Casting? About the only thing I knew about casting before venturing into the theatrical world was what my Dad taught me during a backyard "casting session."
"Keep your wrist straight as you cast the lure into the water, boy, or you'll end up with a bird's nest in your reel!"
But once I was into the theatre world, the duties of a Casting Director still eluded me. Yes, I knew that casting directors picked people for roles, but beyond that elementary concept, I still had no idea what they do.
During gatherings that sometimes involved actors and actresses, people would sometimes ask, "Are you and Tracy really the company photographers for TheatreWorks?" After mentally checking their tone for any hint of sarcasm or distain, I'd simply answer, "Yes!" Sometimes in an effort to 'verify' if I was really someone associated with TheatreWorks, they'd ask me about people I worked with or know at the company. As I'd rattle off some names -- Ev, Kelley, Kim, Jim G, Tanya, Mary, Leslie -- they'd utter with much hope, "Leslie? As in Leslie Martinson the casting director?!" Well goodness, it appears that I've both validated my position as a legitimate TheatreWorks company photographer, and someone of value!
The questions then begin in earnest, "What's she like? How does she pick people? I've never been called by TheatreWorks, although I've really wanted to work there. I've met her before and she seems scary!" To all of these questions and statements my answer has always been the same, "Look I'm just one of the photographers." In all cases, the conversation then moves on to other subjects, like where the liquor cooler is located, or do we do free head shots. Since I don't drink, I only know where the sodas are kept. Free head shots? You bet, as soon as my lender tells me I no longer have to pay my mortgage. Until then, I hear casting directors love head shots taken by a friend with a nice camera. ... Doh!
The evening I spent with Leslie at her East Palo Alto home was really remarkable. Even though I've been around TheatreWorks since 2007 and interacted with Leslie from time to time, I've never really had the chance to get to know her well. We often run into one another during a performance or tech run-through, when we are both busy. So I was really excited that she graciously agreed to be photographed and interviewed. I chuckled after taking a few photos when she nervously asked, "Mark, what are these photos for, again?"
Leslie's family is what I would consider to be Old World. Not old school (like me), but Old World. You see, her relatives came to America before just about anyone. The maternal side of her family arrived in the New World from Scotland before 1797, and her paternal side from Sweden in 1887! We're talking way before Ellis Island was even a concept! I jokingly asked her if she has any American Indian blood in her family, since someone must have fooled around with the natives! She good-naturedly laughed and said she was not sure, but it is a possibility!
I found out that Leslie is the middle child of three. Her older brother, Anders Martinson, was in the first-ever "Jeopardy" three-way championship tie in 2007. She told me this after I surmised that as the eldest he must be very responsible and smart! (I am the eldest in my family!) Since I'm a big birth-order believer, and my own father was the middle child, I asked Leslie if she got into trouble like my dad. She said "No, my little sister owns that honor." So much for my birth-order theory, although I firmly stand by my assumption on first-born children!
The fact that Leslie is from an Old World heritage is apparent the moment you walk into her cozy and warm home. In a world of texting and high-tech gizmos, her home has framed photographs in lieu of iPhone imagery. A Singer Featherweight sewing machine sits in her crafts room, as well as a vintage bed which still has pegs and ratchets that were used to tighten the bands which held the mattress tight. I joked with her that publishing a photo of her bed may encourage those in the bondage sector to write to her! In another corner sits a true vintage "Short Horn Cattle" trunk from Renrock, Ohio, a town that has long since vanished, which was used by her past relatives. Leslie honors craftsmanship, and she innately carries on that tradition in her work and personal life. It's as if it is part of her DNA.
You see, one of Leslie's great pleasures is knitting. In this day and age of most things made overseas and ordered online, that would be enough, but Leslie takes her craft very seriously. She sources the alpaca wool from her sister-in-law in Washington State! Yes, her sister-in-law sheers the wool from her own alpacas, and then ships it to Leslie! She showed me the raw wool, which looks a lot like the stings/dust and Tracy hair I clean out from our vacuum cleaner each month! But it doesn't stop there. She then takes that wool and spins her own yarn with a homemade spindle she built herself from a wood dowel from a local hardware store, and a small wooden disk she purchased from Michael's Crafts.
I asked for a demonstration, and was shocked as she took two devices which looked like huge brushes filled with needles (I have a needle phobia!) and began to comb the wool into very fine clumps. At that point she stretches the wool and begins to spin it onto a wooden rod to create yarn. I thought yarn simply came from Joann's Fabrics, but apparently not all yarn does, at least not the Leslie kind! From there, she uses the yarn to knit items. I found it funny that there were a few yet-to-be-finished items strewn about her craft room and baskets. Leslie said that she often finds that she begins a project, only to move onto a new one before completing it.
As if that were not enough, she also quilts! She showed me several of her in-process projects, and the detail that goes into a quilt is quite amazing. I have no personal knowledge of how quilting is done, but if I ever need advice, I know who to turn to -- Leslie! In addition to all of this, she grows her own vegetables and fruit in her backyard. I was able to sample one of her handpicked strawberries and although I wanted more, I felt a bit selfish about stuffing my face with her home-grown fruit. She graciously sent me home with a tomato and some vegetables after I handed my phone over to her, so Tracy could tell her what we needed.
Toward the end of my visit, we began to talk about her role as casting director. She's been with TheatreWorks for 28 years! As we talked, she mentioned that although she appreciates companies that make things like stoves, refrigerators and couches, she found it difficult to imagine working for any company whose sole purpose is to make money. When I raised my hand, she said, "Oh are you a corporate refugee?" to which I answered, "Yes." As casting director, her primary role is not to just make money, but to work with a director to find the very best talent available for a production. But what I didn't know is that Leslie not only finds, vets and recommends talent, but advocates for each individual she puts forward for a part. And unlike many, she often recommends and casts people who don't necessarily fit a director's specific qualifications, but has "something special or unique" that will add to a role or performance.
She is often looking for that special something which will bring forth what we all look for in a production: Magic. We began to discuss TheatreWorks' most recent production of "Time Stands Still." The role played by Rebecca Dines was that of a very prickly war photojournalist who had been injured and scarred during her tenure. (Les actually had some leftover scar makeup on from the performance!) Leslie explained that in real life Rebecca is just a doll - "so engaging, warm and friendly." (I can personally attest to that, as I adore Rebecca's warmth and genuine charisma.) She went on to explain that Rebecca's real personality was extremely important when selecting her for the role to offset the character Sarah's often abrasive character. "If the actress' personality was not truly a friendly one, then the role of Sarah would be too easily disliked, since her role is prickly." Who would have thought of that aspect? Ah, but I am just the photographer!
We continued to talk about her role, and our shared beliefs about the authentic. What is most striking about Leslie is the thread of craftsmanship that runs through her life. Just as she keenly identifies the need for talent to have an authentic aspect in their personalities, Leslie practices what she preaches: She is an authentic person to the core. If it were not for people like Leslie, the art of theatre would simply be theatre.
Thanks, Leslie, for all that you do, which few of us will ever see firsthand, yet witness in each production.