Young Actors Get Their Due

The secret life of success

He was working as a clerk at the courthouse in Beverly Hills, CA. He had done a bit of acting in the past, but had nearly put his dreams of stardom on the shelf—for good. She was taking acting classes. And voice classes. And dance. Every day. But if the show business career didn’t work out, she had a backup plan. Working at Target.

There are no guarantees in show business. Of course, there are very few guarantees in life at all. But how long do you wait before you decide it’s time to cut your losses? As an actor, when do you make that decision to maybe just enjoy doing a little community theater? You know…take the pressure off yourself. Just have fun. That moment had not yet arrived for Luke or Michelle. If it had, they would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime.

Performing Arts Studio West (PASW) in Inglewood, CA, has a long track record of developing talent. PASW is a privately owned, state funded facility opened in 1998 by founder/director John Paizis. Along with managing director Randy Klinenberg, he has assembled a remarkable group of dedicated entertainment industry professionals. The studio’s team includes actors, coaches, dancers, musicians, singers, writers, directors, technical personnel and managers, and they all have one common goal. Go straight to the heart of each performer, find their passion and set them on the path to fulfilling their dream. And if this isn’t a challenging enough task, each performer has a developmental disability. They disabilities include cognitive impairment, autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, seizure disorders and a wide variety of less familiar conditions and syndromes.

The last time ABILITY Magazine featured Performing Arts Studio West, back in July of 2006, their actors had booked more than 400 roles in film, television, commercial, music video, theater, print ad, training film, voice over, new media and documentary projects. More recently that number exceeded 850. PASW talent has worked as background performers, featured players, and guest stars for such TV shows as 7th Heaven, CSI:NY, and Cold Case. Most notably, PASW actor Nick Daley guest starred with Academy Award winning actor Holly Hunter in her TNT crime drama, Saving Grace, and PASW’s Nicholas Weiland guest starred in the landmark 300th episode of ER, working with Oscar nominee Peter Fonda.

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Luke Zimmerman joined Performing Arts Studio West in the summer of 2007. He had performed in musicals while a student at Beverly Hills High School, and appeared in a small role in a 1990 made-for-television film, Daughter of the Streets, starring John Stamos. He wanted to give acting another try and had heard that PASW might just be the best place to sharpen his skills.

Michelle Marks had been with PASW since 2003. Initially shy and reserved as a performer, she made a breakthrough as a comedic actress and singer in her appearance in the 2007 PASW multi-media musical comedy, The National Cesspool! In this story of the behind-the-scenes-workings of a tabloid newspaper, she played Loretta Longley, daughter of the Cesspool’s malevolent owner, Lucinda Longley. PASW staff saw a big future for Marks, if the right opportunity presented itself. As for Zimmerman, they would wait and see.

Images of Luke and Michelle having fun on the set of their new show

Both Luke and Michelle came out of special education programs in Los Angeles area public school systems. Although many of these programs are nurturing and competent at teaching basic academics and life skills that young people with disabilities need to move into adulthood, many students and their families ultimately begin to search for programs more tailored to helping the individual reach personal goals. For some, this means a stable job, perhaps in retail or food service. For others, it means an opportunity to explore creative expression. Some choose visual arts; others want to perform. Yet while most participants come to Performing Arts Studio West thinking that it is going to be all fun and games, they soon find out that is not the case.

The atmosphere at Performing Arts Studio West is energetic and relatively lighthearted, but classes, training and productions are a serious matter. The instructors at the studio work with the actors, musicians, singers and dancers as they would with anyone wanting to work professionally. They are supportive yet demanding. They ask performers to push beyond their comfort zone, encouraging them to dig deeper, mining their talent as if prospecting for gold. They strive to instill a sense of self-discipline and results that can be derived from hard work.

Professionalism is key because some of the opportunities that come along are high-level. Executive producer/writer Brenda Hampton was looking to cast a couple of actors with disabilities for an episode of her long running hit show 7th Heaven. The storyline included five characters with a variety of developmental disabilities, and she hoped to hire one or two actors with disabilities and mix them in with actors without disabilities to fill the other roles. When PASW talent director, Carmel Wynne, learned of the casting session, she arranged for ten of the studio’s actors to read for the five available roles. 7th Heaven casting director Vicki Huff and associate Rick Van Noy were so impressed that they filled all five roles with PASW talent.

“We had no reason to go elsewhere,” said Van Noy. “We had set up a huge session for [non-disabled] actors to read for the roles, and we ended up canceling them all.” These five actors and one additional actor from PASW were brought back for a second episode that same season. This was just the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

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According to Paizis, PASW’s talent director is a bit of a psychic. He stated, “Over the years, Carmel would say to me, ‘This is the year one of our guys is going to book a supporting role in a film.’ Or, ‘this year we’re getting a guest star role.’ More often than not, she was right.” After successful, high profile bookings of the studio’s actors on ER and Saving Grace in 2007, Wynne tossed off this proclamation: “2008 will be the year we book a series regular.”

