Scientology’s Tribeca run receiving mixed reviews

By Jane Flanagan

Downtown Express photo by Akiko Miyazaki

Visitors to the Scientology exhibit near a picture of L. Ron Hubbard, the group’s founder.

Being an actor can be a frustrating, lonely existence.

So it’s not surprising that some aspiring thespians are attracted to the Church of Scientology, founded in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, to help creative people achieve their goals. The group’s New York branch has been renting a Greenwich St. space for two weeks, just north of the Tribeca Film Festival headquarters. It is displaying an exhibit chronicling Hubbard’s prolific, varied career as well as conducting acting seminars.

“How to Book Acting Jobs,” was the title of one given recently by Al Sapienza, known for his role as “Mikey” on “The Sopranos.” While acknowledging that only five percent of the members of the Actors Equity union earn a living, Sapienza said that any talented performer can make it if they just refuse to give up.

“You have to keep working,” said Sapienza, who said he took acting classes in Los Angeles for 14 years. He also relayed inspiring stories, including one about a painfully shy man who went on to become a successful actor.

It’s talks like these, along with courses on improving relationships and achieving goals, that is the mainstay of the Church of Scientology, which has centers around the world. The group maintains its permanent New York City home in a townhouse on the Upper East Side.

That the photography show at 447 Greenwich St. coincided with the film festival is accidental, according to Becky Minkoff, a staff member conducting tours.

Both the festival and exhibit opened on May 3. The festival closed May 11 and the exhibit will be open until May 14.

The show, which is traveling to several countries, was only just released from London, Minkoff said. Tribeca was chosen to attract the many artists who live in the area. Still, she is glad it also attracted festival goers. About 100 people a day have been stopping in, she said.

Minkoff, a young fashion designer, joined the group four years ago, to boost her flagging spirits.

“As an artist there is a lot of pressure. People want to suppress your creativity,” she said. “Scientology teaches you how to handle that and develop self confidence and drive,” she said.

Judging from the comments scribbled in a visitor’s log, the group has that effect on a lot of people.

“I want to accomplish my goals, like this artist,” said one person after viewing the 45-panel exhibit. Another visitor, a Tribecan, wrote after viewing the work of Hubbard, who wrote pulp fiction, screen plays and photographed his travels around the world, “I want to get more done in my life.” (Hubbard died in 1986.)

But not everyone was moved. Two young actors, who did not want to give their names, found themselves at the exhibit inadvertently. They had been handed a ticket after exiting the subway which advertised a free photography exhibit. They didn’t realize it was about Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. (The back of the ticket mentioned Hubbard, but not Scientology.) One of the two said the idea of struggling actors paying for inspirational courses disturbed him. Another said he found so many pictures of Hubbard unsettling, and he felt it smacked of a cult.

Yet the price for the two-hour actor’s seminar was $15, less than many acting seminars. Courses at the Uptown headquarters are $30 to $80 for a 15-20 hour session, according to Lori Alpers, the president.

Still, an indication that there’s more to Scientology than the motivational, comes from the group’s Web site. It describes a Boston member who says he brought a 13-year-old boy out of a coma by administering special Scientology procedures.

Another visitor to the exhibit was neither skeptical nor enthusiastic. William Zitser, 24, a native of Venezuela, who said he writes for documentary films, thought the show was interesting but said he wouldn’t be pursuing anything further.

“I’m not in a very spiritual time in my life now,” he said. “I’ll get there, but I have to get rid of some stuff first.”


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