The Art of Getting Real

Being an entertaining, memorable contestant on a reality TV show has become an art unto itself. What is it about The Hills' Lauren Conrad, Project Runway's Christian Siriano, and The Apprentice's Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth that has made them watchable, even addictive to TV audiences week after week?

Acting teacher Robert Galinsky has a few theories and a training curriculum that could help actors and non-actors catapult themselves to reality-show fame. The serious acting techniques he has developed over years of coaching are the foundation of his New York Reality TV School, which opened in Manhattan in late June.

"I'd been coaching actors and doing theatre all my life," said Galinsky, who is perhaps best known among theatre actors as the co-creator and co-host of Manhattan Monologue Slam, a monthly, bicoastal competitive event in which actors perform three-minute monologues before a panel of VIP judges. Galinsky first ventured into the world of reality TV when Jorge Bendersky, a dog groomer who had been auditioning to be a contestant on Animal Planet's Groomer Has It, contacted him for coaching. "[Bendersky] said, 'I have no experience acting or doing anything on-camera. I need some help.' So, I developed a curriculum off the theatre curriculum that I've created, and I started coaching him for six weeks."

Bendersky was not only cast on the show, he placed third in the competition. Galinsky saw a creative and financial opportunity in training other reality hopefuls how to navigate the highly competitive genre.

Although the training focuses on how to be oneself rather than "act," Galinsky said professional actors have shown great interest in his reality TV school, where he teaches improv, auditioning techniques, and how to cope with reality shows' grueling schedules. According to him, more than half of his students are actors. "[The training] is not too different than what you'd tell an actor. It's about being authentic, about being real, and about being confident, which is what we want from our actors," he said. "It's just that there's a slant on some of the training because of the unscripted drama that reality offers."

Actor-playwright Elisa DeCarlo has attended two of the school's three-hour intensive workshops. "I had a fantastic time both times," she said. "I have a lot of inhibitions as an actor, and here you were thrown into these wild situations, and if you couldn't overcome your inhibitions very fast, you were just out of luck."

DeCarlo, who isn't interested in appearing on a reality show, said she found an audition exercise called "On the Grill With Phil" particularly helpful. In the exercise, Galinksy's brother, actor Phil Galinksy, plays a tough reality CD who shouts out quick descriptions of actual reality shows. The students have only 10-30 seconds to state why they should be on the show. A guest reality-casting director gives feedback on their "auditions." "You have to make the judgment call, 'Am I going to say something really personal or not?' " DeCarlo said. "What's good about this for actors specifically is the experience of being under this intense pressure and having to think very fast. It's like an audition at warp speed."

According to Galisky, the 2-month-old school has already been successful. He said he regularly fields calls from reality production companies that are looking for talent, and he plans to open a school in Los Angeles and eventually facilities in England, Japan, and Australia. There is even talk of developing a reality show about the school. "If this does make it onto TV, [the audience] will see me working to make people more confident," he said. "This is not about tricks and tips on how to get on reality TV. This is not about how to be sensational and outrageous for the sake of sensationalism."

But will teaching the finer points of auditioning for Big Brother or Flavor of Love damage the reputation of a teacher who has worked with Quentin Crisp, Willem Dafoe, and Roger Guenveur Smith? Galinsky said he's willing to take that risk. "My principals haven't changed. Reality television is just another filter, another outlet for performance as far as I'm concerned," he said, adding he has also gained more clients for private acting lessons since opening the New York Reality TV School.

CDs Divided

Reality TV CD Barbara Barna — whose credits include Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Extreme Makeover, and What Not to Wear — said some reality-show aspirants could benefit from New York Reality TV School's training. "It really depends on what kind of reality television you're talking about," she said. "For people who are going to do contestant-driven shows, that makes sense. You have a lot of talented people who would benefit from some of that coaching to understand that you need to focus, you have to think about what your brand or hook is, [and] you have to always be on when you're going through the audition process."

However, Barna said the training could work against those auditioning for makeover shows. "For that you don't want people who are polished — especially when families are involved or when you're looking for genuine heartwarming stories," she noted. "Then being too polished or having been coached definitely comes through, and that works against you."

Reality TV casting director Sheila Conlin — whose credits include Hell's Kitchen, The Moment of Truth, and Nanny 911 — doubted a school could teach anyone how to land a gig on a reality show or to be a better contestant. She looks for "the ordinary person who has an extraordinary personality or just something about them," she said. "It's a naturalness. You cannot teach that. You cannot teach someone how to be themselves. To me, go to therapy."

Conlin said some education in how reality shows are produced — specifically what it is like to be surrounded by cameras on a set for several weeks — could be helpful after one has landed a spot on a show. "In that case, it would be kind of good to see how that works," she said. "But on the other hand, we want that freshness. And then if you get people [who] already know how it all works, then there isn't any spontaneity."

Los Angeles-based teacher Scott Sedita, who was recently voted favorite acting teacher by Back Stage West readers, agreed Galinsky's training isn't necessary. Sedita, who has coached reality contestants and has appeared as an acting expert on shows such as Fight for Fame and New York Goes to Hollywood, questioned whether Galinsky's school teaches self-confidence or if it's about how to get one's 15 minutes of fame.

"I don't believe to be on a reality show like The Hills or Survivor or The Amazing Race you have to have an innate ability to act. You just have to have an innate ability to feel comfortable showing yourself off, because it's all about personality," Sedita said. "Now [CDs] go out to hire various different types of characterizations. If you put the player with the nice, naive girl, you've got conflict."

Galinsky emphasized that his training doesn't focus on being media savvy or developing a "character" that will appeal to CDs and producers. "It always comes back to, 'What are you comfortable with?' As a performer on these shows, you have to continue to do what makes you feel safest and strongest and feel like you're shining your light the way you want to," he said. "I don't tell [students] to be a certain archetype. If a certain archetype emerges, then let's identify it. If it emerges organically and feels right and makes sense, let's do it."

A Big Break?

Although more than half of New York Reality TV School's students are already actors, Galinksy isn't convinced competing on a reality show will boost an acting career. He said, "I personally wouldn't do it, but I think for some people it's a fast way to get onto television and perhaps leverage that into more work."

Conlin agreed a stint on a reality show could be a boon for an actor at the start of his or her career but probably will not help a more experienced actor. "Reality TV is a stepping stone. It's a launch for whatever your agenda is," said Conlin. "For an actor, it's a way for exposure and for access, but it's not going to show their range as an actor."

Although a handful of reality contestants such as Jennifer Hudson and Elisabeth Hasselbeck have parlayed their TV appearances into show-business careers, the vast majority return to obscurity after a few months of exposure. Sedita noted, "How many of them have actually been able to transition into an acting career after their 15 minutes of fame are up? Not many have. Maybe we can count them on one hand."

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