Yeva Musharbash, a senior at Pasadena High School, learned English by watching television. The 16-year-old moved with her family from Jordan to the United States when she was 3 years old and spoke only Armenian and Jordanian-Arabic.
It's hard to say if daily immersion into the small screen had anything to do with it, but Musharbash now writes songs, performs in music videos and is seeking a second agent. "I feel like since I do love this, pursuing this as a career would not only be unreal, but it wouldn't be work," she said on a break from performing improv sketches during a morning drama class. "I hope I can pursue this, and I hope I can make it good."
Musharbash is tall with long, flowing dark hair. In an auditorium on campus, she is sociable with her classmates, but says she never used to be this outgoing. A few years ago, a talent scout saw her perform an improv sketch and encouraged her to apply for a chance to win a scholarship at an acting school. She was selected from a group of 30 students.
"I was very, very lucky," she said.
Musharbash's family doesn't have the money to pay for expensive classes. But thanks to her scholarship and an agent, she is picking up work. She just finished shooting a music video a few weeks ago with a friend, which she hopes will "go viral."
"If she gets picked up, I get picked up," Musharbash said. "So I'll probably be out of school but pursuing dreams. Hopefully that happens as soon as possible."
Los Angeles is full of professional acting studios, but public and private schools in Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena are finding ways to give students an education that prepares them for stage work. Most schools have a theater program or club, but state budget cuts to education have slashed some arts programs and forced campuses to find creative ways to produce annual plays and musicals.
Providence High School in Burbank found an unusual way to offer drama classes to students. The private school tapped Jeremy Jackson and Dominic Catrambone, two actors who run the youth theater company DiscoveryOnstage, to bring a professional drama program to the school. In their first year, they had 16 students sign up. Now, around 40 students participate in the program.
The goal here, Jackson said, is not to train students to be stars or prepare them for auditions. But it does spark interest in the industry: Five or six Providence High seniors in the drama program plan to major in theater in the fall, he said.
"It's a great side effect to have students go off and study acting as a career, but we're about utilizing theater to teach students about themselves," he said. "The grand majority of our students are not going to go off and do that. It's most important that we're teaching a lesson that is universal."
Glendale High School drama teacher Mack Dugger, who was trained in method acting at UCLA, uses a different approach. Many of his students go on to work in show business as directors, script supervisors or actors. He encourages them to audition and take jobs while in school.
"I tell them, 'Guys, you should be auditioning. If you don't get it, that's fine, but at least you get the training of auditioning,'" he said. "You can't be wimps and you can't be chickens."
He trains them for theater because he said the experience makes it easier to transition to film work. "Stage is just so satisfying and real, and it's in the moment," Dugger said. "Everything you do on stage comes from an emotional basis."
Glendale's proximity to Hollywood and dozens of production studios in Burbank don't always help aspiring actors find gigs. "Sometimes it helps and other times it can be a pain," he said. "Everyone walks out of high school and thinks they can be a big star."
Hendrik VanLeuven, who teaches honors English and drama at Pasadena High, said Musharbash and about three other students are seriously pursuing acting as a career. With Los Angeles only minutes away, the opportunities for starter roles in music videos, plays and independent films are vast.
"They do know that this is a hotbed," he said. If they are interested in the field, they certainly couldn't be in a better place outside of New York."