Boston native Rachel Bailit started working in Hollywood in 1995, hoping to become a TV star.
A comedic actor by nature, she landed some bit parts and commercial work, but it was work she describes as "light and breezy" smaller, superficial roles. She found herself wanting more.
"It was the Hollywood dream," Bailit said, "but along the way I fell in love with acting. I wanted to be taken seriously, but I didn't have the goods."
She enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, scraped and struggled for tuition, hoping the experience would change her techniques and give her the experience and credentials she needed to get better work.
Hollywood's top acting schools are filled with students like Bailet, who may have downsized their Hollywood dreams but have become devoted to their craft. And while young people with big-screen aspirations remain their bread and butter, the larger institutions are attracting nearly as many students who harbor no illusions of becoming the next Meryl Streep.
The more established Hollywood schools, like the Strasberg Institute, the Stella Adler Academy of Acting & Theatres or the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, make a point of reality checks to rein in expectations and to attract students whose goal may simply be the community playhouse.
"There have always been more people who think they are going to be a star than there ever are," said David Lee Strasberg, who runs his late father's famed acting institution.
"The people who come in here are serious about acting, not driven by the industry. We see people who have no money, are spending all their savings to do this, and why? Because they have to act."
Irene Gilbert, president of the 21-year-old Adler Academy in Hollywood, warns students that their classes are not for those looking for quick fame or a movie role.
"Commercial success would be nice but that's not the point," she said. "Obviously, the percentages aren't there most will not become successful, wealthy actors, the Brandos and De Niros."
As for Bailit, she still hasn't landed that TV series. But she will star in her own one-woman show called "Sugar Happens," on Comedy Central's stage at the Hudson Theater on April 18.
"I couldn't be happier, my training has been such a blessing," Bailit said. "People always said (success) may not happen right away, and I do want to make a living at this, but I think financial success will be the icing on the cake."
Attending one of the larger schools means making a financial commitment. Adler's two year program costs about $18,500, The Academy of Dramatic Arts is $16,900 a year and Strasberg charges $9,450 for 22 hours of classes.
The Adler Academy has more than 200 students enrolled at the school, and Strasberg has more than 600 students enrolled between the school's Los Angeles and New York locations.
Despite the hefty tuition, the Adler and Strasberg schools are both non-profits, and don't pull in a lot. The Strasberg Institute's tax return for 2004 showed just $133,000 in revenue, and the Adler Academy brought in $63,000.
Both schools generate some of their small incomes by renting out the school theaters and from box office receipts on school productions, which amounted to about $20,000 for Strasberg and $25,000 for Adler in 2004, according to tax documents.
"Our finances are proof that this is definitely an art, not a business," Gilbert said. "It's a struggle every day, because it's a labor of love."
Being up front about the realities of making it big in Hollywood can help an institution maintain its integrity. For years, unscrupulous schools were accused of building unrealistic hopes among students to their financial benefit.
"We can never promise work, and in fact we tell people the opposite," Gilbert said. "This does not guarantee success." Rules were developed in 2003 to ensure that acting classes are for the purpose of teaching alone, and to make clear that the presence of the casting directors is not a guarantee of employment, said Jean Frost, agencies director for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. According to the California labor code, agents or casting directors can teach at bona fide schools but can't have a financial interest in the business.
"It's been a controversial issue for decades," Frost said. "What is bona fide teaching, and is the very presence of a casting director the carrot that's being dangled?" Frost said.
While the top schools do their best to keep the focus on the essence of acting rather than fame and fortune, the latter will always hold allure.
"At night, most people still practice their Academy Awards acceptance speech in the mirror," Strasberg said.
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