Latest in Short Subjects--the ABCs of Acting

Michael P. Lucas is a Times staff writer

Ned Netterville was a trouper with the community theater of Tulsa, Okla., who came to town dreaming of stardom.

But after scores of auditions, he had few offers of work.

Then one day last April, he found something in the West Los Angeles branch of the public library that he didn't even know existed: a videotape on how to act. He took it home and realized he'd been doing something wrong.

"In theater work, you keep your head down, read the whole line and try to get the meaning," Netterville said, describing a common beginner's mistake. "But here they want you to take it off the page and deliver the line with your eyes up to the camera. It's a whole different technique."

Now he gets work. He's in a shampoo commercial--no mean feat for a bald man--and a few weeks ago, he filmed a scene with Jodie Foster in her new movie, "Contact."

Netterville had stumbled onto part of the three-video series "Actors at Work" by director and acting teacher Joel Asher. Many would scoff that using any of the dozen or so how-to-act tapes on the market is like trying to learn how to drive by watching TV. But legions of wannabes have propelled them into a tiny but thriving segment of the video industry, and Asher's is an example of a product that has carved itself a comfortable niche.

"We've been selling these for several years now and some of them do quite well. Joel's have done well," Gwen Feldman of Samuel French Inc., a performing-arts bookstore in Hollywood, said of her inventory of how-to-act tapes. "They aren't a major, major part of the business but there is a small, steady market for them."

Reliable sales figures are elusive because most of these tapes are self-published. Asher said he has sold more than 3,500 cassettes in three years. Distributors of two other leading titles allowed only that their products have sold in the thousands. Whatever their sales, the appeal of such products seems obvious among the steady stream of new actors pouring into Southern California.

Asher meets a lot of newcomers who come to the acting school that he operates from his Sherman Oaks home.

New actors are always asking, "What are they looking for?"--they meaning casting directors and agents, he said. "What I've done is demystify this whole process."

Asher has also provided a lesson in how to succeed by persistence.

He made his first video three years ago when he was between directing jobs. In "Getting the Part," he shows a group of students at a cold reading--a form of audition so-called because the actor is handed a script and expected to perform it on the spot. The students struggle at first. Then Asher teaches them several techniques that improve their work noticeably. At last, actor Robby Benson appears and demonstrates a professional performance--indeed an eye-opening sequence.

To get that first video started, Asher was his own tireless promoter. Feldman said Asher once brought a VCR into Samuel French to play a copy over and over for customers. They responded so well that he made two more videos, "Casting Directors Tell It Like It Is" and "Agents Tell It Like It Is." And he has begun work on Part 4, "An Actor Creates," which, when it is released next spring, will show how to develop a character after a successful audition.

He also signed a deal with Educational Video Network of Huntsville, Texas.

"We will be advertising his titles to every drama department in America two or three times this year," company President George Russell said. That means sending 3 million pieces of mail to 43,000 junior highs, high schools and colleges.

"Virtually every one of them will put on a play, so it's a fairly large market," Russell added.

Another way to look at it, said Judy Kerr, author of "Acting Is Everything" and the dialogue coach who keeps the characters in "Seinfeld" in their New York accents, is that the series is equal in value to one good $50 acting lesson.

"Courage and encouragement is what you can get from a tape," said Kerr, who has had Asher as a guest on "Judy Kerr's Acting Workshop," her public access show on United, Century and TCI cable. "You watch another actor and see that there is actually a process to go through, and you say, 'Gee, I can do that.' "

While "Actors at Work" shows the step-by-step process of auditioning successfully and gaining a foothold in the business, other tapes on the market touch on related subjects ranging from how to get into commercials to how to approach Method acting. Veteran TV supporting actor Allan Miller ("Knots Landing," "Soap") is in one titled "The Craft of Acting." Clinical psychologist and acting coach Noelle Nelson has marketed a four-cassette series called "Cold Readings Made Easy."

Among the other videos, Asher acknowledges being influenced by "Acting in Film," a mesmerizing 1987 BBC docu-pic in which film veteran Michael Caine holds forth before an enthralled group of young actors about how he performs his craft.

At one point Caine urges them: "Always steal, but only steal from the best. . . . If you see Vivien Leigh or Marlon Brando do something, steal it because what you're seeing them do, they stole. You understand?"

Thus exhorted, Asher went to create his own how-to vision.

"Acting is a complex business," Asher said, capsulizing his philosophy. "If it were simple, everybody would be doing it and anybody could be successful. The trick is making it look simple."

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