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Want to make it in Hollywood? Orange County arts high school brings students to talent agents

Shannon Viele and Michael Tingley rehearse a scene from
Shannon Viele and Michael Tingley rehearse a scene from "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams. The high schoolers beat out several hundred of their classmates to win a spot performing in front of about 80 agents and managers in L.A.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
Shannon Viele and Michael Tingley rehearse a scene from
Juniors Ymari Stephens (left) and Dacota Nitti perform in front of agents and managers in L.A. The students were bused up from their high school in Orange County for the opportunity.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
Shannon Viele and Michael Tingley rehearse a scene from
High school seniors Phillip Jarrell (left) and Will Daniel (right) on stage at the Matrix Theatre in L.A. The students were performing during the Orange County School of the Arts' second-ever student showcase.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
Shannon Viele and Michael Tingley rehearse a scene from
Orange County School of the Arts students make a final impression on agents and managers before leaving the stage after their performance. The students rehearsed for about six months in preparation for their showcase at the Matrix Theatre in L.A.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

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It's a weekday afternoon and about 20 acting students are sitting in chairs with their eyes fixed on a TV at the front of the room. The group is watching a recording of a classmate’s monologue. Aspiring actor Michael Tingley is offering feedback to his classmate.

"I missed it, I don't know if anyone else did," Michael says, referring to what he describes as one of the most important beats in the piece, which he says his colleague didn't handle quite right.

All of the actors in the room are taking the lesson very seriously. But this isn’t your average L.A. acting class. In fact, it's quite a ways from Hollywood, down in Santa Ana.

Michael is just 17, and the class is part of a regular day at his public high school – the Orange County School of the Arts, commonly referred to as OCSA (pronounced OH-shuh). He is one of thousands of aspiring actors who attend performing arts high schools in the region. Like many of the top schools, OCSA has seen a big boost in interest.

"Since 1999 to where we’re sitting, it's gone from essentially 800 students up to, we’re going to be at about 1,930 students next year," says Principal Benjamin Wolf.

Only about 14 percent of students who apply are accepted to the prestigious school, which has been training students in acting, dance and instrumental music since 1987.

Michael is so happy to attend OCSA that he doesn't mind the 30 mile, hour long commute by train from his home in Dana Point. He's wanted to be an actor for a long time.

"I took my first acting class when I was about six years old, I think," he says, adding that he knows pursuing acting as a career will be a challenge. "It’s scary because the acting world is not an easy world to get into."

Actor and USC film professor Joseph Hacker says now that anyone can make a video and upload it to the Internet, the industry has changed. He’s seen an enormous increase in the number of young people trying to break into Hollywood.

"We’ve got an awful lot of kids who want to be filmmakers now," he says.

But entertainment jobs in California have become harder to get. Since the industry’s peak in 1997 – many film projects have been moving out of state. That means unless you’re an A lister, acting jobs in California are scarcer.

Kevin Klowden, director of the California Center at the Milken Institute, wrote about these trends last summer in the report "Fighting Production Flight: Improving California's Filmed Entertainment Tax Credit Program."

"As the large scale productions, the movies, have moved out of Los Angeles, the need for their services drops considerably," he told KPCC in an interview.

Klowden says landing a big break in L.A.'s acting scene is harder than it used to be.

School officials point out that schools like OCSA are doing much more than just training future actors. About 50 percent of OCSA students pursue careers in the art, while the rest pursue academic subjects in college, according to Wolf. OCSA students do extremely well academically – the school was selected by the state as a California Distinguished School for 2013

Acting students who do want to pursue acting careers, however, are getting a big leg up. 

This year, for the second time ever, the school bused its top acting students straight to casting agents. This effort is thanks in large part to one man: Rick Messina, a 1995 graduate of the school who now works in casting and directed the event.

"I don't know of any other high school that does it," he says, adding that starting younger can help students have a better shot at breaking in. "They're starting that process at 18, which is amazing, or 17, which is great."

The school selected 14 of its student actors to perform in front of about 80 agents and managers at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue in L.A. The roster included industry professionals from CBS, Warner Bros., NBC and Nickelodeon.

Showcases like these are typically done at the college level – drama schools at Yale and Juilliard fly students to Hollywood each spring to get them seen.

Michael was picked. So was Emily Moody, an 18-year-old bubbly blonde playing a grumpy gothic character.

"It’s a difficult process," Emily says. "You think when you’re young that it’s this sparkling city of auditions and love."

Emily wants to be a film actress. She hoped her performance in the showcase would land her an agent.

"There’s always some nerves – it’s a big deal," she says.

Jered Servello works in management for Vincent Cirrincione – who famously discovered Halle Berry. He attended the event hoping to find the next big star. It's a decision he says happens really fast.

"You usually know within the first 15 seconds if that person’s for you or not," he says.

Students spent six months rehearsing their four to five minute scene for the showcase.

Emily and her classmate Justice Smith were the first students to perform. They performed a scene from Deborah Zoe Laufer's play "End Days." They got a few laughs and a round of applause before ceding the stage to the other students.

In all, OCSA officials hope 8 of the 14 students will ultimately get signed. So far three of them have landed deals.

Emily didn’t get an offer, but she did have interest from several agents. She'll continue to pursue a career in film – she’s off to Pace University in the fall for another four years of acting training.