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The Conservatory: one of SAG-AFTRA’S best bets for its members

The room, the teachers and the people behind the scenes.
The room, the teachers and the people behind the scenes.
Diana De Rosa Photo

The conservatory is one of SAG-AFTRA New York’s best-kept secrets. Well, it’s not really a secret but if you are a member and haven’t heard about it, then you are missing out on an incredible benefit of being a SAG-AFTRA member.

Verania Kenton does a great job overseeing the conservatory.
Diana De Rosa Photo

For just $35 a year, you can take one class a week from one of the 15-20 teachers who donate their time teaching everything from cold readings to monologues, auditions for commercials, acting techniques, teleprompters and even voice-over and writing classes.

And to top it off, actors even get a chance to do 20 minutes of private coaching and record themselves on a DVD.

There’s also a course called Acting 101 geared towards those who are newer to the acting world. That course concentrates on the dos and don’ts of acting, focusing on topics such as headshots and resumes and the basics of what you need to do to succeed in achieving your acting goals.

The schedule varies with the season, and while the classes offered stay the same, some of the teachers play musical chairs.

For the summer of 2014, those teachers include: Ron August, Ron Torgow, and Susanna Dalton, who all teach classes on Acting for Commercials; Anthony DeAnzeris, Intro Film/TV Audition Technique; Jill Stern, Acting/Audition Technique/Scene Study; Vicki Bennett, Monologues/Scripts; Jon Freda, Improv for Commercials, TV, Film and Acting 101; Denia Brache, Susanna Dalton, and Cynthia de Ben, Voice-over; Ann Steele, Monologue/Scene Study; Prudence Wright Holmes, Monologue; Robin Miles, Audiobooks; Melinda Hall, Shakespeare, Classical Cold Reading; Steve Hurwitz, Private Coaching; Geany Masai and Steve Hanneman, Auditions for TV & Film Technique/Advanced Scene Study; Marianne Kanter, Cold Reading; Mark Weston, Writer’s Workshop; and Darlene Bejnar, Teleprompter Technique.

“Its purpose is to help members work on their craft,” commented Committees Coordinator Nicole Abdullah, who has been working with SAG-AFTRA in a variety of positions for the past 14 years.

“We have a lot of members who are not 100 percent comfortable with the camera. This allows them to work with their scenes, which can then help them get a job,” she continued. “Our teachers want to help our performers become comfortable in front of the camera so they can book those jobs that are waiting for them.”

All the teachers are SAG-AFTRA members who have been in the business a long time and who give back to the organization by donating their time and knowledge.

“These classes have afforded our members the ability to work with some excellent teachers so they can book work. It gets you ready for the audition process,” added Verania Kenton, a New York Local Board member and New York Conservatory chair.

It’s also about the setup

“A lot wanted to self-tape, so we have upgraded our equipment so they can do that,” Abdullah commented, noting that they've also considered things like the color of the wall and the lighting. “When those things are in place, the sky is the limit.”

In addition to the weekly classes held Monday through Friday, there is also an additional monthly seminar about topics related to the craft of acting.

“People get so much out of the conservatory,” remarked Maura Walker, director of special projects and events. “I hear positive comments all the time. They learn a lot from the teachers and from each other.”

Most of the classes take place in one room, which is a studio set up with all the necessary equipment. There’s a camera with a blue backdrop connected to a TV that allows users to view what has been recorded. Also available is a teleprompter for practice and a voice-over setup. They use a Mac computer and Audacity for the voice-over classes with a Yet-I mike (considered by many to be the ultimate pro USB microphone).

Taking a class

The process is simple. Just before you enter the room where the class is held there is an exterior room where you pick copy based on the type of class you are taking (i.e., commercials, cold reading, monologue, etc.). You take two or more copies of the piece you have chosen, depending on whether it is just you speaking or two or more people. You may also use your own copy if you have a piece you are working on.

Often, the teacher will start with some tips and then each person takes a turn. Once finished, each student gets critiqued by the teacher and, using that knowledge, does their piece again.

Those who are taking classes are clearly pleased. “As an actor starting out in 2003, the conservatory gave me a way to hone my skills. Just sitting in the classes helped me book even more auditions. It was an awesome experience for not only me and new members, but also for experienced members,” commented Kenton.

“Here was a way to take classes with excellent teachers and coaches and also have the opportunity for me to chair it. It has given me a broader opportunity to work with some phenomenal people,” she added.

Kenton is a volunteer who works at the conservatory as much as many of the full-time employees. Her job is to work alongside the staff liaisons and manage the day-to-day running of the studio. She keeps an eye on the equipment to ensure it is maintained and helps to recruit teachers and seminar speakers.

And while the teachers are all volunteers, they too have to follow a set of standards, which Kenton also monitors. “I have to keep my ear to the ground on sets and with the students to see where the need is,” she continued, adding, “but we've gotten some good success stories.”

Kenton, a singer, was glad to also reveal that they are now adding a six-week singing class to the roster. For those of us who are passionate about dancing, that may also soon be part of the curriculum. “We are also looking into bringing in a dance intensive, songwriting workshop, vocal coaching and Spanish-language [classes]. It is important that we address the needs of Spanish [-speaking members],” she continued.

Signing up is easy

Okay, so now if you are a member of SAG-AFTRA who hasn't taken advantage of this benefit, your next question is “How do I sign up?” Well, that’s simple. Just go to to download the application. You can either drop your application and check or money order (NOT cash) at the SAG-AFTRA headquarters at 1900 Broadway or simply mail it in.

Once you are a member, you must sign up the week before for whatever class you choose that still has availability. Anyone who finds ultimately that they can’t make it needs to call and cancel to allow someone else to take their spot. If you miss three classes without calling, you are in jeopardy of losing your membership and, while it is frowned upon to arrive late or leave early, sometimes in the world of acting that can’t be helped, so legitimate reasons for doing so are allowed.

So, there you have it: The best-kept secret is no longer secret, which means you better sign up early because those classes are sure to fill up quickly!

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