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A Minority Showcase at Work

Nov 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

A common excuse for the lack of diversity in acting roles on TV used to be that there weren’t enough talented minority actors to choose from. But the truth was that the broadcast networks and studios just weren’t looking very hard.
That situation has changed as a result of the numerous minority showcases produced each year by the Big 4 networks. The showcases feature unknown actors, who often lack the representation needed to get a foot in the door of the TV industry.
CBS’s most recent showcase, on Oct. 15-held in conjunction with Nosotros, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild-featured 17 Latino performers. About 98 percent of the featured talent either signed with agents or managers, got an audition or booked a role within a week of the showcase, said Fern Orenstein, VP of casting at CBS, who runs the network’s diversity showcases.
Peter Golden, senior VP of talent and casting at CBS, said CBS started talking about instituting diversity showcases about three years ago. “One of the raps everybody always gives us is you’re not seeing enough actors of different ethnic backgrounds,” Mr. Golden said. “It’s impossible if you don’t have the pool to draw from. One of the thoughts was, let’s not just count on agents and managers, but let’s really throw the net wide with these showcases.”
In the past two years CBS has presented showcases-which take three months to plan-featuring African Americans, Asian/Pacific Americans and Native Americans. The October Latino showcase was the sixth overall and the second to feature Latino actors.
TelevisionWeek followed the process to get a close-up look at how one diversity initiative works.
Sept. 11 to Sept. 12-Auditions
About 800 actors and actresses answered CBS’s call-issued through AFTRA, SAG, agents, newspaper articles and organizations such as Nosotros-for an open audition for the showcase in Los Angeles. The only requirements: Candidates must be Latino and come prepared with a one-minute monologue. The majority of those who audition for Ms. Orenstein, Mr. Golden, the showcase’s director, Mike Gomez, and CBS VPs of casting, Lucy Cavallo and Karen Church, don’t have managers or agents. “Most of the people who come in here are basically coming in off the street,” Ms. Orenstein said.
Thursday, Sept. 18-Callbacks
About 50 actors are invited to a audition a second time for Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Gomez at CBS Television City. Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Gomez aren’t just looking for actors with leading-man potential or beautiful actresses-they are looking for people who they think can get jobs on TV shows.
Often that means fitting into a character actor’s role. Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Gomez spend five minutes debating whether a big, tall, semi-menacing-looking guy should make the cut. He gave a good audition but “he wasn’t brilliant,” Ms. Orenstein said. However, he will be easy to cast. “This man is the guy to be Thug No. 1, Thug No. 2 or Thug No. 3,” she says. “He will work.” He ends up going into the Yes pile.
Throughout the afternoon, Ms. Orenstein tells four of the actors auditioning that she is sending them over to the casting director at “The Handler” because they are trying to cast several Latino actors in guest roles. In the middle of Matt Cedeno’s audition, Ms. Orenstein picks up the phone and calls the casting director at “CSI: Miami” and snags Mr. Cedeno an audition for a guest role as a former baseball player. “He’s worth it, trust me,” Ms. Orenstein tells the casting director.
After four hours of callbacks, Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Gomez have 16 headshots in the Yes pile and struggle to whittle the Maybe pile-with about two dozen headshots in it-down to a total of 18 to 20 actors who will be in the showcase.
In the end, some get cut to achieve the right balance of men and women, or because there are too many of a “type” of actor or to get a wider age range. Nineteen actors are chosen for the showcase, including Michael Vieyra, a 38-year-old commercial actor who hasn’t been able to break into TV or film or get an agent or a manager, and Maximino Arciniega, a 25-year-old Chicago stage actor who flew to L.A. to audition for the showcase.
“The main thing I want to get out of this is contacts,” Mr. Vieyra said. “Nobody’s seen me at this point. Nobody knows I exist except commercial people, and they don’t count in theatrical and TV.”
Mr. Arciniega, who has a Chicago agent, said his goal is to sign with an L.A. agent and a manager and get exposure with Hollywood casting directors. “I always said I’m not coming to L.A. unless I’m invited,” he said. “I was born and raised in Chicago. I want to be picked up by a manager and an agent to give me a reason to come out here and do it and be an example for all the actors in Chicago.”
Wednesday, Sept. 24 to Friday, Sept. 26-Scene Picking
The chosen group gathers in a small screening room at CBS armed with scenes from contemporary movies, TV shows and plays. The actors, who have already been partnered up, read three-minute scenes of their own choosing to the group. Ms. Orenstein rejects most of the choices immediately, sending the actors scrambling to come up with new scenes. The key to picking the perfect scene is to find something that best showcases the actors’ talents and isn’t so well known that the audience-who has been to hundreds of scene nights and showcases-recognizes it, she says.
