Robin Hellmann on Casting, Women In Film Chicago, & Improv.

May 4, 2015

 

I grew up in Northfield, IL, a tiny suburb on the Northshore of Chicago. My background in the entertainment industry is a pretty mixed bag.

 

I have worked as a costumer for theater and feature films, I’ve ghost-written and edited published books, I’ve worked in theater management.

 

I was Joyce Piven’s personal assistant, I’ve been performing improv comedy since I was 10 years old, and now I work as a casting director and board member for Women in Film Chicago.

 

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First Entertainment Job

 

In college I thought I wanted to be a costume designer and one of my professors hired me as a wardrobe assistant for a movie that was filming over summer break.

 

I loved it: living out of a hotel, hanging out on sets, making more money than a college kid knew what to do with. So, then I did another film right after that. Then another.

 

By then I lost all my steam, and the lifestyle definitely lost its appeal. Plus I had to go back to school.

 

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Why work in Entertainment vs. more traditional industries?

 

That’s a great question and honestly, I have no idea. It’s not that I have ever been opposed to a traditional job, or even interviewed for some, it’s just that jobs in entertainment have always found me. One thing led to the next and I just jumped on every opportunity that presented itself without hesitation.

 

I think the allure for me has always been the power of storytelling, especially comedic story telling.

 

I love laughing, I love making people laugh, and I love being part of something that presents and comments on the absurdities in life.

 

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Women in Film Chicago

 

 

Serving on the board of Women in Film Chicago is one of the most meaningful things I have ever had the opportunity to do.

 

WIFC is a not for profit organization committed to empowering and uplifting women in the industry and helping them reach their professional goals.

 

Our members are privy to a pretty impressive network of professionals that are all equally committed to helping each other. I think, and often refer to it as, a sorority of powerhouse women.

 

A sorority that anyone can join by becoming a member, even men!

 

As the social media and communications chair, I design and manage our website, help with public relations, and make sure people know about all the great work we do including our events.

 

The types of events we produce range from award ceremonies, to tours of animation studios, to cocktail parties, to panel discussions, the list is endless.

 

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Role Models/Inspiration

 

Is it corny to say my parents? My mom, Libby. That lady taught me how to be fiercely independent and unabashedly go after what you want.

 

She’s authored 14 published thriller novels and counting, which I have always found to be beyond impressive.

 

My dad, or rather, everyone’s dad. He taught me how to treat people, how to make them feel at ease, especially with comedy.

 

He is probably the whole reason I got into comedy in the first place, but also, having that ability to make people feel at ease and produce great work is a major component of my job as a casting director.

 

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Challenges

 

Well, anyone trying to make a comfortable living in theatre knows of its difficulties and challenges. But the biggest challenge I’ve faced, though personal in nature, actually led me to the professional position I am in today. It’s kind of a bizarre story.

 

My father passed away unexpectedly when I was working at Piven Theatre Workshop.

 

He lived across the street from Joyce, so naturally I struggled going to work after that.

 

So, I did the mature thing: quit my job and ran away from home. It was the first time I had no real direction, desire, or force driving me to what I wanted to do next professionally.

 

I found myself in Austin, TX visiting cousins when I met John Williams (founder of The Cast Station) at a barbeque. We proceeded to talk in later months about his longtime desire to open a Chicago office of his company, and my desire to do anything but what I was doing.

 

 It wasn’t until the Chicago office really picked up steam that I not only realized how much I liked it, but I was actually good at it too. Like I said, the job kind of found me.

 

After that, I threw myself into my work and haven’t looked back!

 

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Social Media

 

Social media is ESSENTIAL to my career.  We are well known at The Cast Station for “real people” casting, meaning non-actors.

 

Without social media, we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs anywhere near as quickly or efficiently.

 

Our outreach would definitely not go as far either. As the the social media chair for WIFC, it is hands down the best way to keep our members and others informed.

 

People don’t wake up and read the newspaper anymore, they check their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

 

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Career Aspirations

 

I’d like to bring more production work to Chicago. We’re getting there, but I want to figure out how I can personally speed that process up.

 

I hate that amazing talent, both on and off the camera or stage, feel the need to flee to LA or NYC for work.

 

I want Chicago to be the heavy hitter we all know it can be.

 

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Walk us through a typical day for you at the Cast Station.

