Dallas — Situated in a strip mall near the Dallas Market Center, KD Conservatory looks small for a college. But, like the Tardis in Dr. Who, the outside seems much smaller than the interior. Sitting in the lobby, it is hard to believe that on top of housing administrative offices, KD has 12 classrooms, two casting studios, a sound booth, an insert stage, thrust theatre, a 150-seat black box theatre, and a small library.
Through the halls and around every corner within the 25,000 square-foot school, the walls are covered in notice boards and film posters. The posters are accompanied by note cards explaining how the actors, film crew or producers have ties to KD. Among KD’s notable alumni are Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation actor George Eads, Kevin McHale of Glee, and Nadine Marissa of The Walking Dead.
In a nearby studio, Sarah Rutan’s musical theater students are practicing their phonetics. Collective voices ebb and flow down the hall, sounding almost like ceremonial chanting.
“[Rutan] is all about perfection,” acting program chair and director Mike Schraeder says, smiling as he walks past the classroom.
Founded in 1979 by Kathy Tyner and modeling impresario Kim Dawson, KD Conservatory is an accredited acting school catering to just over 100 students. Here students can earn associate degrees in acting, musical theater, or film production. KD also hosts children’s workshops and summer camps. This year marks the 40th anniversary since the school’s founding.
Schraeder explains that until the ’70s and ’80s, Dallas was not a large market for professional actors.
“Some of the NY people kind of perceive Texas as all cowboys and ranchers,” Schraeder says. “But that’s not true.”
During that time, Tyner was working for the Kim Dawson Agency as a producer, booking agent, and general manager. When shows like Dallas brought the city wider recognition in the entertainment industry, Tyner approached Dawson and proposed they start an acting program to give local talent a wider range of marketable skills.
After researching similar course offerings at other Dallas schools, they added camera-work courses to the list. On the opposite side of the building they occupy today, they rented a 3,000 square-foot space and opened KD in 1979.
A challenge they faced early on, Tyner says, was bringing in students. It took time for the school to establish itself, she says, with roughly 40-60 students in the first year of the acting program. In those early years, the classes were not very diverse.
“The first class was all white” Tyner says, looking over group photos from previous semesters. The second year there was one black student, and in 1987 KD had its first Latino student.
While the student body remains small compared to other area schools — 111 students as of October 2018 — KD has diversified significantly since the ’70s. KD’s 2018 enrollment statistics show more non-white students, both males and females, with females showing an almost equal proportion of black, Hispanic, and white students.
“We’re very proud of our diversity,” Tyner says.
While administrative hurdles like government regulations have changed, Tyner says today’s KD is pretty much the same in spirit as when the school opened. This is particularly tied to the influence of Kim Dawson, whose personable character and drive to help others lives on today in the school’s mission statement: to give students the chance “to realize their full potential in the entertainment field.”
“She was the biggest cheerleader in the world,” Tyner says of Dawson. “It didn’t matter who she was talking to, she treated everyone the same.”
Why do students come to KD? Schraeder says even though KD is “about the size of your average theatre department,” it’s the only school of its kind outside of New York City and Los Angeles. The school is unique in many ways, one being that fourth-term students can network with potential agents through showcases, performances, and from training with actors still in the business.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of universities that have that pipe line into this industry,” Schraeder says. With such small enrollment the classes are intimate with a low student-to-teacher ratio.
Schraeder, who was one of the founders of Dallas’ Second Thought Theatre, is program director of the acting performance. Leading the musical theater program is Michael Serrecchia, a local director who was in the original cast of A Chorus Line on Broadway; and Robert J. Castaldo heads the film program. Notable instructors have included local stage and film actors John S. Davies, Linda Leonard, T.A. Taylor, for whom the black box theatre is named, and Alison Tolman (TV's Fargo, Good Girls).
“We do kind of have this family atmosphere,” he says. “We know everybody and they all know us.”
First-year acting student Christian Medina says he chose to pursue acting because it makes him feel like a kid again — playing pretend and wearing costumes.
“I think it’s the fact that I get to play something or someone that I’m not used to being,” Medina says.
While most KD alumni go on to become musicians, actors, and producers, others have gone into careers outside of entertainment — lawyers, motivational speakers, and even an inventor. Schraeder says it’s OK to go into non-entertainment jobs after graduation, since acting training can help you no matter your profession.
“I think anybody that has a little bit of acting training, it’s going to be beneficial,” he says.
What makes acting helpful, Schraeder says, is it allows you to develop not just fictional characters but also your character. Really, he says, we all play multiple roles in our lives.
Medina says his first three months at KD have forced him to come out of his comfort zone and try new things. He described the school environment as “Challenging, but in a good way.”
“I didn’t see myself coming to a conservatory up until three months ago,” Medina says. “Now that I’m here I’ve kind of already found what I want to do in life.” Medina started acting through theater classes in middle school and had several friends who attended KD after high school. While he says he wasn’t sure it was right for him, Medina decided to give KD a chance.
Because acting carries with it a stereotype of being cut-throat and competitive, Medina says he was nervous about not fitting in when he arrived at KD. He says he quickly learned that attending KD was the right choice.
“I’m glad to know that there are people out there who support each other, and we all support each other in what we do and what we want,” he says. “I really like that about this school.”
For Medina, what’s really made an impact, he says, is the relationships he’s formed with other KD students and faculty.
KD Conservatory is now partnering with the Trinity River Arts Center to offer an acting class designed for young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The course is called Social Skills on the Stage. It was developed after a parent told KD staff he had noticed significant improvements in his child’s sociability. The man suggested KD design a specific course for other students on the spectrum so they could learn to open up and feel comfortable engaging with others.
The Social Skills on the Stage pamphlet describes the course as one designed to help young adults 16 to 30-years-old develop verbal and non-verbal skills and to handle social obstacles. This is done through theatre games and exercises like role playing. Overall, theatre training is beneficial for all students — with or without learning challenges.
Medina had some advice for incoming students: “Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Don’t be afraid of the people who you think are going to hurt you or betray you. Because, honestly, once you come in here, it’s life changing.”
After school, Medina plans to go into professional acting, either in theatre or film/television. Both have their pros and cons.
One thing is certain, though — for now, he’s staying in Dallas.
“I have no money for New York or California,” he says, laughing.
» Enrollment for the fall semester is happening now