“Thirteen wonderful years.” As this theatre season comes to its end, an era will come to an end as Naomi Robin leaves her job at Theater J as its long-time Casting Director.
Naomi is a friend, neighbor, and occasional car-pool partner. She surprised me with the news of her move during a drive to a recent opening, but assured me that the separation is an “amicable divorce.” Over lunch in our neighborhood, we talked about her life before, during, and after her time at the J.
“As you well know, because we’ve talked about this before, there is all this labor-intensive administrative work involved with the casting process — scheduling, finding out availability, all that stuff — and I always had somebody else doing that administrative work for me. Mostly, it was the full time staff, and, occasionally, it was somebody hired especially for the purpose. That caused a little kicking and screaming, but, somehow, we worked it out for thirteen years.”
After a well-publicized leadership change, Adam Immerwahr became Theater J’s new Artistic Director in 2015.
“Adam has come to feel that that’s not cost efficient for him; that he needs somebody to handle the whole of the thing, including all of that administrative work. And I told him, when he was coming aboard — he had a chance to ask us questions when he was still a candidate, and he asked each of us what we do, and when I described my job, I saw that he thought, ‘Wow, who does the other part of your work?’
“He’s a man with wonderful ideas for the theater, so there’s not only all the usual work for the full time staff, stretched very thin with all it has to do, but a ton of extra stuff, like Jonathan Martin [the company’s Associate Producer] finding a choir for each performance of The Christians; like Jonathan Martin setting up auditions with real teenagers for Brighton Beach [Memoirs.]
“Adam felt that he couldn’t continue to ask Jonathan and others to do this other work, and it’s not cost efficient for him, going forward, to have to hire somebody else. It is, in fact, part of the casting process, so, for me, the job no longer is a good fit, because I never aspired to that work, I don’t want to do that work. So, we shook hands amicably and, you know — it’s difficult, but it’s right.”
Reached via email, Immerwahr sang Naomi’s praises: “All of us at Theater J salute Naomi’s long and fruitful partnership with the theater. Her work, creativity, and artistry were a critical part of Theater J’s history of working with top-tier artists and providing terrific, thought-provoking performances in an intimate setting. Naomi’s talents as a Casting Director are vast, and her impact on Theater J will be felt for many, many years to come. We wish her all the best in her next endeavors, and know that she’ll always be a part of Theater J’s family of artists.”
Naomi returns the compliment: “Both Adam and Jonathan are wonderful for Theater J, smart men full of ideas. I expect they will each have big careers. I don’t know how that will play out, but I think they will, and they should.
“And my old boss [Ari Roth, Immerwahr’s predecessor and the Founding Artistic Director of Mosaic Theater Company] is doing remarkable things at the Atlas. It’s incredible what he has accomplished; nothing but respect and admiration for what he’s accomplished in such a short time. I’ve been lucky and worked with really good people.”
Naomi freely admits that her M.O. is decidedly 20th Century. “Absolutely. I am not a good friend to computers. I have certainly learned to email and Google, but I’m the farthest thing from a tech-head. I’m not that comfortable around technology, and technology is certainly very helpful for that administrative part of the casting process.
“My database is four CVS rolodex boxes with index cards with names of actors whose work I love and their email addresses. I don’t have an online database. I’m the last living adult who’s not on Facebook.”
How did Naomi and Theater J connect in the first place? “Wonderful story, wonderful story. Ari is a neighbor of ours, you know that, and he would see us attending theatre, and we became sort-of neighbor friends, and had breakfast one morning, and he said to Gerry [Gleason, Naomi’s husband] and me, ‘I’d love to get you involved in our theater.’
“And we said, ‘Yeah, how?’ He was thinking Council [Theater J’s equivalent to a Board of Directors.] Well, we know: Council, raising money? No, thank you.
“We had never talked about this, and out of Gerry’s mouth, like Athena out of the head of Zeus, came, ‘You know what she’d be good at is casting.’ And Ari said, ‘Well, yeah, but we haven’t got any money for that.’ So we left it alone.
