The Broadway Warm-Up had an exciting and enlightening conversation this afternoon with Jamibeth Margolis, a Casting Director based in New York City. Committed to developing and fostering the growth of new musicals, Ms. Margolis’ extensive resume is a testament to her passion for the field.
Previous credits include the Broadway and National Touring Companies of such hits as LES MISERABLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, MISS SAIGON, CATS, and JANE EYRE as well as two dozen other shows on Broadway. She also currently casts for Off Broadway, National Touring Companies and shows for prominent regional theaters and all of the major theater festivals in NYC. Her casting office is dedicated to the development of new plays and musicals. We were thrilled to get a few minutes of her time.
How did you first get into casting and why?
I actually majored in directing in college and I quickly learned that having a good cast makes the director’s job about 99% easier. I love actors, I’ve always loved actors. I’m not an actor, so I’m one of those casting directors who came to casting through directing and wanting to cast, not as an actor. When I moved to New York after college, I interned at a casting office with Johnson-Liff. I ended up staying with them for about 9 years. I actually did the internship as a way to learn more about casting for directing, but I caught the bug for casting there and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
What’s your favorite part about being a casting director?
My favorite part is watching actors do really well in the room. And telling them when they book a gig is the ultimate best part. Especially when I get to call the actor directly to tell them. They’re so excited. I love that.
It can be such a tough industry sometimes. That moment will always be so joyful.
Exactly. But also watching actors grow. I can think of cases where actors auditioned for me for the same show three, four, even five times, and then on the fifth time booked it. It happens as they’ve been studying, working, taking class and growing, which is great to see.
The Broadway Warm-Up is building a community of creatives looking to be the best they can be at what they do. I’d love to pick your brain for some that might help actors perform better in the room. First, should an actor go in for something they might not necessarily be right for? Or is that a waste of everyone’s time?
I think you have to believe you’re right for it in some way to make sure it’s worth everybody’s time. That said, people surprise us constantly. People change our minds in the room constantly. There’s been so many times where a director says, “Oh, I want it to be blonde,” then a tall brunette walks in and he hires her and completely changes the way he saw it. Certainly it’s actors who have the power to change our minds, so absolutely it’s worth taking a risk. Within reason. I prefer that I see actors really read breakdowns, but of course you can take a risk on something you think might be right for.
What’s the best way to follow up to build a relationship following auditions/callbacks?
I like when people send me “Thank-You” notes. When they send notes with specific things that they’re in, you know, they’ll say ,“You called me in for this project, I’m in this great show at the Fringe Festival if you want to see more of my work.” I like that. I think you need to have a closer relationship with casting to email us.
How do you feel about Non-Union performers waiting to be seen for union EPAs?
I think it’s great. At the last couple of EPAs that I’ve been at, not only have we seen Non-Union performers, we’ve hired some of them. They’ve had great, long-lasting jobs from those. It takes patience and perseverance but I think it’s worth it. Especially when you’re new to the city, we need to see you. We need to know you’re there. Part of it is we’re all doing multiple projects. I’ll pull someone for a different show. That happens all the time.
Can you talk about how to dress for an audition? If an actor is auditioning for RENT, how far should they go with the look? Where do you draw the line?
My preference is that you just give us a suggestion — an essence of the show, the style, the time period. And that you understand the piece. I think some people go too far and it’s a costume. That’s not what we want. We want to see you comfortable in your own clothes. You’re not going to wear the same outfit for your RENT audition as your audition for OKLAHOMA. You would look ridiculous.
In a callback or an audition where you have the sides beforehand, how important is it to be memorized?
I actually prefer when they’re not memorized. Callbacks are not a memorization test. Sometimes actors think too much about the words and not about the acting and the interpretation. When the director gets up and gives them an adjustment, it’s really hard for them to take that adjustment in their new material. So it’s better to have it in your hand as a crutch, not buried in it, but have it there.
If a song is known to be overdone, would it still be okay to use if you sing it well?
