Walking to class on the first day of the spring 2017 semester was a bit different for Christian Henley and her 14 classmates. Instead of making her way across the Forty Acres toward the Winship Drama Building, she and the other B.F.A. in Acting students were walking together down a street of Burbank, California, as part of the inaugural class to complete the last semester of their undergraduate degree in Los Angeles—the heart of the entertainment industry.
“We were walking in a group, and we see the department chair, Brant Pope, outside the building waving his arms,” Henley remembered. “That was the perfect start. There was so much excitement. That’s how we felt about the whole thing.”
These students were the first to participate in a carefully planned and executed curriculum to bring B.F.A. in Acting students to Los Angeles to complete their undergraduate program in the city that most already planned to move to after graduation.
“A lot of people when they talk about moving to L.A., they say the hardest part is the transition,” said Jordan Maranto, who graduated from the B.F.A. program and is now signed with a manager in L.A. “I always knew I wanted to move to L.A. to pursue acting. This program was five months of having my hand held out there. I met so many people who gave us such great advice. They were reiterating what we already learned at UT Austin.”
In partnership with the UT Semester in Los Angeles (UTLA) Program in the Moody College of Communication, the students had housing and rigorous coursework, but also a taste of what it means to be a working actor in L.A.
“All serious acting programs are training students to work professionally. Hence, you might say that we have a responsibility to build strong bridges to the profession,” said Lucien Douglas, associate professor in acting. “Having worked extensively as a professional actor, it has always been my goal and dream as a university acting instructor to be a part of such a program.”
The program connects students to industry professionals and real-world experiences through a curriculum comprised of acting courses taught by L.A. locals with strong industry ties and experience. Michael D. Cohen, a working actor and recurring character on the Nickelodeon show Henry Danger, taught acting for the camera in a classroom at the Moody College’s Burbank facility. Students also participated in the Foundation Course at Howard Fine Acting Studio in L.A., where they mixed with working actors of varying ages and backgrounds in the classroom.
For Henley, who has since moved to Los Angeles and signed with a management group, these courses were really a continuation and enhancement of what she’s already learned at UT. Going back to her freshman acting class with Douglas, she recalled he constantly emphasized the importance of bringing props to class to transform the stage into a space for the character.
“We always were like, ‘Oh Lucien, he just loves props,’” Henley said with a laugh. Then Howard Fine introduced the same call for props, and it just clicked. “It’s not a joke. It is helpful and other people in the business take pride in that.”
That is what it’s all about, Douglas said. (And yes, he knows the jokes about his love for props). When he traveled to observe the students in Fine’s class, he said he was touched to see them all so invested and working so hard.
“I didn’t feel I was watching students. I felt I was watching young artists, young actors. They were really invested and really living up to the standards and setting the bar high for each other.”
Robert Ramirez, associate professor and head of acting, spent time in L.A. with the students and also witnessed this transformation.
“I was so impressed by the rigor in Howard’s classroom,” he said. “The classroom is run so professionally, and the standard on use of props and time management and focus—we couldn’t have asked for anything more in line with the way we work at UT.”
Both Cohen and Fine have signed on to teach the next iteration of students in spring 2018.
“The students were well-prepared and had excellent work habits,” Fine said. “What made the experience unique is that I was able to work with the B.F.A. candidates for an entire semester. … Not only did the Texas contingent have to adapt to Los Angeles, but they also got to work with a wide variety of actors from various backgrounds and ages. The challenges they faced helped them gain confidence as their horizons expanded.”
The semester ended with a showcase attended by casting agents, directors and other industry professionals. Cohen conceived and directed the showcase, which was unlike any presented by other programs. It utilized television scripts, and each student wrote a monologue about a deeply meaningful event from their personal lives. Transitions between these moments were filled with short song styling.
“When the 53-minute event ended, all in the audience commented on how unique and original this was, how well-trained and prepared our students were and how they in the industry saw a good sense of who these young actors were personally,” Douglas said. “And that’s what it’s really about— bringing your personal self to the work. It requires a very deep personal investment, revealing who you are.”
Maranto recalls the showcase as one of her best experiences as a UT student.
“At the moment of our showcase … every single person was at their very best,” she said. “It was such a transformative experience seeing these kids who I met when I was 18 … and seeing us as these grown-ups and being the best at our craft that we could be.”
With so many of the 15 inaugural students remaining in L.A., Douglas and Ramirez hope to build more connections for students as the program continues. Next fall, another 15 acting students will have the opportunity to tackle the city, with their burnt orange safety net below.
“The learning curve was steep,” Ramirez said. “They’re like our kids, and they suddenly go away, and we’re not there with them. But they were ready. They were ready to go be with new people and to bring what they had from their time at UT with new set of instructors.”
“I hope to share with their friends and colleagues in the business and keep building the UT name and the presence out there in L.A.,” he continued. “One person’s success is everyone’s success.”
Photo credits: Top: Left to right: Jake Mcdermott, Keith Machekanyanga, Julia Bauer, and Brad Rizzo at the Emmy For Your Consideration SAG AFTRA Event for The Good Fight featuring a panel with Christine Baranski and showrunners. Middle image: Left to right: Julia Bauer, Jake Mcdermott, Josh Fisher, Keith Machekanyanga and Christian Henley at the Getty Museum for research project for Howard Fine. Photo courtesy of Christian Henley.