Award: A local actress was recognized for her work with immigrants who want to work in entertainment. Courtesy image

Natalia Lazarus, multi-talented actress, director and teacher, has received a commendation from City Council honoring 25 years of helping international students break into the entertainment industry through her conservatory program.

Lazarus, who originally hails from Honduras, was able to find success in Hollywood through a combination of talent, tenacity, and educational opportunity. Knowing there were many immigrants striving and struggling to do the same, she co-founded the Los Angeles Performing Arts Conservatory in 1996 to train aspiring international artists.

Over the last 25 years, LAPAC and its accompanying performance venue the Promenade Playhouse have successfully launched the careers of scores of talented immigrants.

Notable alumni include Ken Jeong, stand-up comedian and star in the Hangover film series; Sharif Atkins, known for his roles in ER and Guardians of the Galaxy; and Tiffany Elle, who starred in Better Things and The High Note.

“Many of these students leave everything in their home country to come train with us,” said Lazarus. “To see them graduate and then be able to stay and live in this country following their dreams is the most fulfilling thing.”

The road to Hollywood success is incredibly complex and competitive for all artists. It is even more challenging for immigrants who lack industry connections, often speak English as a second language, and must navigate difficult visa processes to simply remain in the US.

LAPAC is set up to help students overcome all of these barriers while also providing top notch training in acting, screenwriting, and filmmaking.

Even through the manifold challenges of the pandemic, Lazarus and the LAPAC team have continued to pursue their mission and support their students.

In the spring of 2020, they rapidly transitioned to online learning when immigration announced that students with F1 Visas could only remain if their institution offered distance learning. When this rule changed in the fall to only allow students to remain if their school offered in-person learning, the conservatory pivoted again.

With assistance and approval from the City, LAPAC was able to create a Covid-19 safe outdoor classroom program that provided a vital lifeline to young artists who otherwise would have had to leave the country.

“We were out in the courtyard with masks with six foot distancing every day,” said Lazarus. “When students would perform they would have face shields on so that the instructors could see their face and then we had giant pieces of plexiglass that divided the actors from each other.”

While far from ideal, these creative adaptations and the dedication of students and staff allowed the conservatory’s work to go on while almost everything else ground to a halt. By utilizing LAPAC’s courtyard space and a stage on the Promenade, students from Japan, Algeria, Austria, Germany, Mexico, Denmark, the Philippines, Thailand and India were able to train together.

For students who were not able to attend in-person, LAPAC continued to offer its virtual classes, which vastly expanded the reach of its programming.

“It was kind of a blessing in disguise because now we have permanent permission from the accrediting body and from the state of California that our programs can be online,” said Lazarus. “It gives the opportunity for students in other states and other countries to begin their studies with us if they can’t immediately come to Los Angeles.”

LAPAC has continuously morphed and grown over the past 25 years and Lazarus is excited to see where the next chapter takes the organization.

The Conservatory’s existing campus is slated for demolition as the aging building is over 100 years old. While finding a new location is a significant challenge, it also provides a unique opportunity to expand the scale and range of LAPAC’s programming.

In the meantime, Lazarus and the LAPAC staff will be soaking in the accomplishment of their 25th anniversary.

“All of us at the LAPAC and our Playhouse are greatly appreciative of the honor and continuing support Mayor Himmelrich and the Santa Monica City Council have bestowed upon our organization throughout our history” stated Lazarus. “Being acknowledged by the City is very special to us.”