Giving college drama students a shot at the big time

Timothy Woodward of Broken Bow, Neb., wants to be on Broadway. He's not alone. Thousands of university students like Timothy have the same aspiration.

They may appear in ''Our Town'' or ''Oklahoma'' in high school and then graduate to a part in ''Hamlet'' in college. They work behind the scenes in local theater groups, take acting lessons, voice lessons, and dance classes. These students play walk-ons in regional theaters and occasionally, as understudies, stand in for the stars of the ''straw-hat'' summer theater circuit.

Timothy's career may indeed follow this time-honored pattern. But thanks to a unique opportunity here recently, he may find his pathway in the profession a bit easier, and perhaps considerably shorter.

He was one of 150 of the nation's most promising young actors, actresses, and stage designers who presented their work to some 200 prominent casting directors , producers, agents, and theater owners.

The acting presentations, along with the designer portfolio review sessions, took place at the Juilliard School in Manhattan. They were sponsored by the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs, a national consortium of theater training institutions, through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and private corporations. The league's training schools include the Yale School of Drama, Carnegie-Mellon University's department of drama, the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University (SMU), the Juilliard theater center, and many others.

In a nutshell, talent was on trial. Some careers would be made; others delayed.

Each school presented its actors in a sequence of scenes, ranging from Shakespeare to Sam Shepard. Each auditioner had barely three minutes to display his or her technical ability, vitality, range, and dimension in scenes either alone or with others. Some split that time into segments, doing a brief soliloquy and then a scene with another actor. Each actor had his or her chance to suspend space and time; to stir compassion, create laughter, and possibly land a job in the big time.

At times, throughout the two days of auditions, clues of disinterest and disenchantment couldn't be kept secret. Change might jingle annoyingly, or here and there there would be a disdainful shaking of heads.

But for the most part, the audience was a good one. Most were scouting for new talent for current or, more frequently, future projects. But many were looking for very specific qualities. Jack O'Brien, artistic director of the Globe Theatre in San Diego, wanted actors with highly developed skills in the classics. A casting director from a soap opera said she was looking for one thing: ''Pretty people.'' But Zelda Fichandler, producing director of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., was looking for overall artistic merit, actors who were as much at home doing Tennessee Williams as they were with George Bernard Shaw.

Timothy Woodward, who is a senior at SMU this year, chose to do a scene from Shaw's ''Candida.'' He played the juvenile lead in this piece vigorously and humorously. But afterward he wasn't entirely happy with his performance.

''The scene went well,'' he said, echoing what several casting directors had said earlier. ''But how well it went is another question. I know that when you start saying that it went very well, that's when someone says, 'Oh, no, it didn't!' ''

What does Timothy hope will result from his participation in the presentations?

''It would be nice to have some interviews with agents,'' he said. ''While I've already got some training, I'm not as good as I need to be. I don't plan on moving to New York City yet. What I need is . . . some experience in regional theater.''

It is possible he may be called before he packs his bags for summer or regional theater. On the other hand, two years may pass by before he hears from anyone.

This is the fifth year the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs has conducted auditions. The record shows some participants have indeed ''made it.''

Issy Monk, who attended the Yale School of Drama, was seen in 1981. Since then she has acted at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, toured Europe in a one-woman show, and landed a part in the movie ''The World According to Garp.''

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