Stage Dad: The Manager
An interview with Kim Pedell, founder of Zoom Talent Management
"I saw my sis go pitter pat. Said I can do that. I can do that.”
In the summer of 2007, our 9-year-old son was dancing in the basement of a woman’s house in Maryland. Ben showed off his gymnastics moves, taps, and splits to the song from “A Chorus Line.” He sang “Happy birthday” and read lines from a script.
Afterward, he answered a few questions from the woman — local talent manager Linda Townsend — and then we left, not knowing what would happen and with no clue how that audition would change all our lives.
Two weeks later, Linda signed Ben and worked on his behalf for eight years. And it was then that I realized talent managers are masters of the multitask. Juggling a roster of clients, they are invaluable to parents and caregivers of professional child performers.
Linda helped Ben — and us — make the transition from D.C. to New York and represented him until he turned 18. She also helped Ben develop a relationship with a respected talent agency — CESD in New York City — that he remains with today.
Ben with his parents and then manager Linda Townsend after debuting as the lead in the national tour of “Billy Elliot: The Musical” in June 2012.
How a child gets representation, and the roles managers and agents play in a young performer’s life are the most common questions I’m asked by other parents. For the next two installments of “Stage Dad,” I interviewed Kim Pedell, owner of Zoom Talent Management (ZTM), and David Doan, the head of CESD’s Young Talent Department, to get some insight into their roles and their work.
First up is Kim, who I’ve never met in person, but was referred to me by a mutual friend who has worked on Broadway, TV and film. She started ZTM — a full-service boutique company representing children, teens, and young adults — in 2012 after working several years for a bi-coastal talent management firm. Her career also includes 15 years in advertising, marketing, public relations, and executive sales.
She graciously agreed to be interviewed by email for this series; her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What do parents need to know about the work you do?
Having a manager on your team can be invaluable. We wear many hats.
A manager offers feedback on individual profiles and materials like headshots, resumes, reels, and coaching. We are often consulted on changes to hairstyle, dental work, and individual interests such as music lessons and voice coaching.
We work behind the scenes to help talent sign with agent representation if they don’t already have it and collaborate with those agents. We help develop new and emerging talent with auditions, tapes, and recordings. We coordinate schedules and appointments and any unusual conflicts that might arise.
Once a job is booked, we oversee the details beyond the contract, such as securing housing, travel, and flight details. We deal with conflicts that might arise on set or a talent’s particular needs, like dietary restrictions on set. We help coordinate tutoring and work with guardians and set teachers to manage day-to-day needs. Most recently, with Covid, we do all we can to coordinate testing and scheduling and travel as it has become quite complicated with all new procedures for each production company and project.
How do you explain the difference between a manager and an agent?
Agents are very busy trying to book as many jobs for their talent as possible; they rely on managers to do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work.
Managers typically have a smaller roster. We spend a lot more time developing the talent and supporting both the talent and parents by answering questions and problem solving. We often screen work before it is submitted to casting via the agent to be sure we are presenting the best audition possible.
Managers work directly with agents to pitch talent for projects. We communicate with agents when special skill sets are needed for auditions. We often know our talent and their skills more thoroughly as well as their schedules, concerns, and conflicts. We make sure our younger actors have updated work permits and their online profiles are current with resumes, skills, training, and size cards. We recommend coaches and training as well as other helpful industry resources.
What common misperceptions do parents have about the work you do?
I think parents don’t realize just how much goes on behind the scenes that they are not aware of and how intricate casting really is. There’s always more to the story and often they talk among themselves and get confused about the process and details. A lot of misinformation is out there.
Casting has a process, and they are often specific about what they want. We can advocate for and pitch our talent and offer supporting resources, but managers and agents cannot control the casting process nearly as much as parents think we can. We can only put out our talent’s best work and do our best to offer them as many opportunities to be seen as possible. But we can’t ask creative teams and producers to choose our talent; they respond to what their vision is for the role. They put together a puzzle and numerous factors affect those decisions, many of which are out of our hands.
