MAKING A SCENE : The Way Off Broadway Acting Workshop Is No Place for the Timid or Thin-Skinned

Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Michelle Fashian is having trouble getting her lip to quiver. She has just spilled her guts but can't muster the tears necessary to carry the scene.

Gregory Bach, the drama instructor leading the group of 10 young adults in the Way Off Broadway acting workshop, is displeased. His two proteges on stage are not emoting enough. They are not believable. They're not cookin'.

"Agony, baby, agony," he yells as Fashian portrays an impoverished New Yorker. "You're 10 years old. You're hurting. All you want to do is put your head on your mother's breast. C'mon, Michelle. You need the image. Quiver! Let it out. Full cry. Get it cookin'."

The small room is silent as Fashian, a 23-year-old assistant manager of a children's shoe store, reaches into her soul, groping for the memory of some long-ago anguish, anything that might bring tears to her eyes. When she finally musters a quiver, Bach yelps. "You're cookin'!' "

The students are not actors, but most of them would like to be. They are waiters, forklift operators, salespersons and dental assistants, almost all in their 20s, who are taking acting classes at night at the Way Off Broadway, a makeshift theater/studio that occupies a couple of rooms in an industrial building off Grand Avenue in Santa Ana.

Organized 2 years ago by Orange County actor Tony Reverditto, the one-night-a-week workshops, which are scheduled to run from 7 to 10:30 p.m. but sometimes stretch into the early morning hours, cost $80 a month--and a lot of time and energy. Most students meet 5 nights a week to study the scenes that are performed for the class on Wednesday nights. In addition, the group is rehearsing a full-length play, Frances Swann's "Out of the Frying Pan," one of six productions they present each year.

("Out of the Frying Pan," a Depression-era screwball comedy, will be performed at 8 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday and March 2, 3, 4, 9, 10 and 11. The theater is at 1058 E. 1st St., Santa Ana. For more information, call (714) 547-8997.)

Fashian is not the only student who devotes all her free time--4 nights and 2 days a week--to acting classes and rehearsals. The others rehearse just as rigorously, knowing that if they perform their scenes badly, they will hear about it in front of the whole class.

For these beginners, acting is an all-encompassing hobby that holds little chance of becoming an occupation. They are only too familiar with the contradictory phrase "working actor." But few are willing to let go of the dream.

"My ultimate goal would be to make money at something I love, which would be acting," Fashian says. "But it's not too realistic, is it?"

Reverditto--who not only runs the studio (he is now trying to obtain nonprofit status), but also attends the workshops--has more credits than anyone else in the class. Still, he knows it's a long way to Hollywood.

"I figure there's no room at the bottom and plenty of room at the top," he says. "I know I'll make it. It just may take some time."

But Jim Huang, a salesman in Orange, says he's not sure he wants to make the commitment needed to become a professional actor.

"There are so many people doing it," he says, "and it's not a high-security type thing. Unless you commit all the way, it's hard. You have to know it's what you're going to do with your life. But I really like it as a craft."

Some of the students have no interest in pursuing acting as a profession. John Stuczynski, an agent for Farmers Insurance Group in Newport Beach, said the classes help him communicate with customers and muster composure during crises.

Says Reverditto: "A lot of the people who come here just want to gain more confidence in their jobs. Some have had an interest in theater but never pursued it before, and others have been acting for a long time."

The students take the classes for varying lengths of time, depending on their experience, he adds. Some stay 6 months, others for years.

"What we learn here is good to use in everyday life," says Carol Giglio, a 23-year-old dental assistant who lives in Anaheim. "They are exercises in opening your mind. They help you cope."

Jim Huang agrees. "It kind of breaks down your shell a little bit, breaks through the armor."

Although most of the students say they love the acting classes and don't mind the time commitment, many say their purses sometimes feel the pinch.

"I've kind of been hanging by a thread," says Michael Kemp, a 26-year-old waiter. "Eighty dollars a month isn't a great deal, but when your car breaks down it is. You can sure start feeling sorry for yourself, saying, 'Look at all the time I'm putting into this,' but that's just the way it is."

Nearly all the students work during the day and study acting at night. For Giglio, the two go hand in hand. She uses her dental career not only to pay the bills but also to help perfect her acting technique.

"It's great because it's a way to really study people and their mannerisms," she says. "I steal from them."

The students are investing not only their time in the elusive goal of becoming an actor but emotional energy as well. Wednesday's scene studies are filled with Bach-induced outbursts of naked anger and anguish, which at times seem almost violent in the workshop's intimate surroundings. A little hallway adjoining the stage is used for deep breathing and profuse sweating--a place to regain control or cool down after a scene.

It took Fashian weeks to be able to quiver on command. At first she was scared to death by the way Bach coaxed his students--by provoking them into fits of emotional frenzy. When Bach yelled, she winced. But now, Fashian is starting to cook.

"First time I ever went to class I was scared for the person up there, the way Greg tore into him. But it was the most I ever saw an acting teacher do," says the former drama major. "He really gets responses. . . . He helps you do all the work."

"You have to put yourself on the line," Huang says. "That's the hardest part, sitting up there in front of a whole bunch of people and crying. It's like Greg says, you try not to cry in real life and here you try to cry."

Because the Wednesday night scene studies are meant to help the students overcome acting problems, they are no fun for the thin-skinned. Everyone is criticized on stage. Personality quirks, nervous tendencies and habits that inhibit or intrude are analyzed.

"Right now my acting problem is what Greg calls (being able to) 'cook,' but I can't seem to let my emotions out unless he provokes me. I can't cry," Fashian says.

Bach says all the students have the ability to tap that reservoir of emotion--they just need help shedding their inhibitions and unlearning things they were taught along the way to becoming adults. They need to become children again.

"We all have that little 10-year-old in us, the little kid full of imagination, freedom and spontaneity," Bach explains. "We need to hold onto that kid when we're on stage because he has the freedom to show his emotions, he's not afraid of looking like a fool."

Bach's 21 years of directing and producing--mostly plays in Orange County and Los Angeles--have taught him how to get performances out of his acting students. He says they are like car batteries; they have to be charged up.

"I'm not trying to pull a psychological trip on them," says the 50-year-old director. "What I'm trying to do is teach them how to work with directors. To take direction."

Brenda Beals and Michael Gaffney, both insurance advisers and recent immigrants from Oklahoma, are performing a scene from the James Reach play "Patterns," which they have been rehearsing for several weeks.

Unsatisfied with Gaffney's portrayal of a rising executive and his ambivalence toward his boss, Bach goads him, at first quietly, then with shouts and orders: "C'mon, Mike. I'll be your boss. What do you think of me? Build the core. Improvise. Tell me how you feel. You're hurtin', man."

"I think you're a (expletive) pig!" Mike yells.

"C'mon, tell me off, how do you feel?"

"I think you're a (expletive) pig!"

"I'm your boss," Bach says.

"You pig! Have a heart! Have a heart! Have a heart!" Mike screams at the top of his lungs. He's breathing so heavily he can hardly talk. He disappears into the hallway to sweat and breathe before emerging, still shaking, to try the scene again.

"Mask it, Mike," Bach says. "Sit on it. Keep that core. Build on it. Go!"

The scene is replayed and this time Bach is pleased.

"Hey, you could have stuck that one in the can," he says, indicating a wrap. "That's serendipity, you guys. Could you feel it working?"

"When I was cooking up and finding my core, I found myself not so conscious of my body," says Mike, who has a tendency to shuffle his feet and squint on stage.

"That's it. Don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself," Bach responds. "What's our whole theme in this room?"

The class answers in unison.

"Look stupid."

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