Stephanie Cozart glided across the stage like a dancer on a dolly. She was unforgettable as the teenage physics genius of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" at the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC).
Ms. Cozart learned her craft through rigorous training at the National Theatre Conservatory program, which is part of the DCTC. She has since worked in other theater companies around the country, and will appear in "The Miser" for the DCTC this season. Other conservatory graduates are working at major theater companies around the United States and in TV and movies: Stephen Anderson stars in "Footloose" on Broadway, Barry Sherman was in the Oscar-winning "American Beauty," Dwandra Nikole is in the cast of ABC's "Wonderland," and a trio of actors perform in "Blue Man Group."
In fact, nearly all the conservatory's graduates find agents and work professionally. Cozart says the world of entertainment is so tough, she doesn't know how anyone can make it without the training and the leg up with agents the conservatory provides. So many people want to act, the competition is stiffer than ever. It is nearly impossible to get an audition without an agent in New York.
Directors in theater, film, and television are finding that actors who are carefully trained save time and therefore money, says Donovan Marley, artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company.
The National Theatre Conservatory (NTC) teaches various acting techniques - from Stanislavsky to Uta Hagen to Michael Chekhov to Sandy Meisner. The student is taught to handle whatever a director throws at him or her. Second-year student Steve Hughes talks about the importance of learning different acting styles.
"Two of the main acting teachers are complete opposites of each other," Mr. Hughes says. "There are days when you have one class after another - one tells you to do the exact opposite the other told you an hour ago, and you have to figure out which one of those [techniques] works for you. It's great to have that option.
"I spent four years in college learning a certain way ... but when I got out I realized how many acting 'schools of thought' there were...."
The NTC, the only acting conservatory mandated by Congress, doesn't charge its students to learn and perfect their craft.
"We pay for everything," explains Daniel Renner, dean of NTC and director of education. "The students walk out [of this program] trained actors with their Actor's Equity cards and no debt.... And at the end of their three years, we bring them to Los Angeles and New York for showcases [for agents and directors]...."
Here's the catch: Only eight college graduates are selected from the 300 to 600 applicants each year. It's tough to get in and once in, it is a difficult program, say administrators, teachers, and students.
"No student has an option about what they will take, as they do in academic settings," Mr. Marley says. "We schedule their time from 9 a.m. to midnight. There are no options."
The idea is to teach students to "choose this strength from this teacher, and that strength from that ... and build their way to work from a variety of influences," Marley says.
The students learn many skills besides acting technique. Dance, voice training, stage combat, camera technique, dramaturgy, and movement are all important elements of an actor's training.
In one exciting class, students try different movements on low-flying trapezes and, as they dismount, try to carry the grace of the trapeze movement onto the floor, floating like dream figures. It was easy to imagine them on stage using such movement in, say, "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Unlike movie stars that are at once too familiar and too distant, the best actors in one's own community are life-sized, close-up, and endlessly changing.
So it's difficult not to feel a proprietary affection for talent like conservatory graduate Cozart when it is nurtured and developed right here in town. That is one of the great things about resident regional theater companies in general - when the actors are really excellent, it is an amazing experience to see them performing different roles over the years, getting better at what they do.
One of the things that can help ensure the growth and further development of well-established actors is interaction with students.
Marley says that when he was recruited for the job of artistic director, part of the deal was to establish a conservatory that would be intimately involved with the theater company.
"I always understood how important the professional artists would be for students," says Marley, who joined the DCTC in 1983. "What I didn't understand at first was how important the students would be to the professionals, helping them hold on to energy and idealism and the understanding of why they went into the theater in the first place."
DCTC's resident company of actors work with budding conservatory students every day. They share rehearsal space, directors, administrators, and instructors, and see each others' work. Each actor in the Tony-Award winning DCTC is assigned a student in a mentoring relationship meant to build the student's confidence - and keep the pro fresh and sharp.
"Our professional actors are happier and do better work than if those students were not in our company," Marley says.
In a resident company, he says, actors are paid to develop their craft and explore their art to the fullest. But the conservatory takes the professionals a step further by giving them the responsibility of passing on their art and craft to the next generation.
Since she graduated from the conservatory, Cozart has found her training invaluable. Before she came, "I didn't know what to do with my character below the neck.... The conservatory talks a lot about empowering the actor so that when you're out in the world ... you have all the tools, good ideas, and the understanding of how to make it all work."
NTC stresses the classics, Cozart says, because "if you can do Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Molire, you can do anything." She has found this to be true.
Shannon Koob, a third-year student whose Perdita in Shakespeare's "Winter's Tale" this season was a delight, says that what has changed over the course of her instruction is "the sense of the day-to-day work. Maybe I had more of a sensational idea of what the life would be like.... In a company like this, all of your time is committed ... and it's such a labor of love. You have to be prepared to give up so much...."
"We were trained to do so much research," Cozart says, referring to dramaturgy, studying the history and background of every role she learned.
"I do that all the time, even when I'm not working - just like keeping up the physical discipline. You have to take care of yourself and cultivate an inner life - especially when you're pounding the pavement from one audition to another. Having been here at the conservatory, I have a strong sense of confidence that I wouldn't have had if I hadn't come here."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society