The splendid, bone-chilling darkness of Signature Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is lifted into reality by a most unexpected source: a 10-year-old character named Billy. He does not sing, or dance or even want to assassinate anyone. All he wants is ice cream. It will cost a dollar or so. His mother says no. From there comes a scene familiar to many – a public spat we have likely all witnessed. Or worse yet, been the parent involved.
The mother-son confrontation in Assassins is tucked within a larger scene. It is a scene in which Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore are preparing to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Moore (played by Tracy Lynn Olivera, who is teamed with hippie-dippy Rachel Zampelli as Fromme) has brought along her ten-year-old son Bill, and even her dog. The additional baggage pisses off Fromme and the two go on with comic delight for the audience.
For a few irrepressible moments, child actor Jack St. Pierre takes the spotlight from the arguing women and even from all the other adult characters. If you are unfamiliar with Sondheim’s Assassins, you may ask yourself, “a child actor in Assassins?” I wondered how St. Pierre was located. And that led me to Kelly Crandall d’Amboise, Signature’s Artistic Associate/Casting Director.
A member of Signature’s artistic leadership team, d’Amboise has a major artistic role: To locate and select actors, singers, dancers, whether adults or children, for characters in Signature’s diverse productions.
d’Amboise works closely with Signature’s artistic team, including Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and the directors for each individual production. In a recent interview, d’Amboise told me that her mission is “to understand and fulfill their needs, vision, and desires.” It is a key role in fulfilling the creative team’s vision for a production. “The job begins about 1 ½ years before a production is seen on the Signature stages by an audience.”
D’Amboise’s responsibilities include arranging and conducting interviews, scheduling, working with an artist’s agent and the artists themselves, as well as handling the details behind contracting matters such as making an offer. Her administrative responsibilities also include coordinating New York City casting visits.
I asked d’Amboise how she locates actors for a director to consider. “I draw upon my own experiences as a performer, an assistant and associate choreographer and director,” she replied, noting that “there is no direct path to becoming a casting director.”
In advising directors, d’Amboise draws upon her knowledge of the DC area’s large pool of talented performers. This includes seeing and scouting shows to learn about younger performers with “potential.” Potential can mean those who are “unique” or have “special qualities” or who might fit “holistically into a production.” She also stays closely in touch with Signature Theatre’s many ongoing educational activities including its Conservatory.
“DC has a large pool of talent. There is always new talent to see. Always new performers coming in and out of the area,” noted d’Amboise. “There are university theater programs and dance institutions. The question is what are the qualities a director is seeking for a production.” She also noted “the vast pool of talent in New York,” and her responsibilities for casting calls in New York.
When asked about casting for original productions at Signature such as the recent Blackbeard or Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, she mentioned “the thrill of casting characters for totally new productions. There are many surprises and discoveries.” Surprises can include pairing actors in ways that an audience might not expect or in ways different from how an actor is usually cast.
In a Signature season of musicals and straight plays, d’Amboise’s work is ongoing as she reaches out for talent. And as noted in my DCMTA colleague Amy Kotkin’s review, the casting for Assassins is right on the money.
Sondheim did not create the character of Billy, the child, as a mere afterthought. Billy is no innocent bystander without any light falling upon him. With Schaeffer’s astute direction and the work of casting director d’Amboise, Billy as portrayed by Jack St. Pierre, is fleshed out into real humanity. He has agency.
After my interview with Kelly Crandall d’Amboise, I came away with this: the position of a casting director for Signature or any DMV theatre company is one that requires solidly built trust and judgment, along with some well-honed managerial skills.
So a tip of the hat to Kelly Crandall d’Amboise and all the DMV area casting folk. Each brings audiences the expected and the unexpected – and usually without any of us ever noticing them beyond a name listing in a theater program (if we look hard).
Kelly Crandall d’Amboise’s bio: SIGNATURE: Light Years (Choreographer), An Act of God (Musical Staging); Motown 2 and Entirely Elvis (Director); Crazy for You (Associate Director); Billy Elliot, La Cage, Cabaret, The Studio (Associate Choreographer). CONCERTS: Director: Lincoln Center Winter Gala 2018 (starring Patti LaBelle and Jennifer Holliday), Kravis Night of Stars (starring Chita Rivera), RESPECT: The Music of Aretha (featuring Michelle Williams), Let’s Misbehave: Cole Porter After Dark (with Liz Calloway). CHOREOGRAPHY: DC AREA: Olney: The Crucible; Next Stop: Urinetown; The American Pops Orchestra. REGIONAL: Connecticut Rep: Newsies!. PERFORMANCE: BROADWAY: The Boy from Oz (Original Cast), Chicago, Dirty Dancing (workshop), Last Dance (workshop). NATIONAL TOURS: Chicago, The Producers. NEW YORK: Susan Stroman’s A Christmas Carol; NYC Opera: The Most Happy Fella. FILM: Disney’s A Christmas Carol, What Women Want. TV: The TONY Awards, The Academy Awards, Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular, The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.