Rehearsing to act ‘natural’ on reality TV

A prep school for ‘American Idol’ wannabes coaches them for auditions.

Kristen E. Olson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Smile, you’re on camera! Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School, gives his students some pointers. He’s already cooked a deal to turn the school itself into a reality show.

In a small studio in midtown Manhattan, a man walks the gantlet through two lines of people hurling insults his way.

“You’re disgusting!”

“I’m going to kill you!”

“What’s wrong with you, you pig?!”

He smiles and looks straight ahead, walking unruffled to the end. But then, that’s the goal of this exercise at the New York Reality TV School. It’s intended to give students the strength to endure auditions and elimination rounds for reality TV programs.

Even avid fans may not realize it, but the goal of reality TV has always been to make the fake and rehearsed seem natural and real. So it only makes sense that a prime commandment of the New York Reality TV School is that “everything [auditioners] do ... must be candid, genuine, and not an act.” Or at least appear not to be.

In truth, nearly every wannabe reality star in this group is also a wannabe actor. They are models and full-time students, comedians and photographers, an opera singer and an ex-cop. They all share a dream of being spotted on “American Idol” or “Survivor” as the next big Hollywood talent.

That’s why today each has spent $139 to learn how to make it through the first cut.

“You’re not going to learn tricks,” Robert Galinsky, the school’s founder, tells his 17 students. “You’re not going to learn back-door information or how to sneak around. It’s really about three things: confidence, authenticity, and how you tell your story.”

Among today’s prospects is Gina Scarda, a 40-ish mom and former New York City cop. She’s already appeared on Discovery Health’s “Fit Family” and Bravo’s “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style.” But now she wants to shoot for a higher-rated show – maybe “The Amazing Race” or “Last Comic Standing.”

“Any kind of show like this ... kind of kick-starts you,” says Ms. Scarda, who also performs with a comedy troupe. “Once you’re on it, people know who you are.... It would open up tremendous doors.”

Also in the room are April Brucker, a ventriloquist who has lugged her blond puppet, May, to class with her in a suitcase, and Loydeen Pulsifer, a high-fashion model looking to fulfill her childhood dream of making it on a soap opera. There’s also Charlotte Ghiorse, a mother of three and an astrologer with her own YouTube show; Lauren Schroeder, an opera singer; and Sergio Feliciano, a full-time student from New Jersey who’s taken the class once before.

Dermatologists, bus drivers, street sweepers, firefighters, and hedge-fund managers are all among those who have attended. They’re counting on Mr. Galinsky to help unleash their inner reality-show superstar in three hours.

Enthusiastic and curly-haired, Galinsky figured he knew from his work as an acting coach what it would take to make it onto a reality show. Last June, he started offering his one-day intensive workouts and a $299, five-week workshop, including training on how to act on a reality TV show set. He claims that his school, complete with live video cameras, is the first of its kind. Perhaps that’s why people have flown in from as far away as Iowa and Oklahoma to attend.

• • •

The idea of a school began with Manhattan dog groomer Jorge Bendersky, who hired Galinksy to prepare him to audition for a show that pits groomers against one another. Galinsky helped Mr. Bendersky not only secure a spot on Animal Planet’s “Groomer Has It” but make its finals. Galinsky, he says, taught him how to be himself. “You do need to learn how to focus and know where your confidence is,” says Bendersky.

According to Mark Andrejevic, a University of Iowa professor and the author of “Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched,” reality TV “has been around as long as mass media has been around. It’s a genre that’s been able to reinvent itself quite reasonably and quite successfully.”

He says people are drawn to it because of their fascination with peeking in at the lives of others. Even in the late 1940s, “Candid Camera” drew audiences with its hidden camera vignettes.

The current reality TV craze has grown from a bunch of teens tuning into MTV’s “Real World” in the 1990s into a vast web of programming that today encompasses almost every network. Mr. Andrejevic says viewers tune in because they find reality TV “less formulaic than fictional formats they were accustomed to.”

What’s harder to understand is why so many people compete to get onto shows where they are often asked to humiliate themselves, where they get no salaries, and where only a few find fame.

True, in some cases, shows offer people a chance to showcase talents that they otherwise might only do in their shower or basement. Think singing on “American Idol” or doing the rumba on “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Some of the shows, too, provide a way for people to break into a hard-to-crack business: Several “American Idol” alums, in particular, have found success as recording artists, from Kelly Clarkson to Jennifer Hudson to Carrie Underwood.
Money is a factor. Let’s not forget that the winner of “Survivor” gets $1 million.

But much of the allure is Americans’ obsession with a chance at fame, no matter how far-fetched or fleeting. Why else would people subject themselves to getting buried in a tank of cockroaches, such as on “Fear Factor” (though they do get cash prizes, too), or suffer the verbal abuse from chef Gordon Ramsay on “Hell’s Kitchen?”

Andrejevic, in fact, has found many contestants are trying to launch Hollywood careers. In interviews with people vying to get on “Real World,” he said some were there because it was a “fun experience,” others just wanted to “express” themselves. “But,” he adds, “reality TV is also understood among those who want to get into show biz as one possible way in.”

• • •

Model Loydeen Pulsifer insists she’s just looking for a “new experience.” She adds, “I think I have the right personality for it.” And with that, she flashes a set of perfect white teeth with the practiced poise Galinsky has taught.

Ms. Pulsifer, and the rest of the class, have little time to talk. They swivel their hips to a Latin beat pulsating from a stereo in the corner of the room. “Find a groove!” Galinsky shouts over the loud music. He switches to a bumping techno song, and then a rap song.

“Remember, this has to look like the very first take,” he says, exhorting his students to look natural, relaxed, and excited, even as multiple starts and stops leave them weary.

On reality TV, directors may ask contestants to reshoot scenes multiple times, Galinksy explains, trying to unravel what goes on behind the scenes for his students.

The lesson isn’t always pleasant. Midway through the class, two students pack up and leave. Asked why, Galinksy says they may have revealed too much about themselves. During one exercise, students had to introduce themselves in 20 seconds and tell one secret about their life.

On reality TV, contestants might have to answer that kind of question in front of a national audience. Today, Galinsky keeps their secret.

Most who have made it through the course seem more confident. “I really think that I kind of knew what [casting directors] were looking for,” says Scarda, the ex-cop. “And I think this class confirmed that for me.”

But even if she and the others don’t make it past their next audition, perhaps, they can star in an episode of an upcoming reality show – the one about the New York Reality TV School. Yes, you read that right. Galinsky has signed a deal with Merv Griffin Entertainment to turn his school into a reality series. Why not?

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