“Then he called a week or so later and asked if I’d cover the League [of Washington Theatre] auditions, and I thought, ‘Well, I can do that on a volunteer basis,’ and I did. Then he said, ‘Would you like to sit in with our directors while they’re casting the season?’ ‘Yeah, I think I would like to do that.’
“And the first director was Nick Olcott, and, when I walked in, Ari said, ‘Naomi’s going to sit in,’ and Nick said, ‘Of course!’ And as it turned out — the show Nick was directing was called A Bad Friend — they needed a young woman, very gifted, non-union but very talented, and nobody could be found.
“I just happened to see a show at PTP [Potomac Theatre Project] and saw a young lady, and came in with her name and email address, and we cast her, and, after that, Ari said, ‘You know, we’re going to find some money. We need you.’”
Naomi doesn’t hide her previous career, but she doesn’t trumpet it, either, and many who know her might be surprised to learn of that past. “Theatre has been my life. I started as an actress and had a wonderful stage career in New York and all over the country. I lucked into voice-over, got really lucky right away, and did tons of it. At a certain point, it was too much: I had 8 o’clock-in-the-morning sessions, and shows at night, and people were asking me to go on tour with shows, and I was growing out of being an ingenue, so I turned to voice-over exclusively.
“But the theatre has always been my passion, my love, so I continued to go all the time. I became a Helen Hayes nominator, and then a judge, and never got it out of my blood. It brings me a certain familiarity with the acting process, having been there myself, and I love actors. I’m so sympathetic to them because I know how it feels.”
I was shocked when I realized, a few years ago during conversation, that I had seen Naomi at Ford’s Theatre decades ago in its long-run of Godspell.
“I came in as a replacement after six months and stayed till they went to Florida. Godspell sold out its whole run. It was booked as a two-week tour and stayed for eighteen months. The story we heard, when they finally gave us the gate, was that Ford’s had been in the black so long that they were losing grants and they had to get us out. Nice problem to have. (If it was true. That’s what we were told.)”
Another feather in Naomi’s acting cap: she’s played all three older daughters in various tours of Fiddler on the Roof.
“I have, I have. And I was Chava opposite Theo[dore] Bikel and that was — I guess I don’t want you to print how long ago that was. A long time ago. But when Theo came to act at Theater J, I came into the room and I said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, I was your daughter,’ and he said, ‘One of my favorite 55 daughters!’ It was a wonderful reunion.”
The other actors who played Tevya in Fiddler opposite Naomi were “an assortment, because they would change during the tours. Some of these names are not going to be familiar to a modern audience: Robert Merrill, Jan Peerce, Harry Goz, a man named Bob Carroll. But, I guess Theo was the most prominent, though Bob Merrill was pretty prominent in his day.”
Was most of Naomi’s work in musicals? “It was more musicals than not, just because, if you could sing and dance a little, you tended to — you got them. I never had a day job. I was really lucky. My philosophy was, ‘Work to get more work. Act whatever it is, as long as it’s a union job. Take everything to keep working.’ And there were a lot of musicals.
“But there was also Juliet at Barter [Theatre,] a long, long, long time ago, and Lady Margaret in A Man for All Seasons twice, and another Juliette in Anouilh’s Thieves’ Carnival, and, God, when I was sixteen years old, I played Amanda in The Glass Menagerie in Battle Lake, Minnesota. I took a bus to save money. (I got my union card shortly after that.)”
Naomi trained at “Brooklyn College, which had a fine theatre department. Yale, it wasn’t. My parents felt strongly: a college degree, and all that kind of thing. So, the compromise was, I could go to Brooklyn College, live at home, stay in New York — Brooklyn at that point — take acting classes after school, and get through my required courses just as fast as possible so I could just focus on acting and going to class.”
Auditioning professionally overlapped with college, and Naomi turned Equity while in school. “It was a summer job in a New Jersey theater, doing one of the daughters in Stop the World…”
Naomi’s career also included a national tour of Grease as Frenchie. But did she ever play Broadway? “Only if you consider Lincoln Center ‘Broadway.’ That was the closest I got. Off-Broadway a lot. National tours. And, at Lincoln Center, I did the first production of Austin Pendleton’s show that became a straight play called Booth, but, when we did it, at the Mitzi Newhouse, it was called Booth is Back in Town, and I was Asia Booth, which was a little part, but was a joy. That’s as close as I came.”
As a forty-plus year fan of his, I had to ask about working with Pendleton. “Austin? He’s about the nicest person you have ever met or can ever imagine, to say nothing of the most talented. I will go to my grave with a memory of my audition for the show. I had a habit: I would ask if auditioners would be uncomfortable if I played directly to them, and Austin said, ‘Absolutely not.’ And his grin, and the whole body language of leaning forward and loving my work; I’ll just never forget it. Very, very gifted, wonderful, lovely, lovely man.”
Back to the Godspell gig at Ford’s: “I had never seen the show. I auditioned in New York. It was a national tour contract. The money was wonderful, because we were staying in one spot, but Equity still had them pay us the per diem as if we were touring.
“I took the train down to Washington and, on the train, I was thinking, ‘I don’t know. A religious show about Jesus? I’m a Jewish girl. I don’t think I’ll stay with this. But, it’s a two-week contract; it’s okay.’ And I fell in love with the show, as everyone does. I sang four different songs in the year I was with it.”
After the run of Godspell, the self-described “one with the pathetic braids…went back to New York and acted for another three, four years, but voiceover happened for me, of all things. I started in New York and it just snowballed for me down here. I got tons and tons of stuff. I was really lucky, and when I moved back to New York, people in DC said, ‘Will you come back if we pay your way?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ never expecting to hear from a soul, and it got to be more rather than less.
“But, the side story is, there was a marriage then that was quickly going south, and went south, and when the marriage collapsed — shortly after that, my parents died, and I’m an only child. I inherited not a cent of money, because they were poor but wonderful, but rooms and rooms of books, which I brought down here. I had a rental apartment at that point down here, and, now, I was more or less comfortable financially, so it made sense to buy a place, let him have the rent-controlled apartment, and I had all this voiceover work, so, what’s not to like?” And a Washingtonian was born.
It occurred to me to wonder whether Robin was Naomi’s birth name or her married name. “None of the above. I was Naomi Rosenthal, and that was about contemporaneous with Barbra Streisand, but she wasn’t famous yet, and I thought, ‘Rosenthal? I don’t think so.’ I wanted to keep the ‘R’ and I came up with this one. If I had it to do again, I’d be Naomi Rosenthal.”
I asked if the voice-over work included a lot of political ads. “Not right at the beginning. I took a while to get on to politicals. At the beginning, it was a lot of retail: you know, ‘near churches, schools, and shopping,’ ‘fantastic sale,’ and that kind of thing; a lot of narration, which I really loved to do; long-form narration, like a number of shows on permanent exhibit in various National Parks, or another I did for the National Archives. For the IRS, for, I don’t know, close to twenty years, I recorded the entire text with all the sub-rules of the instructions for the 1040 form, which was then digitized and put on phone lines, so you could call in and press the buttons and find out how you deduct your aged parents. So, tons of that, but I guess it wasn’t till the 90s that I really turned on to political work. Did some for Clinton, which I’m really proud of.”
In answer to the “what next” question, Naomi began with voice-over work: “I still do a little of it. I want to do some free-lancing as a Casting Director. I’ve done two free-lance projects, with Theater J’s blessing — invited by the directors, and, in each case, the director was happy to live with my conditions: they did the heavy lifting. I enjoyed those projects very much, so, I’m delighted to be available, and beyond that, we’ll just see.
“I suddenly thought last night that I really ought to call myself, going forward, a Casting Consultant, because a Casting Director usually does all that [administrative] stuff. What I do is know the pool, inside out. I really show up at all the shows. I furnish a list of actors — I would like to feel, an excellent list — for the given show.