In early February of that year, he learned of a project that was at the time simply titled, “The Untitled Brenda Hampton Project.” The production was looking to cast the role of an older brother of one of the lead teenage female roles. Because PASW actors had previously worked for Hampton, Wynne immediately shifted into high gear to find out more about the project. She learned that Hampton had written the older brother as having a developmental disability. PASW had three actors that Wynne felt could handle the demands of a recurring role. She submitted them immediately. She heard nothing for two weeks.

Wynne recalls, “At the beginning of the casting process for this role, we were again faced with challenges as the industry was [also] looking at actors without disabilities to play [this] character. After a month, the casting director at the production company couldn’t find what they were looking for, so they were open to seeing a few of our guys. They were delighted to find an actor with a disability who could authentically play this role.” That actor was PASW’s Zimmerman, a youthful looking 28- year-old with Down syndrome. And the “Untitled Brenda Hampton Project” became ABC Family’s runaway hit, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, starring Molly Ringwald as the mother of a 15 year old who becomes pregnant.

Right out of the gate, Hampton wanted to make Zimmerman’s character, Tom Bowman, an accurate depiction of a young man with a disability in his manner, speech, interests and interaction with his family. She talked with Zimmerman extensively about his life, his hobbies, his family and his relationships. The character of Tom is the adopted son of Dr. Marshall Bowman (John Schneider) and his wife Kathleen (Josie Bissett). His younger sister Grace (Megan Park) is the high school’s “Super-Christian” cheerleader. Tom is very protective of Grace and has a strong opinion about anyone she is dating.

Hampton and the Secret Life’s team of writers got to know Zimmerman better. They observed how he interacted with the young cast. They saw how he worked with the show’s seasoned actors. They measured his ability as an actor; watched how he followed direction; saw how he came off on screen. Something quickly became apparent. He was funny. Zimmerman had the ability to deliver comic dialogue in a way that depicted charm, intention and wit. With this discovery, Zimmerman went from originally being signed to do four episodes in season one to appearing in nine episodes.

As the first season progressed, Zimmerman revealed to Hampton that he thought his character should start dating. He was young, he was social, and, boy, did he ever want to get out of the Bowman’s living room and kitchen. The first segment of the show that dealt with this subject was taken from a story PASW director Paizis told Hampton about a former client with a disability who one night flipped through the yellow pages looking for companionship. An hour or so later, there was a knock on his door. When the man opened the door, there stood a no-nonsense escort. This potentially dangerous scenario was woven into part of the show’s storyline in the episode “A Slice of Life.” Although the seriousness of the situation was not ignored, the scene became one of the season’s funniest moments, brought to life by Zimmerman and the veteran character actress, Jennifer Coolidge (Best in Show, Zoolander) as the bighearted call girl, “Betty.”

But what about a real girlfriend for Tom? By the time episode twelve rolled around, Hampton knew it was time. She asked Paizis if he had anyone at the studio whom they thought could fill the roll. Within days a casting session was scheduled for four young actresses from Performing Arts Studio West. PASW acting coaches, Diana Jordan and Steve Niel, worked with the women to set just the right tone for what looked on paper to be a rather bold and sassy girlfriend named “Tammy.” Each one of the young women gave excellent readings, embodying this essence of the character and weaving it into their own unique personality. But it was the 22-year-old Michelle Marks who won the part.

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Paizis and the rest of the PASW staff found this to be a brilliant and bold choice for several reasons. Both race and disability had no part in the casting decision. Some might expect that because Zimmerman has Down syndrome, casting director Peter Pappas and Hampton would look to cast his girlfriend with an actress with the same syndrome and identifiable physical characteristics. But in fact, Marks is African-American, as attractive as any of the young women on the show and has only mild cerebral palsy. And this choice reflects the reality of relationships among adults with disabilities. It’s about a connection. It’s about love.

Hampton is so committed to providing opportunities to performers with developmental disabilities that she will be honored at Performing Arts Studio West’s first annual Awards Banquet and Fund Raiser, “A New Level of Success” at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 30, 2009. She will be joined at this star studded, red carpet event by fellow honorees, casting director John Levey (ER, The West Wing) and actor Robert David Hall (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), who have also demonstrated unwavering dedication as advocates for performers with disabilities.

The success of Zimmerman and Marks is something that the PASW staff passionately embraces. Coach Steve Niel says, “It makes me proud to see them grow and evolve as actors.” Managing director Klinenberg adds, “It’s been nothing short of amazing to me to see how the lives of these individuals and their families have changed through what we do here and in their participation in our program.”

The Secret Life of Success is no longer a secret.

Performing Arts Studio West and “A New Level of Success”

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