The Guthrie may not seem like an obvious steppingstone to a future in sitcoms, but it worked just fine for Aya Cash. The San Francisco native, who stars in Fox's new ensemble comedy "Traffic Light," was in the inaugural class of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Partnership, a unique program that provides classical training for aspiring actors while making sure they get a proper four-year education.

"Being a good actor is being a well-rounded person, and if you don't have knowledge outside of acting, then you've got nothing to draw from," said Cash, who was among the 15 "guinea pig" students who graduated in 2004. "I mean, more power to the folks that come straight to L.A., but I know I needed four years. I wanted to learn how to play."

Cash said the Guthrie classes taught her first and foremost to be an artist and worry about the business aspect later, something she might not have done if she had gone to another school.

"There's a true artistic soul at the Guthrie, and sometimes in a place like New York, the soul can get swallowed," she said. "They really made me search for who I am as a person."

Cash's class, which included Kendyl Watson, a regular in TV One's "Love That Girl," was instrumental in shaping the direction and content of the partnership, said program director Judy Bartl.

"I call those kids the pioneers," she said. "We had a plan on where we wanted to go, but we spent a lot of time in discussion with them and what was the best way to implement things."

Cash recalls that one sticking point was the amount of "free time" the program initially proposed for them. The students wanted less of it.

"They were hungry and eager," said Ken Washington, director of company development for the program. "There was no downtime with them. They were blazing the path."

Out of hundreds, only 20

Hundreds of students apply each year for a spot in the 20-person program. Those who are selected spend Mondays during the school year at the Guthrie while continuing a full education at the university. As juniors, students take a semester in London, then step up their time at the Guthrie until they graduate with a bachelor of fine arts degree.

Cash, daughter of award-winning poet Kim Addonizio and granddaughter of former Wimbledon tennis champ Pauline Betz, was an early standout who made the most out of her experience in the program, at least when she wasn't working at Noodles & Co. in Stadium Village.

She spent two summers with the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minn., then after graduation hotfooted it to New York, where she built a strong reputation as a theater actress, appearing alongside Dylan McDermott, Rosemarie DeWitt and F. Murray Abraham. But a rich résumé doesn't necessarily lead to rich paychecks.

"I was a pretty successful stage actress in New York, but I was still struggling to pay rent every month," said Cash, who kept a waitressing job even when she was getting raves for her theater work. "I shouldn't say this, but this TV job probably overpays you. You're getting paid back for six years of struggling."

Cash, 28, said the Guthrie training doesn't always apply to film and TV work. She admitted that she's actually had to "unlearn" some techniques, such as projecting her voice to be heard in the cheap seats.

Bartl said Guthrie instructors have considered offering training for actors auditioning for the camera. But for now, they plan to stick to the classics -- more than a nod to founder Tyrone Guthrie, who built his theater in Minneapolis in large part because he wanted to be near a major educational institution. "We'd love to do it," she said, "but there's just not enough time and so much to learn." • 612-673-7431 • Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin