MS. REBECCA SHEIR
As we continue this week's Learning show, we turn now to a subject that's been attracting more and more students of late, the dramatic arts. Two acting schools in D.C. have seen a big upswing in enrollment over the past few years, despite a rather sluggish economy. Lauren Landau went backstage and into the classrooms to look at this trend and the characters driving it.
MS. LAUREN LANDAU
It's a Thursday night of the Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts in Northwest D.C. Students in George Grant's Intro To Acting class are preparing to rehearse lines. It's their last session of the semester.
MR. GEORGE GRANT
Good. So let us just re-establish what we're doing. What do you want him to do?
MS. FELICIA GIRLEY
I want him to help me be normal.
That's the (unintelligible) objective.
That was Felicia Girley, a Baltimore resident. She says she's not an actress, but wanted to give acting classes a try.
Well, I wanted to start acting for confidence sake. I thought it would just be a cool thing to do and it would just help me to say the things that I may be afraid to say.
Theatre Lab co-founders and executive directors Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro say that many of their students are like Felicia, they're looking to build real-life skills, not necessarily pursue a career in acting.
MS. DEB GOTTESMAN
They want to get more comfortable talking in front of a group. They want to break out of their cubicle and do something creative. So we have lawyers and teachers and nurses and all kinds of folks who come in here wanting to expand their sense of self.
Since 2008, despite the economic downturn, Theatre Lab has seen a 58 percent increase in enrollment.
I think that what happened is that people started to realize that this is a perfect time to build skills. That if they were in between jobs, this was a way to build some skills that would help them get another job.
Theatre Lab offers a class called Anyone Can Act. And that's part of the school's central philosophy. Buzz says that he and Deb don't buy into the so-called talent myth, that acting is a skill people either are born with or without.
You know, if you were taking a pottery class would you say, well, I don't really think that I should be doing this. I mean, you would assume that you could be taught the principles of how to make that pot. And it's very much the same thing with acting.
Deb estimates that about 75 percent of Theatre Lab students come because they want to augment their life skills in some way. And even though their job is to teach people how to act, Buzz says it doesn't bother him at all that most of his students don't want to be actors.
MR. BUZZ MAURO
I love the fact that most of them are not trying to be professional actors, because it allows us to open them up to something that they really hadn't considered before.
He says more than half of their students leave wanting to work as actors or be involved in community theatre. Theatre Lab ignited that spark in one student, Montgomery County resident Taylor Payne, who says she was a shy homeschooled teenager when her mother convinced her to audition for Theatre Lab's production of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.
MS. TAYLOR PAYNE
She's like, come on, it doesn't hurt to do anything. So I was like, okay. So I went and I gave the worst audition of my life, but, you know, I was there on time, I was prompt, and I said, you know, I just want to give this a try, just let me try. And so I ended up getting into the ensemble.
And she never looked back.
Since then I haven't really gone two or three months without being in a show. I just always wanted to be in it and I always wanted to learn more and have another character. Okay, what's next, what's next, what's next?
Taylor is now 21 and has begun her studies at The National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, where she is currently in her third semester. Like Theatre Lab, the Conservatory has also seen a spike in enrollment, particularly among young people. Nan Ficca is the school's director.
MS. NAN FICCA
We've had a sort of rush of the younger set in the last two or three years. It's been unusual. It's kind of dropping our numbers down, in terms of the average age in the classroom.
She thinks it's because the current economic climate is pushing parents to consider alternatives to a traditional four-year liberal arts education. And at $4,000 a semester, The National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts costs a whole lot less than a four-year college education.
Moms and dads are saying huh, you know, we can stay local, we can do the drama school. You know, there's always time to get the bachelor's degree. It's not like it has to happen right now.
Nan says the Conservatory teaches students through the Constantin Stanislavski system, which relies on objective tactic. In other words, students such as Taylor Payne have to determine what their character wants, and how they are going to get it.
That's what Stanislavski did, was taking us from a very presentational type of acting that we had before realism, to something that's supposed to look like something was happening in the moment, for real, on stage.
Taylor says the Conservatory has taught her a reliable method and it starts with a script.
Now I can come into the first rehearsal, off book, with all these choices already made, and choices that I can back up because I have this method.
She says that she didn't choose acting. It chose her, and even though it's a difficult career path, she's happy every day for that struggle.
I really feel that, once I graduate from the Conservatory, I will always be able to use the skills that I have been taught here, always.
I’m Lauren Landau.
For more about The National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts and The Theatre Lab, including information on upcoming performances and how you can sign up for classes, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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