SAG-AFTRA’s Hidden Treasure: SAG-AFTRA Los Angeles Conservatory

SAG-AFTRA members: Are you getting your union dues’ worth? For instance, are you familiar with the SAG-AFTRA Los Angeles Conservatory?

“When people find out about us, they’re always amazed,” said Dawn Deibert, the Conservatory’s program coordinator. The partnership between SAG-AFTRA and the American Film Institute in forming the Conservatory has created a collaborative playground for actors and filmmakers. “[Founder Kathleen Freeman] was a real champion for having the symbiotic relationship between Screen Actors Guild and the American Film Institute,” Ilyanne Morden Kichaven, executive director of the Los Angeles Local, told Backstage.

“I want actors to know where to go to get the answers to their questions, and then hopefully get a sense of direction for their careers,” says Conservatory committee member Lee Garlington. “I’d like to think the Conservatory is the poster child for the seasoned professional offering a hand to the performer starting out.”

To join, actors must be SAG-AFTRA members in good standing. “It is the best kept secret in SAG-AFTRA that for only $35, members have the chance to work with AFI students who will be the directors and producers of the future, plus classes and workshops,” said Ron Morgan, chairman of the SAG-AFTRA Los Angeles Conservatory. “They have the chance to participate in cold reading, scene study, improv, audition classes, on-the-set classes for working on- and off-camera. We also have panels and special events, plus a weekend summer intensive; [it] gives them hundreds of dollars of education for being a SAG-AFTRA member.” While there is no limit on the number of actors who can join the Conservatory, class sizes are limited. “We want to make sure that all of the actors are getting the most out of [the workshops] and are getting up on their feet and actually working, not just watching somebody else,” said Deibert.

Because of AFI’s partnership with the union, Deibert tracks which actors are cast and ensures that actors receive footage for their reels. The partnership also gives actors a chance to play characters they might not otherwise have an opportunity to explore. “The idea is to give them the opportunity to expand their portfolio as well as hone their craft, so [the workshops] are craft-based classes taught by volunteer instructors,” said Kichaven.

First-year AFI students cast exclusively through the Conservatory. “A big benefit for the actors is networking with some of the most talented up-and-coming filmmakers in the industry,” said Deibert. The first-year program includes 84 cycle films (three from each of the 28 first-year fellows), approximately 50 MOS projects, and classwork such as lighting exercises. Those exercises are great for actors, as well. “They get to learn more about the other side of the camera, [including] how they are best lit,” said Deibert. Conservatory actors can put their headshots and résumés in the casting book at the SAG-AFTRA Conservatory office on the AFI campus, or, starting this year, upload them to SAG-AFTRA’s iActor program for AFI fellows to select from.

The Conservatory attracts a mix of beginner and veteran actors. “We have several members that have left the industry and come back, so they’re just looking to get their feet wet again, but I also have several actors who are working quite a bit and they just love the opportunity to get involved with AFI and the Conservatory,” Deibert said.

Enrollment for the L.A. Conservatory begins at the end of July and closes Aug. 15. “We want to make sure that once AFI starts back to school, the fellows and directors can come in and start immediately looking at possibilities of who they might want to audition for their first cycle,” said Deibert.

Looking to be SAG-AFTRA eligible? Learn about the basics of joining here!