theater companies and agents?
Does the technique, philosophy and/or method speak to you and your desires for your career?
Is the class small enough to provide individualized attention and personal training?
Does the program culminate in student productions performed for the publicor does the class offer showcases or mock readings?
Does the school have a list of lofty alumni or working actors whose work you respect?
Is the school accredited by the National Assn. of Schools of Theater?
If it is a high school for the arts, is it fully accredited and/or do any of the courses earn transferable college credit?
Are the instructors currently working in the industry or do they have experience in professional acting?
If a university program, is it connected to any local theater house and/or company?
— Debra Beyer

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Actors Advise

Phil Morris

Credits: “Bottoms Up,” “Frostbite,” “The Wedding Crashers, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “Star Trek III” (film); “Seinfeld,” “Mission Impossible,” “The Young and the Restless” and “Tracks of Glory”(television)
Education: Studied acting with John Lehne, Guy Stockwell and Harvey Lembeck
Advice: “No one knows what’s right for anyone else in this profession. Everybody’s path is so uniquely [his]. . . . The most important thing is a sense of passion. You have to have a very deep-rooted passion for it. Passion creates a sense of limitless fun, and when you are truly enjoying acting, you have that desire and you will do what’s necessary to do it again.”

Dawn Lyen-Gardener

Credits: “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way” (South Coast Repertory Theater); “Art School Confidential” (film); and “Summerland,” “Crossing Jordan” and “ER” (television)
Education:Julliard, Bachelor of Fine Arts; graduate of Los Angeles County High School for the Arts; and studied with Patsy Rodenberg
Advice: “My last year at acting school they focused on finding your type and how to market yourself, which went against my theater training because that’s all about transformation and becoming anybody or anything. But, you do have to know what you’re selling, yet be flexible and keep yourself well-oiled as an actor so that you can believe in yourself in many different roles.”

Daisy Eagan

Credits: “Les Misérables,” “The Secret Garden” and “The Dead” (on Broadway); “On The Mountain” and “A View From The Bridge” (South Coast Repertory Theater); “Losing Isaiah,” “Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding” and “Judgment” (film); and “The It Factor” and “Square One TV” (television)
Education: Studied at Neighborhood Playhouse and with Wynn Handman, Mary Saunders and Nancy Ezers
Advice: “In L.A., it is important to have a ‘look,’ but you don’t have to get a boob job or your nose done to get work. Just find out who you are and what works best for you. The No. 1 most important quality an actor needs to have is honesty. You must be committed to what you’re saying and ask ‘why does my character feel this way.’ And really listen to the other actors.”

Al Lebrun

Credits: “Company” (off Broadway); “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Beat Street” and “The Toast” (film); and “Angel,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Five Card Stud” (television)
Education: Northeast Louisiana University, Bachelor of Business in Management and Marketing; studied acting under Nina Foch and Uta Hagen/HB Studio
Advice: “Include improv training in your study. It is key to being comfortable with yourself because it helps you realize that whatever is inside you is good enough — you don’t have to put something ‘on’ all the time. And, it keeps you fresh. If you give me a script and say in an hour I’m doing the scene with Al Pacino, I’d be ready, greatly because of my improv experience.”