In UCSD Theatre’s recent staging of The Physicists, Michelle Diaz played Sister Boll, a monobrowed, lock-stepping head nurse at a sanitarium. Diaz made bold physical choices, including reps of one-armed push-ups. Larry Herron played Johan Wilhelm Mobius, who’s either a psychotic channeling King Solomon or a genius physicist. Third-year students in the master of fine arts program, Diaz and Herron are among the most talented I’ve ever seen at UCSD. They graduate March 22. As I watched them and recalled their excellent earlier work, including roles in The Deception at La Jolla Playhouse last summer, I couldn’t help wondering: where do they go from here?

The answer: a leap into the unknown.

“We’re in grad school,” says Herron, 27, “next to future engineers and scientists who will make a LOT of money, while we may have to work at Starbucks for months at a time, or other odd jobs, before landing a role. But that’s not terrible to me. I have no other choice. Acting’s the only thing I get this excited about.”

UCSD provides graduates with an interim step before the leap: The Showcase or, as it’s sometimes called in private, “March Madness in May.” Each year, the three nationally top-ranked MFA programs — Yale, NYU, and UCSD — perform twice in New York and twice in Los Angeles before casting directors, managers, theater, film, and TV people. UCSD has 35 minutes, total, to highlight its ten graduating actors. The time limit includes scenes, two and a half to three minutes each, and scene changes.

Herron: “Three minutes to set a situation, move, show a ‘side’ of your ability, and move off. You fit all these qualities into this weird little capsule.”

Each actor has two scenes at the showcase. They should avoid the obvious material, done 100 times, and any used in previous showcases. “It’s a giant puzzle,” says Diaz, 31, “getting scenes for both actors that show what each can do. And there’s something else: some of us know people in the other programs — so okay, there’s a bit of a rivalry.”

Planning began last summer. The ten third-year MFAs, says Diaz, “read, read, watched movies, looked at scripts, at mountains of material” to find scenes that work best for any sort of pairing. In September they began meeting twice a week, three hours each time, to report findings (“this scene might be good for X or Y”). The “gathering” process, a real-life Rubik’s Cube of mixing and matching, is still ongoing.

“Showcase” is a misnomer. At best, actors can only show a “side” of their abilities in a scene, not their range. For Diaz and Herron, the question becomes, which side?

Diaz: “Do I present myself as a character actor? As someone who plays strong women? My last name is ethnic. Do I play the Latina card? But then what: comedic? dramatic? And once you’ve picked one scene, how do you choose the second? You can shoot yourself in the foot with the wrong material. It gets REAL complicated.”

An intangible: at the showcase, says Herron, many scouts will just be “shopping” for specific types — male or female ingénues, certain character traits — to put to work right away. For that reason, “Some UCSD faculty don’t like the showcase. It isn’t the culmination of our work for the last three years.”

And they have grown: when she auditioned for the MFA program, Diaz did a monologue “big and loud and danced a salsa through the whole thing”; two years later, she performed the same monologue sitting down and “dealing with the character through myself and not as a mask.”

Shortly before the graduation ceremony, third-year students will perform their scenes before UCSD faculty, not as finished products but for feedback. If one doesn’t work, they may scrap it, try another, and rehearse the final choices until May. During the entire process, from last summer until the showcase, the students will have logged in as many hours as most take to write a master’s thesis.

In April, as they rehearse, uncertainty will be ever-present: Have I chosen the best possible scenes? Will I do well in the showcase? Where will I live this summer?

The event itself adds more pressure. In New York, Herron and Diaz perform once in the afternoon, again in the evening. After the latter, they’ll “probably hang out backstage” and wait for the scouts to submit their marked forms. These may request head shots and bios or — the major hope — a meeting. A stage manager for each program will collect the forms, put them into packets, and bring them to the awaiting actors. Some packets may be empty.

Herron and Diaz helped third-years set the stage at the two previous Los Angeles showcases. Watching some scouts was disillusioning, says Herron: “Guy sits there with a form to fill out. Actor walks on. Guy checks a box, even before the scene starts!

The showcase may, or may not, be a springboard. In the past, some actors received no responses and are now working professionals. Others got several and have worked rarely since.

“A lot could be at stake,” says Herron. “But once the showcase starts, you block it out. You’ve got a scene partner or partners. Commit to them. That’s it. No choice.”

Since all their preparation points to six minutes in May, it’s hard for Herron and Diaz to look beyond. But asked to name roles that call to her from the future, Diaz said Chekhov (Masha, Arkadina down the line) and Lorca; Herron: Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun and Othello. For both, live theater is their first choice. But if offered three jobs at the showcase — one in theater, one in film, and one in TV — they wouldn’t necessarily choose the stage.

“Right now? I’d take the highest-paying one,” says Diaz. “I’d rather do theater for the art and the love, but I’m just coming out of grad school. I have student loans, bills to pay.

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