Three nights a week, aspiring actors at the International Actor Formation Center Luz Columba gather to run through scenes filled with adultery, prison escapes, romance and revenge -- the kind of drama you’d only see in a soap opera.
That’s because the scenes they’re running are from soap operas, Spanish-language ones to be exact. The school, which opened in 2004, is dedicated to grooming aspiring actors to become stars in the fast-growing world of U.S.-made telenovelas.
Besides the acting school, a program for Spanish-language soap writers opened last year in Miami and received 4,000 applications for its first semester. Telenovelas, which are broadcast in the U.S. on TV networks geared toward Latinos, are even being adapted for general American audiences.
Spanish-language soap operas, which generally follow a sexy heroine who rises from poverty to find love and fortune, have long been popular around the world and are dubbed into languages including Hebrew and Japanese. The melodramas are three- to six-months long -- unlike the continuously evolving American soap.
And until recently, they focused on the Latin American experience.
Now, as producers seek to attract a U.S. audience, they are not only beginning to film in the United States, but they are looking for themes that the country’s estimated 40 million Latinos can relate to.
“When you leave your country, you have a different set of issues, a different set of needs. We thought, ‘Why not produce our own stories that address our own issues?’ ” said Mimi Belt, the Miami-based vice president of artistic development for the NBC Universal-owned Telemundo cable network.
Telenovela star Eric Elias, who emigrated from Mexico, says the fact that so many actors in these shows are immigrants helps them better relate to fans in the United States.
“We go out to meet fans,” Elias says, “and there is a bond because we are all in the same boat.”
Producing shows for U.S.-based audiences has meant updating the standard Cinderella tale. In 2003 “Betty the Ugly” became a hit in the United States with its unusual tale of a smart but frumpy office drone, hopelessly in love with her boss, who eventually takes over her company, gets a makeover -- and of course finds romances and riches.
That show proved so popular that ABC and Salma Hayek are working on an English-language version of the program. Los Angeles-based Twentieth Television, the company behind “24" and a major producer of TV programming, also is working on remaking several telenovelas in English.
The upsurge is due in large part to Telemundo’s decision in 2003 to produce telenovelas in the United States to better compete with Spanish-language powerhouse Univision Communications Inc., which has long dominated the U.S. Latino television market with its mostly Mexican-made imports.
Telemundo now produces nearly 10 shows a year in its Miami studios and has produced at least one in Texas.
As the genre’s popularity in the United States grows, the acting style is also beginning to change.
Acting teacher Aquiles Ortega, who taught at Luz Columba’s original campus in Venezuela before teaching in Miami, says his goal is to impart a more natural form of acting -- instead of the gasping, eyebrow-arching melodrama that characterizes many of the soaps.
“What we are trying to do is to make it more spontaneous and free, so the audience can truly believe in what it’s seeing,” he said.
Since the school opened last year, Ortega said he has been asked to send students to nearly a dozen castings.
One of his students, Colombian model Mirella Grisales, is hoping the school will help her break into the Spanish-language soap scene. “Five years ago, I never would have thought I’d be doing it in Miami,” she said.
Actors aren’t the only people suddenly in demand. To find more telenovela writers, Telemundo created a class on writing Spanish-language soaps last year, co-sponsored by Miami-Dade College. The program received applicants from across the United States and as far as Japan, Lithuania and even Chad.
The shows are challenging to write for the U.S. population because although the Mexican audience is the largest, the networks must cater to the nation’s increasingly diverse Latino audience.
“We try not to be too Mexican, too Colombian. We try to stay in that neutral place where everyone can make it their own,” Telemundo spokeswoman Elizabeth Sanjenis said.
Appealing to a broad Latino audience is especially difficult when it comes to the actors’ accents and colloquialisms.
“There are words in Spanish that mean different things in different countries. More than the accent, you have to try to use neutral words so no one is going to say, ‘Huh?’ when they’re watching,” Belt said.
Argentine heartthrob Martin Karpan, who plays the villain on “The Body of Desire,” is among those who must watch their accent. He said he struggled for years to downplay his heavily Argentine-tinged Spanish.
Then there is the neutral geography. “Body of Desire” follows a citrus orchard owner who marries a scheming young woman, dies, comes back in the body of a strapping, long-haired peasant and finds a job and revenge at his former hacienda.
The hacienda is set somewhere in the United States. Its nearby tropical coastline suggests Florida, but the citrus groves, as common in California as Florida, and the local Mexican-style cantina signal San Diego.
The result, said Sanjenis, is that such shows can appeal to East and West Coast audiences as well as the imaginations of the millions of viewers in between, who may even see a glimpse of the countries they’ve left behind.