Casting magical roles and teaching youths to reach for them
Gateway casting director Michael Baker is surrounded by students from the Gateway School for the Performing Arts.

ADV/Leuzzi

Casting magical roles and teaching youths to reach for them

Story By: LINDA LEUZZI
1/4/2018


 

It’s quiet now. But not for long.

The 2018 Gateway musicals are about to be announced and casting director Michael Baker is ready to take up his role again. 

“Once we select the shows, I comb through the musical scripts and build a passel of casts. That can take a few days,” he explained of his job. “I make a list of possible actors, those we’ve used, or if we need a star, more star talent.”

Then the whittling starts. “It’s vocal range, style and type,” he said, for example.

A list of characters and their requirements goes out for a casting call to New York City agents. “They send back suggestions and headshots,” said Baker. Before the Internet took full rein, it meant receiving 25-50 mailed headshots for each show that were grouped into types, ages and then filed.

More eliminations until it’s a select few — requiring two to three trips to the city per show to get the right actor for each role, including ensemble parts — with Gateway directors, choreographers and producers participating in the final callbacks. That can happen right up to the last performance. “Once we have the cast, we’re required by the union to have understudies and also backups,” he said.

When an actor signs on, it’s a five-to-seven-week performance commitment, including rehearsal time.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work out with a lead, so the understudy can come out of the cast,” Baker explained. “Sometimes an actor can get an offer for Broadway. That’s another reason we need backups.”

Baker’s passion is expansive enough to fire up anyone. But he’s also humble, which means not taking anything for granted. That attitude keeps him open to ideas, which helps attract star talent. (They get Tony-Award or Tony-nominated stars regularly.) There’s also a supporting group of Gateway staffers, most of them longtime personnel, and he credits producer Paul Allan, whose family started Gateway, with trusting his key people to carry out their ideas.

Baker’s assistant Rachel Colson also shoulders the load, he emphasized. Colson is a quietly industrious and important addition, who also helps run the acting school. While the business can be an uproarious one, Colson and Baker work quietly, with Baker’s dog lying at his feet, in the upstairs office. 

And therein lies Baker’s other life, as director of education for the Gateway School for the Performing Arts.

Classes for the acting school begin Jan. 20.

“It’s kindergarten, grade level and ability classes for beginners to intermediates and advanced,” said Baker, who took on the role from Robin Joy Allan, the school’s founder and director, who died in early 2016. 

“In the past four and a half years it’s doubled in enrollment,” said Baker. “So we have about 200 students per session.” Special ed classes are also in the mix.

Baker was a child actor, trained by Robin Allan as a teacher. “I’ve been doing some form of theatre for 36 years, almost every day of my life,” he said. “My mom was a costume designer in Bainbridge Island, Wash., for Bainbridge Performing Arts. My dad flew planes for the Air Force and was a carpenter, but he joined mom in her work by building sets.”

Serendipity isn’t lost on Baker. Bainbridge Performing Arts began in 1956. The Gateway’s “Taming of the Shrew” debuted in 1950.

So how does he juggle his day?  (In off time, he fishes from his boat, the ultimate form of meditation. He’s dreaming of it right now.)

You contact agents in the morning. “In the afternoon, it’s the acting school,” he said. “Every day we do acting-school work. Rachel handles enrollment with the box office, while I answer casting and parent questions.”

Baker teaches one adult, one showcase a session.

The latter is a quick audition in front of agents in a scheduled location, where a student who’s ready gets to sing, dance or both and also recite a part, or just perform a dramatic rendition before an audience of agents and industry professionals. 

Baker is joined by a teaching staff of 10, professionals with degrees and credited work in New York City.

So how do you get a 5- or 6- year-old engaged in acting if they’re not, say, a Judy Garland or Andrea McArdle? “They start with imagination games, like walking through a land of cotton candy,” he said of the hour-long class. “First- and second-graders do some lightly scripted storytelling which includes memorization, while continuing to explore theater scene work and games. Third grade, it’s scene work and techniques with basic acting classes.” 

The classes pay off both in personal development and professionally, say parents. 

Thea Flanzer, 15, got a part this year in an Off-Broadway play, “If You Press Yer Eyes Hard Enuf,” as well as an agent. Baker was there at Thea’s opening night.

“I can’t say enough about Michael Baker,” said Melissa Flanzer, Thea’s mother. “He’s one of the most generous people I know. Every time Thea auditions, everyone says she’s on point and knows her lines. It’s one of the most supportive environments ever.”

Shannon Russell’s son, Will, 16, one of the longest participants in the acting school, starred as an Audrey root that shot into the audience in this summer’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” Working with Broadway actors blew Will away, she said. “He started as a shy little boy and over time he’s grown into such a self-confident young man.” 

As for Baker’s influence, “Michael has been amazing,” Shannon Russell said. “He gives him tips for auditions and calms him down. We all refer to it as the Gateway family. I always say when he goes away to college, it will be heartbreaking for us.”