Stage Door Forum mentorship program guides graduating seniors

USC Student Alumni Panel

School of Dramatic Arts alumni, from left, Dylan Kenin, Troian Bellisario, Devin Kelley and Patrick J. Adams. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging) (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

The students come for the wisdom, to connect and to hear from alumni who left the security of the Halls of Troy and are out in the world finding steady work. Over pizza, and with no professors in the room, inquiring seniors discuss agents and acting classes, friendly freeways and… potentially unfriendly predators. At a gathering of the Stage Door Forum networking event, if you happen to mention that you have been thinking about taking a month off after graduation to swim with sharks, you will not be laughed out of the room.

“Do you think an experience like that will not help your acting?” 2004 SDA graduate Patrick J. Adams asked when the question of potentially non-lucrative personal pursuits came up at a spring Stage Door Forum meeting. “If that’s really in your heart, have fun. Experience something.”

Asked to join the board of directors by former SDA Dean Madeline Puzo, Adams developed Stage Door Forum in 2012 as a low-key opportunity for students to network. Usually twice a year, once each during the spring and fall semesters, SDA seniors (BAs and BFAs) fill the room along with four or five SDA alums. Adams attends as many Stage Door Forum gatherings as he can, working them in around the schedule of his USA drama Suits.

Past attendees have included SDA alumni Beck Bennett (Saturday Night Live), Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil, True Blood), Peter Vack (The Intern), Eric Ladin (American Sniper, Boardwalk Empire), Briga Heelan (Undateable, Cougar Town) and Troian Bellisario (Pretty Little Liars).

“It’s almost like the alumni who are 10 years out of school or less are our sweet spot,” said Kim Muhlbach, SDA’s director of individual giving who coordinates the events with Adams. “The alums have all had such varying experience post college that there’s never one standard answer to their questions.”

At the spring semester meeting, Adams and Bellisario were joined by Devin Kelley (Resurrection) and Dylan Kenin (Love & Mercy, Good Kill), a 1996 graduate and Taos native who works consistently in projects that film in his native New Mexico. Kenin’s ability to tap his New Mexico casting director connections to find consistent work served as an inspiration to the seniors and prompted Adams to marvel of his longtime friend, “You probably work more consistently than any of us because you’re always hustling.”

Following the introductions, Adams opened the discussion to questions. “Anything you are thinking about? Anything you’re terrified of? What is burning in your almost graduated minds?”

Plenty, as it turned out. The unstructured format of Stage Door Forum — no profs allowed! — allowed the language to get salty and cleared the air for the occasional anecdote about diva-ish behavior from stars with whom the alumni have worked. A portion of the discussion inevitably turned to places to live in Los Angeles with areas like West Hollywood, Echo Park and the beaches getting high marks for inner peace and the east San Fernando Valley getting points for proximity to studios and auditions.

“The place you find after you leave school is really important because the city can be really awful sometimes and you want to feel like you live in a community with your friends and you don’t walk out the door every day and feel beaten down,” Adams said.

“You just need the support of a community,” added Kelley. “I was used to walking to my friend’s house, or walking down the hall and crashing on somebody’s bed. If you can be closer to a close friend and be able to say, ‘I’m freaking out right now can you come with me on a hike or get coffee,’ it means a lot.”

On the subject of finding that perfect acting class or coach, the panel touted the benefits of getting word of mouth recommendations and of auditing for a few sessions and seeing whether a class is a fit before committing a lot of time or money. In a landscape as competitive as Los Angeles, Kenin and Kelley emphasized the value of gaining experience by joining a theatre company or by working for free in student films.

And when they do land that first professional job, the graduates should expect to feel both prepared (thanks to their SDA training) and clueless. Just like a then 22-year old Adams did on the set of his first film, Old School.

“I got a month on set and I had never seen a set in my life and all of a sudden, Will Ferrell is right there yelling at me, Vince Vaughn is smoking a ton of cigarettes telling me things I don’t even understand,” Adams recalled. “No one is going to expect you to know everything all the time. You will be uncomfortable at first, but you’ll figure it out.”