April 18, 2002 


The (Trade) Show Must Go On

ActorFest offers actors a day of information, shopping, and, yes, schmoozing.


by Rob Kendt


Los Angeles is host to many trade shows and expositions, in which professionals from the plumbing industry or the book trade or car dealerships gather over a weekend at the L.A. Convention Center or a swank hotel to network, share wares, shop, and generally stay in the loop with the latest developments and trends in their line of work.


Where, you may ask, is the trade show for L.A.'s most famously populous profession--the ranks of which are continually replenished by newcomers from all over the country? I'm talking, of course, about actors. To the tens of thousands of members of the professional actors unions who reside in the Greater Los Angeles area, add several tens of thousands more who are out pounding the pavement, honing their craft, hoping for a break. It's no exaggeration to say that, in the sheer number of people who either work as or consider themselves actors, L.A. is the undisputed world capital.


So where's the trade show worthy of this professional capital? ActorFest, now in its eighth year, is the answer, and it comes directly from the offices and pages of Back Stage West, the L.A. actors trade paper. Scheduled for Saturday, May 11, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Hilton Universal City & Towers, this year's ActorFest promises our best lineup yet of industry professionals, from seasoned actors to agents and casting directors, as well as a bustling exhibit floor of the latest in actor services, from headshot photographers to acting schools, from resource guides to mailing labels. The one-stop shopping on the exhibit floor is free, while the price for an all-day pass, which gives access to two seminars, is $40.


Since we started ActorFest in 1995 at the cozy, nostalgic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, I've thought of it as "living newspaper." Indeed each element of the show is essentially a live, interactive version of our print product: As editor in chief, I help to assemble seminars and panels that mirror the career-oriented features we publish each week, with our industry sources and contacts right there in person, discussing their business and taking questions directly from attendees. Meanwhile Back Stage West's tireless advertising department assembles a bustling exhibit floor of such actor-related services as headshot photographers, acting schools and coaches, video demo editors, actors unions, and other resources, so that actors can comparison shop and gather leads.


And, of course, the attendees are our readers--except that ActorFest gives them the chance to interact with our industry sources and advertisers, with our staff, and with one another, to get all their questions answered and their voices heard.


We're Covered

The career seminars I help put together are the live equivalent of big feature articles on the kinds of topics we regularly cover in Back Stage West. As our cover stories are often in-depth interviews with successful actors about their craft and business, so we offer a keynote conversation with a well-known actor about the strategies and lessons of his or her high-profile career path. Past keynote panelists have included Robert Forster (who offered a memorable rendition of a "hambone" number) and Dylan McDermott. This year we're sitting down to talk to Amy Brenneman, who has a fascinating story: Her diverse and successful acting career began in the mid-1980s, in a blue van with a bunch of her college pals, touring the U.S. as Cornerstone Theater Company and staging plays in out-of-the-way rural communities, and has since led her through a variety of television projects and feature films to her current stint as executive producer and star of the hit CBS series Judging Amy.


"I am thrilled to be part of this event," Brenneman told Back Stage West recently. "One of the greatest opportunities for all of us in the field is for meaningful collaboration and community participation. I am anxious to share what I've learned and to learn from others."


Another element of Back Stage West editorial--cutting-edge coverage of the latest industry trade trends as they impact the livelihood of actors--is reflected in a seminar called "Perform Inc.," a panel composed of agents and personal managers who will give an up-to-the-minute account of the rapidly changing business of talent representation. With the upcoming vote by members of the Screen Actors Guild regarding changes to their longstanding franchise agreement with talent agents, this will be a very timely discussion. And if anyone has his finger on the pulse of industry trends, it's this panel's moderator, Robert J. Dowling, editor in chief/publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. Dowling and his panel of agents and managers (see listing in centerspread) will help spell out what these tectonic, industry-wide shifts may mean for average rank-and-file actors, whether they have representation or not.


Two other seminars I'm putting together promise to provide especially lively and frank talks. The first, "Building Character," will gather a distinguished and successful troupe of "character actors"--a term with a loose definition, and, in the film/TV industry, a sometimes dismissive connotation--on how they've built thriving careers through hard work, perseverance, and sheer talent. These include such seasoned actor's actors as Mindy Sterling (longtime Groundling actor/director, best known as Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers films), R. Lee Ermey (the hard-nosed drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, whose credits also include Dead Man Walking and the upcoming Willard), and Patricia Belcher (best known as the psychic in Jeepers Creepers).


The other panel, "Advanced Stages," shines a spotlight on L.A.'s vibrant, often-overlooked theatre scene, to which actors and artists who make their living in film and TV return regularly to fuel their craft. How do they pull it off? We'll find out from such busy actors as Kevin Weisman (the gadget nerd Marshall on Alias, about to open in the Buffalo Nights Theatre Company's J.B. at the Powerhouse Theatre), Julia Campbell (best known for her starring role in the miniseries Rose Red and for her work at the Matrix and Cast theatres), Andrew Robinson (a busy TV actor who directs at the Matrix as well as at local regional theatres), Juanita Jennings (another busy TV actor with extensive regional theatre credits), and two of L.A.'s preeminent theatre artistic director/producers, Gil Cates of the Geffen Playhouse (a longtime producer of the Oscar show) and Sheldon Epps of the Pasadena Playhouse (who also moonlights as a TV director).


Casting About

Of course, the main reason actors read Back Stage West and visit our popular website,, is for the extensive weekly and daily casting information. A related weekly attraction is Bonnie Gillespie's popular Casting Qs column, in which she interviews casting directors about their approach to their work, what they look for in actors, and their specific practical advice for actors who want to get in the door.


So it's no surprise that among ActorFest's most popular features are our 28 "Focus Sessions," in which top casting directors from feature films, episodic and daytime television, and commercials offer 50-minute informational Q&A sessions with relatively small groups of actors. For most actors, there's just no substitute for hearing directly from casting directors exactly how they do their job of finding the best actor for the part--and how to improve their chances of being that actor.


Finally, for we who toil at our desks to get the best information out to our readers, and usually don't expect a response unless there's an error, ActorFest is a day to come face to face with the people we serve. And that day of direct interaction, in a business that's all about networking and human contact, is invaluable and gratifying--not to mention just plain fun. After all, we put "fest" in the name for a reason.