They are three of the most powerful figures in Twin Cities theater, charged with finding actors for some of the metro's most plum roles.
Jennifer Liestman of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Kelli Foster Warder of the Ordway Center in St. Paul and Sheena Janson Kelley of the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis hire hundreds of performers every season. As casting directors, they provide opportunities for actors, dancers and singers to ply their craft and earn a living while capturing the hearts of Twin Cities audiences.
Surprisingly, the trio of talent curators — all women and collaborative colleagues — don't see themselves in vaunted terms.
"We're Yentas," said Janson Kelley, referencing the fixer in "Fiddler on the Roof." "Directors tell us what they're looking for, and we try to make a match."
Theaters use a hodgepodge of approaches when choosing actors for shows. Directors at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, Mixed Blood and Penumbra do their own casting in-house, for example. Others in the Twin Cities area go to unified auditions, with 500 to 600 performers (from Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin) showing up for a weekend or two. Park Square and Climb theaters host these events.
Liestman, Warder and Janson Kelley are relative rarities, working in-house as members of resident artistic teams. The artistic directors they work with harbor big ideas about what they want to see onstage. Whereas actors have dreams of slaying roles in the blinding lights, casting directors are the dream fulfillers. After talking with the directors about their preferences for individual roles — be it disposition, body type, age or alchemy — casting directors gather promising performers for an audition.
"Jen is a crucial partner in our work at the Guthrie and has an enormous role in the organization," said Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj, who noted that about two-thirds of actors performing at the Guthrie are homegrown. "We count on her to know the Twin Cities acting community — be conversant with who they are and what they're ready for."
Anti 'American Idol'
"Every production is a jigsaw puzzle, and directors are looking for unique pieces," Janson Kelley said. "We help everyone fit it all together."
A Guthrie staffer since 2002, Liestman used another metaphor to describe her work.
"It's like a costumer coming in with five or 10 different swatches of fabric for a dress," she said. "We're part of that creative team, but we traffic in talent instead of fabric or painting or sets."
Theater auditions resemble talent-finding TV shows such as "The Voice" and "American Idol," with panels of experts sitting behind tables and assessing the work of bare-it-all performers. On TV, the judgment of the judges and the pitfalls of the process are amplified for entertainment purposes. But in Twin Cities audition rooms, the casting directors strive to offer a safer, more encouraging environment, said Warder, a veteran dancer and performer who joined the Ordway less than a year ago. "Being an actor is hard, stressful and vulnerable. We're committed to making people feel good, respected, and have a chance to show their best. You don't get your best from someone who's intimidated or frightened."
Still, the auditioning process is tough. "It's a job interview," said Janson Kelley, a Jungle Theater staffer since 2017.
Liestman added that she strives to be honest and understanding with actors, especially because the majority of them will be rejected at auditions.
"I try and be very careful about feelings and do my job with an abundance of kindness," she said. "Obviously, not everyone I pick to come in gets hired. But my job is not to do the picking. My job is to say to the director, here are some fabulous actors."
On the other hand, Liestman does not "want to throw sunshine and rainbows up people's [butts]," she said. "I'm not interested in the dance, the B.S."
Empathy from experience
If Minnesota's most powerful casting directors are empathetic and caring, it's because they have been on the other side. Maple Grove native Liestman moved to New York in the late 1990s after college with her tap shoes and Broadway dreams. But she found the erratic acting life too much to bear.
"While I did get some small jobs, that itinerant contract life wasn't good for me as a person," she said. "I'm really Type A, and I realized I don't want to be an actor. But because I really loved the art, I wanted to find a way to stay with it."
She hooked up with the York Theatre Company, an off-Broadway house. She became company manager there, learning the business side of showbiz.
She and her husband, singer-actor Joel Liestman, moved back to the Twin Cities 17 years ago so she could take a full-time job assisting John Miller-Stephany, then associate artistic director and head of casting at the Guthrie. She was promoted when he left the company in 2015.
"You've got to deliver — to bring the talents of people into the building and be out in the community," Liestman said.
Warder grew up at Mixed Blood Theatre in the 1980s and '90s, where her parents served on the board.
"I was a dancer and a choreographer, which means I've been in audition rooms a lot," she said.
She got her start as a casting director five years ago with Theater Latté Da. In fact, she recently choreographed dances for the world premiere of Terrence McNally's "Immortal Longings," directed by Latté Da founder Peter Rothstein, in Austin, Texas.
As the Ordway's education director, Warder also oversees community programming and outreach to school groups. A recent psychological assessment revealed that her strongest quality is helping people maximize their talents. "I would describe casting as more an opportunity provider," she said. "I do everything I can to set people up to take full advantage of the opportunities we have."
It's a view shared by St. Cloud native Janson Kelley, who has been an actor, singer and comedian. She took up casting in 2014 when she started working with Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where she still helps as a consultant. At the Jungle, her job as associate producer entails various artistic responsibilities. And she continues to take the stage from time to time, including in Ten Thousand Things' recent production of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods."
"I'm more at peace with not getting parts now because I know all of what goes into that," she said. "There are a lot of artistic leaders who don't have the bandwidth or calendar time to see all the work and talent in the community. I really find joy in connecting people — threading different artists to each other."
The casting directors work at a time when theaters are making efforts to better reflect the community. That means they're eager to identify and nurture diverse new talent. Liestman speaks to young people at the University of Minnesota, Southern Methodist University in Dallas and elsewhere. Warder formerly worked with students in Hennepin Theatre Trust's Spotlight Education Program and continues to mentor young people across the Twin Cities area. And Janson Kelley returns regularly to her alma mater, St. Cloud State University.
"We have a special responsibility to cultivate and welcome talent from all corners," she said. "At the end of the day, we want everyone who comes into the [audition] room to succeed."
The thrills of the job include observing the joy of actors who win big parts. Adults may let out a whoop or tear up, Liestman explained, but the most eruptive emotions come from parents who've just learned their child landed a big part in, say, "A Christmas Carol."
"They're just screaming on the phone," Liestman said. "The joy that comes back to you is insane."