Embracing the Spark: Orpheus Group Casting Founders Receive Pioneer of the Arts Award
By Jane Rubinsky
By Jane Rubinsky
Ellyn Long Marshall and Maria E. Nelson, the founding partners of Orpheus Group Casting, receive the Riant Theatre’s Pioneer of the Arts Award in recognition of their 27 years of uncompromising dedication to the arts of film, theater, and television. Among the critically acclaimed films enriched by their expertise are Girlfight (2000), Real Women Have Curves (2002), Maria Full of Grace (2004), and Amreeka (2009). The pair have also worked with respected theater companies such as INTAR, on Broadway, and at Lincoln Center.
A native New Yorker born into a theatrical family (her father was the actor Avon Long), Marshall studied acting before landing a job in casting at the Public Theater back in the late 70s. “A regular paycheck, health insurance, doing something I loved; I was in heaven,” she recalls. She was casting for the Los Angeles tour of Joseph Papp’s Pirates of Penzance when she met Nelson, an agent for a musical theater company on 42nd Street, over the phone. “I just found a really pleasant person on the other side of the phone,” says Nelson. “And that’s basically how we began this friendship.”
Nelson, who was born in Costa Rica to a family of entrepreneurs, had become New York State’s youngest licensed agent at age 23, after already having worked in the fashion industry. She moved up the ladder quickly, but her goal was to launch a production company – “completely out of my forecast for my life,” laughs Marshall. But their tastes and values were in sync. And as Marshall began seeing more shows that were “terrible” – “not a lot of them, but just the concept,” she recalls – the two decided it was time to open their own company in an office at Kaufman Astoria Studios in 1987.
Initially they focused on theater production. But directors were also looking for help with casting, and the pair had a wide knowledge of actors from their previous lives. As the casting work “mushroomed,” says Marshall, the two eventually moved into film with Above the Rim (1994). Since then, they have been playing an integral part in shaping independent features with multicultural themes.
“People often ask us, how do you decide what to work on?” says Nelson. “We’re totally script-driven; that’s the deciding factor.”
“We choose projects that are important to us, that introduce new ideas,” concurs Marshall. “And things that have an impact on society, that the audience will come away from with something positive, regardless of how dark the subject matter might be or how it’s presented.”
That often means working on a project from the ground up, with lots of challenges – from helping to find financing to steering someone to the right cinematographer or director. Nelson recalls the Canadian producer who confessed, once a project was under way, that she “needed a little help” because she had never produced a film before. “I told her, ‘Well, you’re going to produce this one!’” says Nelson. “And of course we helped her, and talked her through the process. Then there was the film they had to cast in five different countries from New York City – with the audition tapes in Arabic. “We were arguing with the producers about using this actor or that actor, and I don’t know if they even internalized the fact that we didn’t speak Arabic!” laughs Nelson. “But we were lucky enough to be right, and the particular actor got all the accolades in the trade.”
Singling out a favorite project is hard, but Nelson says they are especially proud of Girlfight. “We worked hand-in-hand with the writer and director, Karyn Kusama, from the very beginning,” she says. The casting was pivotal. “We’d been talking about this role with Karyn for nearly a year,” recalls Marshall. “She was very specific about what she wanted this person to be. We saw hundreds and hundreds of young ladies. When we saw Michelle Rodriguez, I just knew immediately that was the girl. She had no credits, and came in off the street to an open call, and she was fabulous.”
Current projects include fully producing two films and working on an innovative Broadway musical, as well as building a media arts center in Middletown, N.Y. (where the Hoboken Film Festival was transplanted this year after the damage of Hurricane Sandy).
Despite rapid and sometimes unsettling changes in the industry, they remain optimistic. Technology, maintains Marshall, changes “not only the process, but also the creative part of the brain. I think it has atrophied.” They also refuse to cave in to the pressure to cast big names that have nothing to do with a script. “But recently, we’re getting these little inklings from people who have this spark,” says Marshall. “I’m seeing that there are young people coming up with good scripts, with good ideas, who need guidance. To be able to nurture that, and help them find the money, that’s the challenge, and that’s specifically where our heads are at right now.”
“We who have the experience should be there to embrace this, to help it along,” adds Nelson. “Because that’s our responsibility. And I feel very seriously about that. Personally, that’s why I’m in this end of the industry – because I want to leave a legacy.”
Tickets are available for the PIONEER OF THE ARTS AWARDS, which will be presented at the Launch Party for the Strawberry One-Act Festival. The event will be on Monday, July 29, 2013 at 7pm at the Tribeca Grand Hotel - Cinema, located at 2 Avenue of the Americas, NYC. There will be a special screening of the Video Diaries Project: A Series of Short Films About the Artists in the Strawberry One-Act Festival. For tickets go to http://www.therianttheatre.com/item.php?id=185