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D.C. Theater Schools See Spike In Enrollment

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George Grant (left) instructs students in his Intro to Acting class at Theatre Lab.
Lauren Landau
George Grant (left) instructs students in his Intro to Acting class at Theatre Lab.

The 2008 recession rocked the United States economy, resulting in cut programs, loss of wages, and consumers scaling back on their spending. So it might seem counter-intuitive that around that time, two D.C.-based theater schools saw their enrollment rates begin to soar. But that's exactly what happened.

Both The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts and The National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts witnessed a marked increase in their numbers, and the schools' directors are offering different explanations for the change.

Theatre Lab co-founders and executive directors Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro say that, since 2008, their school 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," Gottesman says. "That if they were in between jobs, this was a way to build some skills that would help them get another job."

She also says that because Theatre Lab classes are affordable and take place mainly on nights and weekends, it's an easy way for people to jump in and try something that they've always wanted to do.

Mauro says that it takes a little initiative, but anyone can learn how to act. "If you're willing to try it, which means really willing to dive in and maybe make a bit of a fool of yourself, if you're willing to get to that point, then you can improve as an actor and you can get to the point where it can be a part of your life."

He says that he and Deb don't buy into the so-called "talent myth" that acting is a skill people are either born with or without. And even though the school is dedicated to teaching people how to act, Mauro and Gottesman say that most of their students don't want to be professional actors.

But some of them do. "We have a very intensive, year-long, honors acting conservatory, so 10 of our students every year are here for a year, trying to develop skills for the professional stage," Gottesman says. "And then we have a whole lot more who might want to participate in community theater, who love to connect with other people, you know, in a theater setting, and want that to be a big part of their lives, and so they're training for that here."

She says that about 75 percent of Theatre Lab's students come because they want to augment their life skills in some way, and Mauro says he has no problems with that.

"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," Mauro says.

"About a quarter of our people come expecting to work as actors or to be in community theater... I think more than 50 percent leave thinking that."

Building real-life skills

Felicia Girley is a Theatre Lab student, who recently completed the school's Intro to Acting class with George Grant. Like many of her peers, Girley came to build real-life skills, not pursue a career in acting. "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," she says. "Sometimes I kind of isolate myself, so I wanted to just bring out, I guess, the confidence in myself."

Ben Schwartz was one of Girley's classmates. After spending about 20 years in the corporate world, Schwartz says he was looking for a change. Like Girley, he didn't come in with an interest in professional acting.

"I'm just trying to do some things that are new for me and you know, create some new friends, create some new circles that maybe open myself up to some new things that I don't normally have in my corporate job, in my corporate world," he says.

The class was Schwartz' first foray into acting, but he says it's not so different from real life. "I think we probably all act a little bit, in our jobs, in our everyday life," he says. "We tend to act a certain way to get certain things."

Gottesman says that, at its core, acting is really the art of being human. "Really we're teaching people how to do on stage what they're doing in everyday life," Gottesman says, "how to affect another person."

College alternative

Snuggled in the basement of a church near Georgetown, The National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts is an intensive, three-year, accredited postsecondary school for people who want to be acting professionals. School director Nan Ficca says, "we've had a sort of rush of the younger set in the last two or three years."

She says the unusual trend has dropped the average age in the classroom, and she suspects it's related to the economic climate and rising cost of higher education. At $4,000 a semester, The National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts costs a whole lot less than a four-year liberal arts education.

"Moms and dads are saying huh, you know, we can stay local, we can do the drama school," she says. "There's always time to get the bachelor's degree. It's not like it has to happen right now."

Ficca says the Conservatory teaches students through the Constantin Stanislavski system, which relies on objective tactic. In other words, students 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," Ficca says. "So this is how we do it, because that's how we do it in actual life. I want this thing. I'm going to get it. Here's how I'm going to get it. It didn't work. I'm gonna try the next thing. And that's what we do in acting."

Taylor Payne is in her third semester at the Conservatory and says the school has taught her a reliable method, and it starts with the 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. "Say like, well why would you do that? Oh, well let me go back to this line in the script on this page."

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," she says.

[Music: "There's No Business Like Show Business" by Clusone3 from Soft Lights & Sweet Music]

Photos: D.C. Theater Schools


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