Mary Egan-Callahan ’95, far right, peers through a video camera, filming her students as they stand in front of a downtown Manhattan loft/classroom on the final night of commercial acting class. As the students take their turns raving about Dorito’s Tortilla Chips or Smucker’s Grape Jelly, Brooke Thomas ’87, near right, sits on a stool to the side and urges them to take their performances up another notch.
“Can you do that commercial again, this time like a circus performer?” Thomas asks one student. To another she says: “Do that one again, but this time with a southern drawl.”
As casting directors of House Productions and Casting and owners of Brooke and Mary’s on-camera commercial class (brookeandmary.com), Thomas and Egan-Callahan and their associates have placed aspiring actors in commercials for products and services as diverse as Hummer, Bud Light, Charles Schwab, Ikea, Verizon, Wendy’s, Diet Coke, and Apple iPod. “I can say we realistically have cast 25 percent of the TV commercials you see running right now,” Egan-Callahan said.
The two URI theater graduates started teaching their commercial acting class in 2001. “We both had been hired by other companies and thought we could do better ourselves,” said Egan-Callahan, a Warwick native who now lives in New Jersey with her husband, Tim, and two daughters, Maggie and Katie. “We’d come back from teaching for other people and felt we were being unfair to the students. They would over-pack the classes with too many students. We’d have to do what they’d say and not teach the way we thought was most effective.”
That first class in 2001 included several comedians who went on to appear in commercials and then graduated to roles in popular TV shows. “Now we have this huge following,” Egan-Callahan said.
Dorrie Garland, a student in the most recent class, called the two URI grads “dynamic, informative, hilarious, and honest. As a team they complement each other, and each of them carries a tremendous amount of knowledge of the industry that they have an innate ability to translate to students.”
“In our first class, many people, including myself, seemed very nervous,” recalled Brian Belcinski, another student. “But Mary and Brooke were both so supportive and insightful and positive in their feedback that people came out of their shells very quickly. By the third class it was surprising to me how far everyone had come.”
“Brooke and Mary asked us to make bold choices, go off the copy, and use our improvisational skills,” said another student, Mia Caress. “Not only did it make the class more fun, but it infused some joy into often dry scripts.” Thomas and Egan-Callahan tell their students that a good actor can often think of ways to inject some life into a commercial that a director might not think of on his or her own.
After filming the commercials, Thomas, Egan-Callahan, and a couple of talent agents they had invited to the class gave the students tips about sending out résumés and going to auditions. Thomas advised every student to keep a notebook and “write down everything” about every audition, from what they wore—“you want to wear the exact same thing if you get a callback”—to the name of the receptionist—“she might be the one making the calls in two years.”
Thomas, who grew up in Johnston and now lives in New York City with her boyfriend, John, daughter Mackenzie, and son Ian, explained why she believes show business is more demanding than other professions.
“Going into law is a profession. You study, take the bar, and become a lawyer,” she said. “But you can’t just study acting and then pass a test and become an actor. You have to be constantly studying, learning, and networking. You have to keep up with current events, keep yourself physically fit. There are so many aspects to it.”
Both Thomas and Egan-Callahan said the URI Theatre Department gave them a great foundation and cited Professor Judith Swift as a lasting influence: “She instilled in me a sense of professionalism in the theater,” Thomas said. Egan-Callahan agreed that Swift “really pushed me not to be lazy and take things for granted.”
“Paula McGlasson, who is now the chair of the department, was another professor who made a great impression on me,” Thomas said. “I learned how to be a stage manager and in doing so learned about organization and responsibility. To this day I use those project management skills.”
By the time Mary Egan enrolled at URI, Thomas had already graduated and was working for the Theatre Department. “Brooke helped choreograph a show I was in,” Egan-Callahan recalled. “When I was in school, people in the Theatre Department always told me ‘You are so much like Brooke.’” By the time Egan-Callahan graduated, Thomas had become a casting director in New York City and helped her get an internship.
Both women are no longer acting, but both find the casting business and teaching their classes a perfect fit for their lifestyles right now.
“We were actors, now we’re casting and teaching acting. We’re writing, producing, branching out,” said Egan-Callahan, who developed a show that won best comedy at the New York Television Festival and garnered her a development deal with NBC.
Thomas takes pride in the students she has helped prepare for television, including Bob Wiltfong of The Daily Show, Nick Kroll of Caveman, and Rob Hubel of MTV’s Human Giant. She also enjoys helping non-actors break into the business of making commercials.
“Our students come from all walks of life,” she said, recalling Armen Garo, a police officer from East Providence who traveled to New York to take their class and ended up landing national network commercials as well as roles in The Sopranos and the motion picture The Departed. Another time, Thomas was impressed with a waiter at a restaurant in New York and was surprised to find out that he was not an actor. However, he said he would be interested if she thought he was right for a role, and she found him one—“I love when things like that happen,” she said.
The class was winding down, and Thomas told her students she would email them a list of agents they should contact with résumés and 8-by-10 photos. Then she raised her voice to make sure they heard one last piece of advice.
“When you write these people, on the outside of the envelope make sure that you write with a Sharpie: ‘Student of Brooke and Mary’s.’ Make sure you write that and these letters are going to get opened—I can assure you of that!”
— By David Gregorio ’80
Photo Courtesy of Brooke Thomas and Mary Egan-Callahan