Sabrina Conti’s epiphany came when she was 16. She was a three-sport high school athlete in suburban Chicago, playing volleyball, softball and basketball as she worked toward a college athletic scholarship. But those plans derailed sophomore year when she didn’t make the volleyball team. “My mom sort of looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re not very good at volleyball,’” Conti says with a laugh.
During her “time off” from volleyball, the slender redhead auditioned for a school play and won the role of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. That’s when Conti found her new passion. “I remember being at softball practices and running my lines when I should have been practicing,” she says.
After her final performance as the Scarecrow, a woman Conti had never met before cornered her in the school hallway. “You’re going to be an actor,” the stranger said. Conti, now 22, calls the still anonymous woman “my guardian angel” because of the impact that random remark has had on her life. By senior year, Conti was too busy performing — as Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! — to try out for any sports at all. And when it came time to choose a college major at Illinois State, theater was the only option.
Each of the 22 members of Actors Theatre’s 2011 apprentice company could probably tell a similar tale. The young artists, who won their places after auditioning with more than 2,000 other hopefuls, come from as close as Lexington and as far away as Florida and Oregon. Most are 2011 college graduates, though some have held post-college jobs for a couple of years. Whatever the case, they’re drawn together by a strong desire to become one of those rarest of creatures: a working professional actor.
The apprenticeship for 23-year-old Nick Vannoy has been a cross between performing and physical labor. The burly Lexington native is certainly built for it: Vannoy was a lineman on his high school football team. His average day might include performing the role of Mr. Briggs in a Dracula morning matinee for middle-schoolers, constructing sets in the afternoon and rehearsing his role in one of the apprentice company’s short productions in the evening. “Today, I got up at 7:30, and I won’t be back at my apartment until 11,” he says. Vannoy spends a lot of his free time “doing laundry and dishes.”
During his nine-month tour of duty, Vannoy will spend 60-hour weeks at the theater. He’ll live on his savings, a small stipend (a few hundred dollars per month) from Actors, a little help from his father — and food stamps. As a full-time volunteer for a nonprofit organization, he’s eligible for public assistance. He doesn’t have a car, so Vannoy walks to work every day from his Third Street dorm-style apartment, where he shares space with five other apprentices. “It is very similar to living in the dorms in college,” he says. Vannoy also has to find ways to eat on a tight budget. “I still buy the same things I did before, but now I make sure I get the cheapest brand that I can find,” he says. “I try not to eat out so much, but sometimes I can’t resist a Qdoba burrito.”
None of the apprentices has time for a side job — they simply sacrifice to make ends meet. But in exchange for the long hours and “grunt work” at the theater, Vannoy and the others gain the opportunity to ply their trade in a prestigious setting. “This apprenticeship is the best launching pad for a professional career that I know of,” Vannoy says. “For a year, we get the opportunity to work at one of the country’s leading theaters with the top professionals in the field.”
“This is accelerated theater training,” Conti says, adding that she learned as much in her first four weeks at Actors Theatre as she did in four years of college. “I personally think you can make every second of it a learning experience.”
In this year’s Dracula production, Conti landed the role of Ms. Sullivan, a chance for the self-proclaimed “character actor” to demonstrate her convincing Irish brogue. The student matinees in the arena-style Bingham Theatre were one of the highlights.
“The kids are completely uninhibited,” Conti says. “They scream, cry, laugh, talk to us — I’ve never been onstage before when people (in the audience) have told me what to do.” Her character was one of several bitten by the sanguinary count, and she ended the play in a cemetery. “After I was officially dead, kids were playing with my feet,” she says. Vannoy, for his part, has developed a unique method for dealing with difficult audience members. “Today, I was getting heckled a little by a high-schooler,” he says. “I had a flashlight (in one scene), and I shined it in his face. Then I took a rat over by him.” (Dracula featured live rodents onstage with their human costars.) Vannoy says he had no more problems after that.
One thing that keeps the apprentices so occupied is presenting a season of short plays, all starring (and in some cases written by) the apprentices. Conti, Vannoy and the others have already presented three works exploring subjects as diverse as pornography and school bullying. In mid-November, they’ll perform “solo mios,” which are eight-minute monologues they are writing for themselves. When asked what his monologue will be about, Vannoy will only say, “It’s going to have to do with kung fu.” Conti is a little more forthcoming — hers will explore her ethnic heritage as an “Italian-American mutt.” But the biggest opportunity for the apprentices is yet to come: This spring, they’ll participate in the Humana Festival of New American Plays, when Actors will commission a group of writers to come in and compose a piece for the apprentices.
For some professions, such intensive training would go a long way toward assuring future success. But in the competitive realm of professional acting, an apprenticeship can only do so much. “The vast majority of actors don’t ever make a living solely through acting,” says Michael Legg, the apprentice/intern company’s director. “I always suggest that apprentices figure out what they like to do besides theater, because they will earn very little money in the first few years of their careers.” In the class of 2009-10, Legg says, “Fifteen of our 22 apprentices booked their first job within six months,” adding that “casting directors and agents tell us pretty consistently that our apprentices audition better and hold up better than their peers.” Still, those first gigs that Legg mentioned are unlikely to pay the rent.
Apprentices learn to audition, market themselves, create original work and, most of all, network. “Everybody in this business understands that you need help to advance your career,” Legg says. Former apprentices — including such notables as Timothy Busfield (TV’s The West Wing) and Jenny Robertson (the film Bull Durham) — often support one another. One recent apprentice, 25-year-old Emily Kunkel, keeps her apprentice “classmates” on speed dial.
Over the 40-year history of the Actors Theatre apprentice/intern company, many former apprentices have gone on to start theater companies in cities nationwide. Others move to a “theater town” (usually New York or Chicago) and begin auditioning immediately. Kunkel settled in New York after completing her apprenticeship in May 2011. “I just did a commercial for the New York Lottery. It’s a campaign called ‘Be Ready’ (to win). I’m a lifeguard in an evening gown, so I’m ready to go to a dinner party or an opera,” she says.
Kunkel is still nannying part-time to pay the bills, but through a recent stage role — lovelorn Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — she has managed to earn membership in the Actors’ Equity Association, a national stage actors’ union that gives members the opportunity to audition for better-paying parts. At Actors Theatre, she says she “got a better picture of who I was and my ‘type.’ I guess quirky is the word everybody uses nowadays. Funny, smart and a little daffy.” Those qualities used to mean a career spent playing the sidekick to the innocent, demure heroine. But with the popularity of newer stars like Tina Fey, Kunkel says, “The funny girl (can be) the leading lady.” She admires famed character actors Carol Burnett and Spalding Gray and hopes to emulate their success.
“My agent told me to keep going from one thing to another, so you keep sharpening all of your skills,” Kunkel says. “I want to work with writers who want to hear their work in my voice. I want to be respected by people in my field. I want to write and perform my own solo works. And I want to play Carol Burnett in a biopic someday. I’ll take whatever I can get to get there.”
For now, however, all of the excitement (and disappointment) of an acting career remains in the future for the current apprentices. Conti hopes to find work as a nanny when she returns to Chicago, which will allow her flexibility to attend auditions. “When I go back home, I want to hit the ground running and have an agent,” she says, her eyes igniting at the thought of living her passion. The young actress hopes to do commercials, voiceovers, films, stage work — you name it. “I’m totally open,” she says.
Photo courtesy of: John Nation