"I'm a real actress, I act with delight, with rapture, I'm drunk when I'm on the stage, and feel that I am beautiful. . . . I have faith and when I think of my calling I'm not afraid of life," Glynna Goff said passionately.
Her words were Chekhov's, and the 19-year-old acting student delivered them as though she were standing in the Russian countryside described by the playwright in "The Seagull" instead of in a far less picturesque classroom at Rancho Santiago College.
It was final exam week on the college's Garden Grove campus, but for Goff's class, not a blue book or No. 2 pencil was in sight.
Instead, 25 students in the community college's Professional Actors Conservatory spent the week shuttling among classrooms in a grueling, but exhilarating round of repertory theater performances. A typical day included Chekhov by morning, Paul Zindel in midafternoon and Noel Coward at night.
The conservatory, which just ended its first year of operation, is an unusual vocational program geared to prepare acting students for acting careers in the theater.
"We figure if they can do theater, they can certainly do film and television," said Phillip Beck, 38, who directs the conservatory with Jerry McGonigle, 28. "If they can do 'Hamlet,' they can do 'Knots Landing.' "
Talent helps, but the nuts and bolts have to come first, according to Beck and McGonigle, who are both professional actors and members of Actors' Equity, and were trained at--and inspired by--the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.
The Professional Actors Conservatory's aim is to create craftsmen. McGonigle compares what they do to teaching welding:
"We figure that you can create craftsmen, and let them know the 'ins and outs' of the craft in the process. If they do have a good, solid craft background, then some people are going to take it beyond that and turn it from being a craft into an art."
The work is demanding, but also rewarding, said Curtis Rhodes, 22, who came to Los Angeles from Ft. Worth to pursue an acting career.
"It's been a real struggle going to school 40 hours a week and trying to pay (the) rent," he said. "I've gone weeks being absolutely broke. The thing that keeps me going is that I know it's worth it."
The program operates under a credit/no-credit system, and no degrees are given. After students finish the two-year program, they receive a certificate and a firm push into the world of agents and auditions. What the conservatory hopes to have given them are the skills to make a living as working professional actors.
Students range in age from 18 to 31. Some already have a bachelor's degree in theater; some have professional acting experience; others took one college acting class and got hooked.
Most students say it has taken commitment to survive in the conservatory program, and that they've never had to work so hard in their lives.
Which is exactly what the conservatory's directors intended when they designed the program last year. The program is essentially a full-time job, and classes run eight hours a day, five days a week. Students are permitted only five absences.
It is the intensive training that makes the conservatory different from other college theater arts programs. Students work with a staff of 20 professionals in course work that includes acting, voice, speech, singing, dance, yoga and Alexander Technique (a type of physical training to foster body awareness). There are no general education requirements to fulfill, no electives and no detours into directing, theater technology or design.
The hard realities of making a living in this admittedly tough profession get their due in a business course. Students learn how to get agents, assemble resumes and photo portfolios, and secure auditions.
The conservatory is on the Garden Grove campus of Santa Ana-based Rancho Santiago College, and it functions independently of the college's theater arts department, with the exception of three shared instructors. Admission is by audition and interview. Beck and McGonigle do most of the recruiting through college and high school theater departments and other conservatory programs.
The conservatory opened in September with 17 students. Eight more enrolled in January.
Classes will continue through the summer as part of the Summer Acting Conservatory, offered in conjunction with the Grove Shakespeare Festival. Conservatory students will present a "bonus show" as part of the festival's summer season Aug. 14-Sept. 6 in the Gem Theatre.
McGonigle and Beck expect enrollment to double as the program heads into its second year. It's popular with the instructors, too.
"We get some very dedicated teachers who really love what we're doing and are really devoted to it," McGonigle said.
Students have been equally supportive, he added.
Aspiring actress Denise Randol, 31, who saw an ad for the conservatory in a theater trade publication, had feared a return to college would be a step backward. She discovered the opposite to be true.
"It's . . . the smartest thing I've done in years," she said, and at $50 a semester, "It's the best buy around anywhere."
Goff, who played the part of the glowing young actress in "The Seagull" for a final exam, was a dancer interested in acting. She now hopes for a theatrical career fusing the two disciplines.
In the meantime, Goff said, she is beginning to see the payoff for all the hard work and late nights: "I can definitely see the change. It all falls in place; it all starts making sense. I feel a lot better about my work."