“My favorite part is sitting in on the auditions, and collaborating on the casting, and having to find replacements when, inevitably…
“So if a theater wanted a Casting Consultant like me — or, call it what you like — if it was the right theater, I’d be happy to do it. I love Washington theatre, and, any number of theaters, I’d be delighted.”
I asked if Naomi will now take her foot off the pedal in terms of how much theatre she sees. “Maybe a little bit. But it’s much more because we’ve been personally busy. It’s more because of that that I’ll say, ‘Can I really get to Annapolis that night?’ No diminished interest. I don’t feel the same weight of responsibility, but, for my own self, the desire is as strong.”
How many evenings at the theatre does Naomi spend in a given week? “If it’s a week in September, October, April, May, it could easily be five. And, you say evenings; when Gerry is not coming, a lot of those are matinees, if that works out better for us, but it could easily be five; probably not more than that. Rarely less than two or three. Even in the summer.”
We laughed thinking of all the invitations Naomi must get from actors appearing at Capital Fringe, like, “And, by the way, it’s 95 degrees, and there’s no air conditioning, but you won’t mind.”
Fringe is just one manifestation of the exponential growth of the local scene. “There’s just more and more and more and more and more. I’d say, even in the last five, six, seven years, it’s multiplied geometrically.
“And I do schlep. We go to Baltimore. I see every opening at Everyman. By the way, just wonderful. Their work is outstanding.”
Looking back over thirteen years at Theater J, what else would Naomi like to say about her time as its Casting Director?
“I want to say I brought in a lot of newcomers, because of all the shows I’ve seen. It was important, really important, to me that actors feel loved in every way, so I innovated the idea, at Theater J, of sending regrets letters to anybody that we had called back that we didn’t cast, and people have been so appreciative over the years. One actor said to me, ‘Generally speaking, we don’t know we didn’t get the part until we read the review.’ And that just seems wrong, when somebody has spent all that time preparing. And now, I mean, the concept is totally embraced, but I did start it.
“Let me tell you one story, without any names. There was a director who came to us for his first show at Theater J; very strong-minded director. He was from out of town, and one person who he had seen for the role, he set his heart on, and this person was not available to do the job. We brought in all kinds of people to audition, and he kept saying, ‘No, no, no, no. No! I can’t do this show, because we can’t cast this role.’ And there was one actor that he’d already seen and rejected. But I knew the actor could do it, I knew he was right for it, and I said to the director, ‘Try this man again. I promise you, this man can do the role.’ Well, not only did he get hired, not only did he ace that role, but that director, after that, felt he couldn’t do a show without this actor. So I felt really good about that.”
I’ll end with a couple interesting stories from the Godspell run. The first files under the heading: Only in Washington.
“The first apartment I found was opposite the Phillips, which was great. I was living with a woman, not in the theatre; lovely woman, a teacher. She was a little eccentric, but lovely. It was coming up on the election, and she said to me one day, ‘Oh, there’s an election night party around the corner. I got invited, and you can come, too.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m going to be rehearsing all day, I’ll be in my sweaty jeans…’ ‘Don’t worry about it, just come the way you are.’
“So, when I came to the house, I thought, ‘I don’t know about this,’ because a butler answered the door, and looked at me. But he took my coat, which was a little torn, and ushered me into the room where people were practically in formal dress, and I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ People were walking around me as if I were some sort of pet who had been let into the room after galloping in the fields.
“But one woman approached me, very elegantly dressed, and said, ‘Welcome, and who are you, and how did you get here?’ She turned out to be Alice Roosevelt Longworth, whose home it was. She sat me down on the couch, and asked me all about Godspell, and didn’t seem to mind about my dirty jeans.”
The second story can serve as a reminder that intensity of feeling regarding our national affairs isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. While Naomi was doing Godspell, “the company was invited to perform at the White House and, because Nixon was there, they refused.”
Hmm. What does that sound like?
“Sounds like now.”