One Friday morning last month, about 30 local actors shuffle into a casting session near Farragut Square. It’s not your typical theater cattle call. For one thing, the auditions take place in a generic 10th floor corporate office. For another, the casting director has come all the way from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, one of the largest regional theaters in the country—not the type of place that usually goes looking for talent in D.C.
And the assembled actors haven’t simply responded to an ad. They’re all here because they are clients of the Capital Talent Agency, the first such outfit in the District’s comparatively puny theater world.
Over the next four hours, the actors, toting headshots and résumés, hang around the reception area while CTA co-founder Jeremy Skidmore whisks hopefuls into a conference room to meet the casting director. Some pace. Some make small talk. Others fidget in the room’s boxy, oversized armchairs. Many casting calls take place on a stage under house lights, but this improbable session is on beige carpeting and under fluorescent lights. But the setting might be the least unusual thing about it.
In other theater towns, like Chicago, Los Angeles, and especially New York, talent agents are common, even mandatory for actors to find any professional success. But until 18 months ago, when CTA opened, it was an alien profession for the Washington theater community. And though it still doesn’t have a proper home—headquarters is currently this shared space that looks more like an image from an office-supply catalogue than a creative-class workspace—CTA has so far signed up over 50 locals on the promise of better salaries, fewer logistical headaches, and more roles, especially in other cities.
One of the first to sign on was Jefferson A. Russell, who says until the agency came along that he had been “hoofing it on my own.” Russell came down today from Baltimore, where he was a police officer until jumping into acting full-time in 1997. Smooth-pated and burly, he had bit parts in episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire. Most of his work, until recently, was with smaller theater companies around Washington like the Encore Theatre Company and African Continuum.
Not anymore. Russell is just back from five months on the road—thanks, he says, to CTA. This past season, Russell starred in The Trinity River Plays, produced jointly by the Dallas Theater Center and the Goodman. Today, he’s gunning for his next Goodman role in The Convert, Danai Gurira’s play about colonialism in Africa.
The prospect of that sort of steady work is what seems to have drawn today’s stream of actors to this unlikely audition. Will it pan out that way? So far, it’s unclear. Neither of the firm’s principals—Skidmore and Roger Yoerges, a partner at the Steptoe & Johnson law firm—work there full time. Their office space doesn’t exactly scream “Ari Gold,” and the duo readily admit that after 18 months, they’re still not in the black. But all the same, the very idea of a talent agency signing up some of the District’s top actors represents a major change in a place where theater casting remains an informal affair based on personal relationships. For now, at least, large portions of the theater community seem willing to take a chance on that change.
Theater is as good a lens as any to track the city’s growth over the past quarter-century. In 1987, when Joy Zinoman moved Studio Theatre into a rundown auto repair shop at 14th and P streets NW, the neighborhood was still blighted from the riots that torched much of the city at the end of the 1960s. Now, the stretch of 14th Street between Thomas Circle and U Street is home to restaurants, gyms, and new condominiums. At the center of it all is the Zinoplex, Studio’s massively expanded complex, full of stages, classrooms, and workshops.
But while Studio—and scores of other theaters—have grown up over the past 25 years, D.C. actors kept on getting jobs with a nod and a handshake. Talent agencies were for out-of-town thespians, not locals. “You lived a life with agents where New York actors were concerned,” says Zinoman. “Dealing with agents was the reality with New York actors and that was a big, complicated thing for anyone. It has to do with how many people are between you and the actor. In Washington you were directly in touch with the talented people.”
Zinoman believes the appearance of talent agents could change the theater landscape as much as the rise of Equity, the actors’ union, several decades ago.
That would be quite a change. Equity, which boasts nearly 1,000 members in its Baltimore-Washington region, sets minimum wages and standard benefits for members. Under the Small Professional Theatre Agreement—which is used by Studio, Woolly Mammoth, and Theater J—an Equity actor can make as little as $195 a week. Even when a show is performed eight times a week, the minimum is still only $571. The League of Resident Theatres’ agreement used by larger venues like Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre Company is more generous, but not by much. Its highest base salary is $882 a week.