October 25, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Where does it come from, this bizarre compulsion to bray into a microphone or to weep before a camera or to hunker down alone and jittery in front of a computer screen, making up characters and quips and killer scenes? Is it the result of a rogue genetic mishap — the showbiz chromosome? Can it be cured by a steady regimen of therapy and meds? Is it a blessing or a curse?

Geoffrey Rush’s character summed it up best with one simple line from Shakespeare in Love: ”It’s a mystery.” The impulse that makes you want to be an actor or a singer or a writer — instead of a lawyer, like that smart sister of yours — lies beyond instant comprehension. So in this kickoff section to our special issue, we’ll explore practical ways that you can help that mysterious urge take wing. You’ll hear about the finest film schools, the niftiest ways to get money to make an indie movie, the richest gold mines for showbiz info on the Internet. And since we suspect that talent might just be a genetic dispensation, we’ll raise our curtain with the fourth-generation scion of an American acting dynasty, Drew Barrymore…

For anybody who dreams of a life entertaining people, it’s the mythic moment: the breakthrough. That glorious, head-spinning day when somebody somewhere finally notices you. In a 1937 essay called ”Early Success,” F. Scott Fitzgerald remembered it like this: ”Then the postman rang, and that day I quit work and ran along the streets, stopping automobiles to tell friends and acquaintances about it — my novel This Side of Paradise was accepted for publication. That week the postman rang and rang, and I paid off my terrible small debts, bought a suit, and woke up every morning with a world of ineffable toploftiness and promise.”

Before that delirium, of course, comes a lot of drudgery. In the next few pages, EW explores where, when, and why such a breakthrough is likely to take shape. You’ll get firsthand reports from survivors of the William Morris Agency mailroom, where future moguls pay their dues. You’ll sift through the strivers with an A&R scout hunting for the next Barbra, Bowie, or Bizkit. You’ll hear the weird true stories behind the one-in-a-million discoveries of Ella Fitzgerald, Burt Lancaster, and Lana Turner. (Pssst: They didn’t find Lana in Schwab’s.)

And if you’re lucky, one fine day…

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