NEW YORK CITY — Bundled in wool coats, gloves and mufflers, Sam Zeller and Tamiko Washington swept through the revolving door of a towering skyscraper in the heart of traffic-clogged Times Square.
Call it Pounding the Pavement 101.
The pair of UC Irvine acting students wanted to hand out last-minute invitations to "UC Irvine Coast-to-Coast," a showcase of brief scenes that they and seven other hopefuls from the school's drama department would be staging here for casting directors and agents. The week before, they'd done the same sort of thing in Hollywood. UCI is one of only two major schools in Southern California that arranges for such showcases in both theatrical Meccas.
Still recovering from a grueling East-bound trek--during which their 757 sat on a crowded, snow-covered runway in Chicago for 10 hours (yes, 10!) in the dead of night--Washington and Zeller traipsed from one agency to the next, and got a bruising dose of show biz reality.
Among the signs spotted on the mostly locked doors:
\o7 If you don't have an appointment, don't even think of knocking on this door. No Exceptions!!
Violators will be hung, drawn and quartered. Have a nice day!
\f7 Just the day before, the young actors had faced other ugly facts of life in the brutally competitive limelight, when they and the other students met with a UCI drama alumnus in a cramped Manhattan hotel room. James Calleri, now a junior agent at the prestigious Gersh Agency here, told it like it is.
"The business is at an all-time low," said Calleri, blaming the recession. "Yes, there are 10 new shows on Broadway, but look who's in them--stars like Glenn Close, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss. We represent Tony winners, Oscar winners and Emmy winners who can't get \o7 arrested \f7 right now, who can't get a (expletive) job. There's \o7 no\f7 security in choosing to do this."
But Zeller and Washington seemed undaunted. The odds well may be against them, but they, and their equally bright-eyed classmates, appear passionately committed.
"I really love acting. It's what I am, you know what I mean?" asked Washington, 24, who with Zeller had prepared a scene from Lanford Wilson's "The Gingham Dog" about the bitter breakup of an interracial couple. "The business \o7 is\f7 discouraging, but you have to have a hard covering to get through and a lot of confidence in yourself."
Helping students develop that kind of attitude was what Prof. Robert Cohen had in mind in 1985 when he created the showcase program at UCI.
Cohen had founded the school's drama department in 1965 and, until last year, had been its only chairman. A former actor, he knew that survival would mean more than good diction and trenchant characterization, so he set up a pragmatic course in how to prepare effective resumes and head shots, pursue casting personnel and depersonalize rejection.
After rehearsing their three- or four-minute scenes all quarter, students would get a chance to put all that knowledge into action.
"You need to develop confidence in your ability to take charge of your life in a kind of business way," Cohen said during a rehearsal break at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater, an Off-Broadway venue where the students would be performing later that evening.
Often, the showcases actually lead to jobs.
Last year, shortly after they appeared in New York, two students got agents and two were hired by New Jersey's regional George Street Playhouse. Another, Michael Robinson, landed a network television job before the week was out, a part on the NBC soap "Days of Our Lives."
"It was a bit part, but I had a blast," said Robinson, who went on to be hired by the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival and who last week was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for research study in London.
Cohen doesn't mind touting such success stories, but he makes sure students know that their three-quarters of an hour upon the showcase stage isn't about overnight stardom.
"At the first class meeting," he said, "I tell them this isn't going to be the be-all and end-all of their careers."
Still, the massive, quick-hit exposure the students get is enviable. Some 90 casting directors, agents and managers attended the showcase performances, Cohen said, noting that it can take years for actors--especially those fresh out of college--to be seen by half that many casting personnel.
The six graduate and three undergraduate students were well aware of the rare chance they were being given.
A half-hour before curtain time at the 99-seat Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood, Gabrielle Beimforde sat at a makeup table curling her straight blond hair with a hot iron. Above the din of her classmates performing weird, moaning vocal warm-ups, the 21-year-old admitted she was nervous.