 

I am predominantly a commercial casting director and I love it. Advertising has always fascinated me and not just because of Mad Men. But I am also the head of the Chicago office, which means so I handle managerial work too (i.e. handling the finances and managing staff) in addition to the responsibilities of being a casting director.

 

 

Said responsibilities include putting out casting calls, directing talent and running camera during casting sessions, searching for and scheduling non-actor talent, working as the creative middle (wo)man between ad agency executives,  producers, agents, and talent, (aka emailing all day long) street casting and people searching, (literally walking up to people on the street with a camera asking if they want to be in a commercial) traveling to other cities to hold casting calls or manage sessions, consulting with representatives at SAG AFTRA, eating, sleeping, breathing…there’s probably more I just can’t think of it right now.

 

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Top 5 Moments in Entertainment

 

In no particular order:

 

1) being ask to the board of WIFC. 

 

2) anytime a first timer auditions for me and walking them through it or absolutely ANY time a friend ends up booking work, especially my improviser friends who don’t do it regularly or don’t have agents, and are totally flabbergasted when they get the job. 

 

3) I had this one casting where I got to watch gospel singers, Christmas carolers, and musical improvisers all day, such a fun and memorable moment on the job.

 

4) performing with my all-female improv group the Housecats. I won’t pinpoint a particular show or moment, anytime we performed together it was some of the most fun I ever had.

 

5) The Cast Station Chicago’s launch party where I was introduced to a lot of the amazing people in the production community that I now work with (and/or drink with) on a regular basis.

 

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Chicago Improv

 

I started improvising when I was 10 years old. A couple from iO and Second City came to my school and taught an extracurricular program once a week. It was a really small group of us, but we did it all way the way to high school.

 

 

I learned the Harold, iO’s signature piece, and got to perform it on their stage in 6th grade. Improv was just this thing I did, and loved, and I never thought it would take me anywhere. When I graduated from college and moved back to Chicago, I decided to jump back into the scene and started taking classes at iO.

 

After a while, I made a Harold team, I was cast on Improvised Jane Austen, and I played in various independent teams and shows. Improv has never been a professional vehicle for me. As inarticulate as this sounds, it’s just something I do.

 

Something I have always done. It’s an artistic, creative, and therapeutic outlet.

 

I’m lucky enough to live in Chicago where it’s not totally uncommon for others to approach improv the same way.

 

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Why Improv?

 

I performed in plays, wrote, and directed traditional theatre from childhood all the way through college. I wrote sketch shows and I also tried stand-up once.

 

Nothing felt as special as improv to me.

 

Because it’s not just about performing and it’s not just about you, it’s about the others on stage with you. It’s focused on team building, group work, and listening in a way most people never do or could do.

 

Whenever the subject comes up, I always say that everyone should take an improv class once.

 

There is no facet of your life it can’t help. It builds confidence and promotes open-mindedness and compromise.

 

It’s a rare art form that makes the audience feel part of the experience rather than just observing it. They are seeing it for the first and only time, just like you are.

 

You just can’t beat that!

 

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Career Preparation

 

 I have studied theater since middle school, I double majored in English and Theatre at the University of Iowa, and as soon as I got back to Chicago I took the training program at iO.

 

I took several workshops from various improvisers and at Piven Theatre Workshop as well. I trained with The Cast Station in Austin before opening our office here.

 

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Mentors

 

Joyce Piven, who I worked as a personal assistant to for several years. Here’s a woman who at her age, which I wouldn’t dare disclose, is still wholeheartedly committed and involved in fostering artists and performers. Let’s just say for 40+ years since the opening of Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston.

 

John Williams and  Karmen Leech, my business partners at The Cast Station, as well as our head of extras casting, Katie Dino. Calling them extraordinary doesn’t even being to cover it.

 

Their work ethic is unparalleled and yet, somehow, they made the time to welcome me into the company and teach me everything I needed to know about the business to get me started.

 

They’re a never-ending support system.

 

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Current Projects

 

We update our work pretty regularly The Cast Station’s website. Come check out shows with my indy team Birdie or Improvised Jane Austen!

 

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Anything else you would like to share with our readers?

 

Look out for my casting notices on FB and improvisers looking to be on my mailing list should email me their info at thecaststationchicago@gmail.com

 

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Where can our readers go to find out more information?

 

 

The Cast Station 

 

Women in Film Chicago   

 

 Improvised Jane Austen 

 

Birdie 

 

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