When Bob Barron and Dwight Weist started an acting school in a room above a Chinese restaurant on West 57th Street in New York City in 1956, they had one simple hope — to find actors willing to audition for these crazy things called "commercials." At the time, most New York stage actors feared that being perceived as sales people would ruin their acting careers, so Barron, who produced and directed ads for the N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency, frequently was stuck auditioning the same 10 actors for parts. But together with Weist, a well-known radio actor making the transition into television commercials, Barron hoped to train a new generation of actors aspiring to get a toe-hold in the industry.
As the founders of the first school to teach commercial acting, Weist and Barron created a recipe for commercial acting that over the years became the industry standard. The method involved teaching actors how to analyze copy, be themselves, and connect with the camera. "It's the oldest things in the world — making good eye contact, smiling when you talk, taking pauses at the right time — some of it's just common sense. But put it all together, and it really delivers in 15 seconds," said Valerie Adami, current owner of the Weist-Barron school in New York and a former actor who had the privilege of studying with both Weist and Barron before they died in 1991 and 2002, respectively.
But the legacy of the school lives on with locations in New York and Los Angeles, where the Weist-Barron School of Television and the Weist-Barron-Hill acting school continue to help actors hone their craft. Adami heads the New York office with Joyce Barron, Bob Barron's widow, while Lyle B. Hill (a former soap opera executive producer) and his wife, Dr. Andrea Hill (a former casting director and commercial actor), own and manage the West Coast branch, Weist-Barron-Hill.
From Stage to Screen
It was the first school to teach on-camera acting, and its students still find that aspect of its instruction the most valuable. "The beauty of their commercial classes is they put you on tape, and they put you on tape every time," said Caroline Kera, an actor who has studied at Weist-Barron in New York since 1993. Kera said watching herself on camera was extremely uncomfortable for her but a wonderful learning tool. "The trouble with most of us, especially here in New York, is we're stage actors, so we don't really see what we're doing, and it's a shock."
Watching yourself on camera isn't difficult for stage actors only. Television and film actor Perry Samuels, who has studied on and off with Weist-Barron-Hill in L.A. since 2000, admitted he still hates looking at himself onscreen, but that no one in the classes is allowed to dodge this teaching technique. Apparently, the training paid off: Samuels landed a commercial agent out of one of the commercial acting classes and has appeared in spots for Dunkin' Donuts, Kia, and Jack in the Box. "I've benefited from them tremendously," Samuels said of studying under Lyle and Andrea Hill.
"With the background of my 45 years in the business, and my wife's 50-some years in the business as a performer and casting person, well, that's almost 100 years of background we've had in this business," said Lyle Hill. "That allows us to feel pretty good about what we offer people."
It's not unusual for Weist-Barron and Weist-Barron-Hill to give actors the opportunity to hook up with agents, managers, producers, and casting directors through paid industry showcases. "We were the first organization to offer showcase programs," Adami said. It's kind of a dubious thing to claim, but Bob and Dwight thought, after we train them, we should get them to meet agents and casting directors." At both schools, the showcasing practice continues, while at Weist-Barron Adami serves as a casting director and hooks actors up directly with voiceover, commercial, and corporate video gigs.
Weist-Barron and Weist-Barron-Hill — whose alumni include Faith Ford, Pam Dawber, and Courtney Cox — are also known for offering actors straightforward constructive criticism and a practical, career-oriented approach that extends beyond the instruction. Kera notes that she learned all the "nuts and bolts" of the business side — from how to market herself to how to select a quality headshot. Both schools offer affordable instruction in voiceover, soap opera acting, television and film, and provide special instruction for young performers that costs as little as $25 per session in L.A.
To celebrate its anniversary, Weist-Barron has added several services to its New York branch, including a division called "TV Tots" that will cater to parents of infants and toddlers interested in getting their children into the business, a new voiceover facility, a film conservatory, and screenwriting instruction.
"My feeling is that everyone has the right to follow the dream, and we're just here to help facilitate that in whatever way we possibly can," Adami said.
For more information about Weist-Barron School in New York (35 West 45th Street) call (212) 840-7025 or visit www.weistbarron.com. For more information about Weist-Barron-Hill School in Burbank (4300 West Magnolia Blvd.), call (818) 846-5595 or visit www.weistbarronhillacting.com.