That’s tricky. It depends on particular people in the room and particular casting directors. Different people have aversions to different songs. I don’t mind it personally. If you do something well and feel like you own it, you should do it for us.
How do you feel about vocal embellishment/riffing during audition songs?
If we give you sides that contain music from the score, you should sing as written from the score. Do not embellish it. We’re not asking you to make it up, we’re asking you to do what’s on the page. However, a little bit of your own interpretation and styling, especially in pop/rock auditions, can be great if you make it part of the story.
If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?
My dream is to work in any way with Hal Prince. I’ve always wanted to. In fact, I wrote my senior thesis paper on his directing. I’ve been a fan of his since my senior year of college. So, whether it’s in a rehearsal or casting a reading, it would be amazing.
Speaking of readings – I know that you work on developing new musicals. When is the ideal time for a new show to bring on a casting director?
I think that the best time for us to come on board is the first actual staged reading for a public performance. The table reads are so tremendously helpful for the writers, but it’s hard to bring a Casting Director in at that stage. When you have a script that you can send to an actor and it’s printed out and ready to go, that’s when we should come on board.
Is it helpful when the writers have a dream cast in mind?
Absolutely, yeah. I love that. It helps guide my decision of who to bring in.
Do you find yourself giving artistic feedback relating to casting when you encounter roles in brand new musicals that may be “un-castable?”
I’ve been very challenged and amazingly, in New York there’s someone who can do it. I’ve cast a NYMF show where a woman had to play upper-level classical piano and do Shakespeare. I found six. it’s amazing! Sometimes I’ll guide a writer in an early stage towards an actor whose audition was impressive, but that’s about it.
What factors make a great audition?
For me, it’s that you look great. Your presentation. Your preparation – If I say we want a 1960s pop/rock song, that’s what you bring in. You listen and you’re ready for the curveballs. If we want to hear something else, you’re ready. You understand how to be confident without showing a huge ego in the room. There’s a really big difference between being confident in your abilities and seeming like you have a big ego.
I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s a narrow line.
Yeah, I love confident actors who still make me feel like spending eight hours a day in rehearsals with them. That’s the trick, you know?
Has there been a time when you cast someone and you found out during the process that maybe things didn’t work —- what do you do when there’s a casting issue?
Every situation is different. Certainly as a Casting Director, I think we all welcome feedback from our creative team. If someone was particularly great or particularly terrible to work with, we need to know that. I always welcome that feedback.
If you could give one piece of advice to an actor auditioning for you – what would it be?
Preparation is the difference maker.
Are there any shows you’re dying to see? Shows you’ve recommended to your friends?
There was one week recently where I saw the FIDDLER revival which I loved. And WAITRESS was awesome. FUN HOME as well. I loved them all, and I saw them days apart from each other.
Any movies you recommend actors watch?
For a good acting lesson, you should see AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY.
If you weren’t working in theater, what would you be doing?
My other dream is to manage ice hockey teams. I am obsessed with ice hockey. I love the business side of theater and so I also imagine either managing a hockey team or managing players — It’d be fabulous for me.
Is there anything you wish you learned at school that you learned after graduation?
I think about that question a lot because I teach “The Business of Acting.” When we’re in college we’re all thinking about our talent and our creativity and owning our craft which is really important. Getting all the skills. But you can’t forget the business part of it. Marketing, promotion, online presence, looking great – follow up, thank you notes – It’s really no different than the corporate world. I wish I had thought more about those in undergrad – I would’ve approached job interviews differently, that kind of thing.
That’s something you learn only by doing. I suppose it’s really important that we are proactive and take things in our own hands?
We have to be proactive and we have to network. We have to remember that reputation is really important.
I’ve heard it said that this is a business of relationships. Have you crossed paths with many of the same people over the years?
Absolutely. I have collaborated with the same people a lot on different projects. It’s one of the things that I love. When a director that I adore calls me and says, “We’ve got a new musical, can you cast that?” That’s what I love.
Great, I think I have a lot to work with here. I really appreciate your time.
Great! This was fun. Thanks for doing this.