When hiring children, casting often has to match parents and siblings, or if it’s a scene involving a classroom or a friend group, they put together groups that could believably be the same age. Sometimes offers are out to the adult actors playing the parents already, so casting knows who they’re matching. We don’t always know that. Sometimes one kid is already cast and they’re building around that kid’s height, age, and type, so they already know what they’re looking for.
We submit everyone based on the breakdown and casting asks to see a tape from who they respond to based on what they know. Depending on the age range, we submit talent for the same role who are multiple ages, ethnicities, and types. We often submit five to 10 actors for a role and get one or two appointments. And those are still good odds.
What do you look for in terms of talent? How do you scout for and identify talent?
For all my talent I look for confidence, likability, and knowing who they are as an artist. For young talent I like to see they have the drive and desire to do this. It’s not an easy path and takes a big commitment and lots of sacrifices from families. To justify this, the talent really must love and want to do it. The drive cannot come from the parents; it almost always becomes problematic if the parents want it more than the young talent.
For my older talent I look for drive but it’s slightly different. I need to see they’re organized, focused, and good at communication. The more together they are, the easier it is for me to help and support them.
The omnipresence of social media and the increased reliance on self-tapes are two areas that have changed the business dramatically since our son was a child actor. How important is social media for child actors today? And what do parents need to know about self-taping?
I have a love/hate relationship with social media for child actors. Parents are often running their pages and sometimes they lose sight of what’s important. It is joyful to celebrate and share bookings so friends and family can see what they are doing. It is not as healthy to be worried about followers and popularity and that’s where it gets tricky. There’s a degree of that in the business, but it’s not as critical for younger actors as notable work is.
For self-taping, the most important thing to know is how competitive the tapes are these days. We don’t see in-person first auditions happening any time soon; self-tapes are the norm these days. For every audition there are thousands of submissions, even just for a single line. When you’re chosen to tape that’s half the battle. It’s an opportunity to really send in a good tape and have a shot.
The quality of the actual taping matters a lot more because this is the casting director’s first look at the talent for the project. The acting on self-tapes is far superior than it ever was.
There’s a learning curve for parents to be able to know how to do it. Coaches and taping services can help both the talent and parent learn what is expected.
Is there a point where you ask a child’s parents to seek representation elsewhere?
I’m very loyal to my talent and very attached. However, sometimes I just can’t do a whole lot more for someone. I will be honest that I’m doing all I can and not getting any traction. We may talk about what we can do to get things going, but I’m always honest if I don’t think I can do anything more.
How important is ongoing training for young actors?
Training is tricky. Casting often wants raw and real talent, not young talent that is overtrained and too polished. That said, most of my talent who book often are training regularly.
For theatre roles, there is no doubt they must be in training for voice, dance, etc. On-camera training can be very helpful as well because often it is difficult for parents to do a self-tape with their own child.
What else does every child actor need to have in his/her/their toolkit?
It’s important for child actors to have other interests. Well-rounded actors make interesting actors. Flexibility and resilience also are important and helpful. It’s really important for young actors to do their best work and leave the room or the taping and not focus on the outcome. We cannot control the outcome. Worrying about the results and asking about callbacks is counterproductive.
As a parent, I was always interested in Ben receiving honest feedback about his work? Why is it so hard to get?
Feedback is very subjective. It can quite simply be the creatives or producers responded slightly more to someone else. This can be for a multitude of reasons, all of which are beyond our control, and it’s often based on things we cannot change — height, look, ethnicity, pacing, energy.
When it’s something specific, like a dance role, and they cast skilled technical dancers, that is more specific feedback. When it’s down to just a few actors, the reality is any of them could be right for the role and castable, but only one can book the job.
It is difficult sometimes to pinpoint exactly why they made the final choice. Sometimes talent just needs to be lucky!
Next week: An interview with David Down, plus Ben’s 2010 “audition” to host the Tony Awards.