Thesps fly west for final exams

Juilliard joins others acting schools on L.A. visit

A legit tradition is going Hollywood.

For the first time, the Juilliard School will take its annual actor presentations — previously seen only in New York — to the West Coast.

Carnegie Mellon started offering bicoastal presentations in 1996, followed by Yale in ’99 and NYU the year after.

This spring, Hollywood’s agents, managers and casting directors won’t have to red-eye it to New York to see grads of the country’s top acting schools ply their wares. They’re coming to an L.A. theater near you.

Juilliard, the last holdout, presents May 6-7 at West Hollywood’s Court Theater. Yale and NYU go May 19 and 20 at L.A.’s Falcon Theater. And Carnegie Mellon once again hosts its shows at North Hollywood’s Beverly Garland Holiday Inn, on June 2-3.

Explaining the decision to fly west this year, Kathy Hood, administrative director of Juilliard’s drama department, says, “It is to provide our students with every opportunity. It is our responsibility that our students are seen by professionals on both coasts.”

The worst-kept secret, of course, is that many of the school’s brightest talents have been snapped up already by agents and managers on the East Coast.

Buchwald & Associates signed two Juilliard students after their Gotham presentation in March. Jason Spire, an agent-turned-manager, signed two others not last month but a year ago.

Spire’s “pro-active” approach makes sense. Agent Mark Schlegel signed Daniel Sunjata after seeing him perform in “Othello” at NYU during his senior year.

“Mark wasn’t basing his interest on a three-minute scene,” says the actor, now starring on Broadway in “Take Me Out.”

For the students, those three minutes in the annual presentation can fly by like seconds — or years — depending on one’s success.

“It is a great opportunity, but it can feel like your only opportunity,” says Telly Leung, a 2002 Carnegie Mellon alum. One of the fortunate few, Leung landed an agent, Mark Rodanty, and a gig, “Flower Drum Song,” after his presentation last spring.

For the other 99%, there might be tears and the sudden realization that your parents were right about that law degree.

The presentations are commonly known in the biz as “the Leagues,” even though most students, as well as a few agents and mangers, have no idea how they got that name.

Back in May 1978, the League of Professional Training Programs showcased graduating students from six schools. It was a grueling two days, but old-timers remember it fondly as a kind of “industry picnic” for legit agents and casting directors. (The managers came later, much later.)

“Prior to the League, there wasn’t any organized way for well-trained young actors to perform and meet those people who could help them find work,” says J. Michael Miller, the org’s president.

When the League closed in 1988, the schools continued with the tradition. Soon there were more presentations than there are opening nights on Broadway.

“It is like this creeping thing from a science-fiction movie. It has taken over our lives,” says Stuart Howard, a casting director who also teaches at Juilliard.

This spring, he received invitations to 41 evenings representing nearly 70 schools. “Ten years ago, it would have been six or seven nights,” he says.

Only managers and agents who are one step up from autograph hounds attend them all. The prestige schools, however, invariably bring out the top starmakers.

“We have to pay attention,” says Steven O’Neill, NBC’s VP of casting. “There is more product out there, and it doesn’t matter where the talent comes from.”

Three or four years spent at an acting conservatory should mean something, after all.

“Most agents go because there is no other training ground but these schools,” says one CAA agent.

Like the Oscars, the presentations inspire the usual morning-after grousing.

“It is a tradition,” says William Morris’s David Kalodner. “Every year the agents say the talent is terrible.”

“The talent level is consistently inconsistent,” offers Elin Flack, an agent-turned-manager. “Everyone complains, and there is never an empty seat.”

Managers like Flack have occupied more of those seats in recent years. Once upon a time, back in the 1980s, managers weren’t invited to the presentations, and those who did attend had to glom seats from an agent friend. As midsize tenpercenteries such as Duva-Flack Associates have shuttered, however, the number of Gotham-based managers has ballooned.

Fifteen years ago there were a half-dozen managers operating in New York’s legit world; today it’s closer to 100. Managers used to wait in the will-call line for cancellations at the presentations.

“Now agents have to go through the managers to get to a student who has done ‘Our Town’ and ‘Spoon River Anthology,’ ” says Flack. “It can drive agents crazy.”

Managers often establish the pecking order when it comes to a prized student taking meetings with potential agents.

Howard advises Juilliard students not to sign too early. “What happens if the best agent refuses to work with your manager?” he warns.

Premature signing has its problems on the other side of the rep divide.

“If you sign them before their presentation, they can second-guess,” says Rodanty, an agent who has no problem with students making the rounds of interested agents. “You want them to come with open arms, as opposed to thinking the grass is suddenly greener.”

One agent estimates a star performer emerges from the presentations only once “every two or three years.”

Not that the starmakers are infallible in their collective judgment.

For good reason, Laura Linney is the patron saint of student thesps. The acclaimed, Oscar-nominated thesp booked not one agent interview after her Juilliard presentation.

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