She and Mr. Gomez juggle some of the actor pairings to find the right fit. Mr. Vieyra and his scene partner read a funny Latinologues scene by Rick Najera, which brings the room down. Two other actors read with Mr. Vieyra until Mr. Arciniega takes a crack at it and nails it. It’s the funniest scene that’s been performed all afternoon, but both actors are afraid it might stereotype them, since part of the time they would be playing very exaggerated Mexican characters.
“I was thrilled to make this showcase,” Mr. Vieyra said. “Then to get here and find I was going to be playing this cliched vato character, I thought, well wait a minute. It’s a Latino showcase because I’m Latino. It’s not to show them you can play some vato guy and that’s how [casting directors] are going to see me.”
Mr. Arciniega had the same concern, but in the end both said they put their trust in Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Gomez, who quelled their fears and assured them the scene would get them noticed in the right way.
“The casting people who see them are going to say, `Yeah, I can see casting him in the comedies that we have at the network,”’ Mr. Gomez said. “Whether it’s Latino-themed or not, it doesn’t really matter. What’s going to matter is how funny they are and how well they work within the scene.”
One actress-Lourdes Colon-is absent from Scene Picking because she was cast in a guest role on “Without a Trace,” an audition that Ms. Orenstein sent her on.
Gary Zuckerbrod, the casting director for “Trace,” said Ms. Colon never would have been on his radar if not for her involvement in the Latino showcase. The showcase got Ms. Colon in the door, but she beat out a number of accomplished actresses for the role. “She gave one of the best auditions I’ve seen in years,” Mr. Zuckerbrod said. “She’s been amazing in the dailies.”
Monday, Sept. 29, to Monday, Oct. 13-Rehearsals
While Scene Picking should have been over, last-minute tweaks are still being made. Two actors who were supposed to do a comic scene switched to a more dramatic scene. Both could easily get cast in soaps, Ms. Orenstein said, so she wanted to give them a scene that better focused on their dramatic strong points.
Also complicating matters is the fact that two cast members had to drop out of the showcase, but for a good reason: They got jobs. One, an actress, got a role in a John Leguizamo movie and the other, an actor, booked a guest spot on “The Practice,” the filming of which conflicted with the showcase’s schedule.
The 17 actors left attend three two-hour rehearsals at a theater in Hollywood with Mr. Gomez. Mr. Gomez, a professional actor for 30 years, was chosen to act in
last year’s Latino showcase. He won the directing job this time around after Ms. Orenstein urged him to apply.
Tuesday, Oct. 14, and Wednesday, Oct. 15-The Shows
The actors perform two shows to packed crowds at the 100-seat Court Theater in Los Angeles. Managers and agents fill the audience at an afternoon dress rehearsal on Tuesday, while CBS casting directors, showrunners and executives make up the majority of the audience on Wednesday.
All nine scenes go over well with the audience. And sure enough, Mr. Arciniega and Mr. Vieyra’s scene brings down the house. “Those two guys are funny as hell,” one agent said. His colleague agreed, though he added, “I didn’t understand half of what they were saying.”
A week later-The Aftermath
Mr. Vieyra and Mr. Arciniega now laugh about their worries about their scene-people are calling, but no one’s asking them to play a stereotypical Mexican role.
In the span of a week, Mr. Vieyra has signed with manager Joan Sittenfield, auditioned for four TV shows, taken a meeting with the NBC casting department, set up meetings with two talent agencies and had a callback for a leading role in Cameron Crowe’s new feature film, which he is still in contention for.
“None of that would have happened without the showcase,” Mr. Vieyra said. “Otherwise, I’d still be playing PlayStation right now.”
Mr. Arciniega had to return to Chicago right after the show, but said the show “exceeded my expectations.” About 12 managers and six agents are interested in signing him and he’s gotten calls to come in for at least three auditions. With his invitation in hand, Mr. Arciniega plans to come back to L.A. in November and move there permanently by January.
Also as a result of the showcase, Ms. Colon and Veronica Diaz signed talent holding deals with CBS, which hopes to cast them in pilots planned for next year. Nicholas Roye booked a guest spot on “CSI” and got about 20 calls from agents and casting directors. Monica Ortiz won a guest spot on CBS’s midseason “The Stones.” Chay Santini was cast in a guest role on syndicated show “She Spies.”
“What we want is the opportunity to audition, for them to see us,” Mr. Arciniega said. “If they continue to do showcases like this, I think it will show casting directors that there is a lot of talent out there.”