In a small room on the lonely island of Manhattan, 12 people are describing the anguish of divorce, disease and other traumas of daily life. So what else is new? Ah, but this is not group therapy or est: It's Mary Jo Slater's four-hour night class in soap opera acting. For most of those in the six-week, six-session course, the real crisis at hand is how to move from driving a cab and waiting tables to a lucrative job on daytime TV. Slater, 36, has been teaching that art for four and a half years at the Weist-Barron Acting for Television School, which has the nation's oldest presoap curriculum. One of Mary Jo's trademarks is her bluntness. "You've got a weight problem," she informs an actress working in front of the cameras in her studio-classroom. "Get rid of that accent," she advises a young man from North Carolina, then chides an 18-year-old girl for her "teenager diction." But they are an ever-hopeful bunch. Says Ed Loughlin, a retired school principal who at 59 is Slater's eldest charge, "With Mary Jo cracking the whip, I might make it."

Slater has proven her expertise. For the past two years she has also been the casting director of the popular ABC soap One Life to Live. In that capacity, she fills about 100 new roles a week. A union complaint that she might give preference to her students, who pay $300 for her course, led ABC to rule that they are ineligible for parts on One Life for six months after graduation. Still, one student admits, "She's a connection. I took the course to meet her."

Students must audition for the class. "I'm not here to teach acting," Slater says. What she does teach is how to adapt acting skills to the soaps. In the theater, she explains, performers have lots of room to run around, but on TV they must emote in a very small space—as well as deal with implausible plot twists and occasionally one-dimensional characters. ("You'd be a good pimp," she tells one student, while advising another, "You're a good kookie-girl type.") She encourages her charges to avoid overdramatizing steamy scenes, and emphasizes that they must learn to keep the action rolling no matter what miscues, flubbed lines or other calamities they encounter. Soap directors seldom have time to reshoot a scene.

Three of Slater's former students now have contract roles on soaps, at salaries of $1,000 and up a week, and more work as "day players" for $500 or more a day. Many more become "under-fives"—actors who have five or fewer lines per show and are paid $175 a day—or $100-a-day extras. But some never get hired at all. Says Slater, "I tell them the odds are against them, but it's not my job to tell them to get out of the business." One problem is that, despite a rise in roles for blacks and some ethnics (though not, so far, Hispanics), soap producers still mainly go for the "California look," says Slater. "It's boring, but that's what the ladies in the Midwest want to see."

Born Mary Jo Lawton in Trenton, N.J., she escaped from an unhappy childhood into acting, at first in kiddie shows in her backyard. After high school she studied at New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts long enough to find out "I was awful." But she did marry an actor named Thomas Slater. She also took a secretarial job in an agent's office, and while there helped her mate find work. He has appeared in several soaps and in films (including a small part in Mommie Dearest). Their son, Christian, a budding performer who is now 13, landed the role of young King Arthur in Merlin, magician Doug Henning's Broadway musical.

In 1976, with her marriage in trouble (it ended in divorce two years later), Mary Jo returned to Manhattan with Christian. She found work in a Broadway producer's office and soon was helping to cast such shows as Neil Simon's California Suite and Chapter Two. That led to her job on One Life.

Last October Slater cast herself in a new role, marrying her longtime boyfriend, Jeffrey Wilson, a 38-year-old Palm Springs, Calif. builder. Even after their child is born, they'll maintain two residences. They visit each other once a month, but Slater admits preferring her New York apartment, which boasts both a profusion of pictures of her actor friends and a view of Broadway. She goes to the theater three or four nights a week to spot upcoming talent.

To attract her attention, actors have sent her everything from sexy nightgowns to cakes with messages and even socks with their pictures imprinted on the soles. Slater calls such ploys "unprofessional." What does impress a casting director, then? Something dramatic, she suggests. "If you're wonderful in a small play, call to invite her to the theater and say, 'I'll have a limo stocked with champagne waiting to pick you up at 8.' It shows you have a little style."