A Life in the Theatre: Bernard Telsey

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Bernard Telsey Meet Broadway casting director Bernard Telsey, currently represented by In the Heights, South Pacific and Wicked.
Bernard Telsey
Bernard Telsey

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Bernard Telsey has worked in the theatre for nearly 30 years. He is head of Telsey + Company casting, a premier theatre and film casting company in New York. He is also co-founding artistic director of the Off-Broadway MCC Theatre and is New York vice president of the Casting Society of America. His many Broadway casting credits include Rent, Hairspray, In the Heights, South Pacific and Wicked; last season's Equus, Next to Normal, Reasons to Be Pretty (first presented at MCC), Rock of Ages and 9 to 5; and the forthcoming Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark; Catch Me If You Can; and The Addams Family.

Q: So how did it all begin? When did you first decide that the theatre was where you wanted to be?

A: I started doing theatre in day camp — Jewish day camp in Elmont, Long Island, the summer after sixth grade. Part of camp life was doing musicals, so my friend and I said, 'Let's do this.' I played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and Friedrich (one of the von Trapp sons) in The Sound of Music. It might have been the last time I sang. And I was just hooked. It was the sense of community — it didn't matter who or what anybody was, there was an instant sense of bonding and family while doing a play. It eventually turned into a sense of collaboration, with the directors, producers and actors, which remains with me and out of which can come a piece of theatre like Next to Normal.

Q: Where did you go from there? How did you turn day camp into a career? A: I grew up in Elmont, which is on the border of Queens and Nassau County — older brother, mom and dad. There was never really any theatre in our lives. But after day camp, I looked for theatre in seventh grade. I immediately joined the theatre group, and by ninth grade I was running the high school theatre guild. I loved being in charge and organizing things. It became a place for me to have my high school sense of identity. I dived into raising money for the theatre department, and trying to break the boundaries and do more things in high school theatre than we had ever done. I also got hooked on community theatre — I was the youngest, hanging out with all those 30-year-olds. That's how I got a ride to and from the theatre. I started learning about stage management and administration. Community theatre for me was not so much about acting as it was all the other aspects of theatre.

Q: Would you take us through college and how you got started?

A: I looked for a producing program in college, and I studied both acting and theatre management at NYU. I also interned with not-for-profit theatres. I met the actor Robert LuPone, who was a professor at NYU. He gave this incredible acting class, and we got along great, and then, literally upon graduation in 1981, there was a bunch of us who said, 'Let's start this club. We'll call it the Class Company, because we came out of a class.' From 1982 through 1985 it was a club where theatre people could work on their craft. And then in 1986 we said, 'Let's become this not-for-profit and start producing plays.' So Bobby and I started the Manhattan Class Company. We met William Cantler, who became our associate artistic director, and we did an evening of one-acts. One of them, Beirut, by Alan Bowne, which was sort of the first heterosexual AIDS play, got this huge review in The New York Times and moved commercially Off-Broadway. It starred Marisa Tomei, before she was Marisa Tomei. We decided that this theatre company idea made sense, and that we should continue to do it. And we've been doing it for 23 years. One of our plays, Wit, by Margaret Edson, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize.

Q: How did you begin your career as a casting director?

A: After graduation, sort of simultaneously, I fell into casting. When you graduated from NYU, if you wanted a career on the producing side, the theatre management program would introduce you around. I didn't want to take a full-time job, because I was idealistic and thought, 'I'm starting a theatre company.' Who knew what it would be like? But I was introduced to the casting directors Meg Simon and Fran Kumin, who were looking for a part-time assistant. I started working for them right upon graduation. And I immediately loved it.

Q: What is it about casting that appealed?

A: I was still acting, and I was getting some jobs. I understudied Matthew Broderick in Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway. I started watching auditions and going to the theatre with Meg and Fran pretty much every night, and I saw what great actors can do. I was literally blown away — I get the chills right now, talking about it — when I saw those incredible actors auditioning or on the stage. I didn't know who many of those people were. They weren't stars. They were just unbelievably good actors. I thought, 'I can't act like that, I know I can't tap into those emotions.' But if I can help find jobs for people who can, that seemed like a great idea. I worked for Meg and Fran for six years and it was the best education of my life. I also worked as a casting director at Risa Bramon & Billy Hopkins casting. And then in 1988 I went out on my own.

Q. What does a casting director actually do?

A. For me, casting is about trying to serve the vision of the creative team — the director most likely, or the writer or the producer. Our job is to try to present actors who we feel can really do the role and fulfill that vision. The creative team relies on us to narrow the choices down for them. If the director wants to see five people or 20 people, our job is to figure out who those people are. Sometimes you're casting something like Rent, and you're searching the universe for unknown rock and roll singers, and sometimes you're looking for the right star to be in a revival. It's very creative. I probably see about 100 actors a week, whether it be at auditions or performances.

Q: How do you juggle your two roles, as artistic director and casting director?

A: It's amazing how supportive the roles have been of each other. At MCC, we work with directors from a producing standpoint, so when I'm working with directors as a casting director, they get that I understand the bigger picture, that I understand their points of view. My MCC work has really helped the casting, and a lot of people I've worked with on casting have come to work at MCC.

Q: Is there any one production, or one experience, that stands out for you over these three decades?

A: Working on Rent — the challenge of Rent. When we were first doing it as an Off-Broadway musical at the New York Theatre Workshop, Jonathan Larson, its creator, and the producers didn't want to cast your normal Broadway people who do musicals. They wanted authentic rock and roll, nontraditional performers. So I was working on something I didn't know how to do. I hadn't worked on another rock musical, and the challenge was unbelievable. It wasn't on Broadway. We didn't have the money to search out of town. I'll never forget the day we found Adam Pascal. Three days before rehearsals started, we hadn't found a rock and roll lead singer. Finally, someone in my office placed an ad in the back of The Village Voice, saying that if you're a rock musician, come to this open call for this rock and roll musical. About 100 'Alice Coopers' showed up, and in the middle of them was Adam Pascal. I thought, 'Oh my God, if he can just sing, we might be lucky.' And then he sang, and the rest is history.

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