This Is Who We Are: Professor James Calleri

Amanda Breen
April 26, 2021

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making during a pandemic. Here, we talk with Associate Professor and Acting Co-Concentration Head, James Calleri about Calleri Studio, casting’s modified comeback, and the importance of staying true to one’s artistic path. 

Last spring, with COVID-19 spreading rapidly across the globe, School of the Arts’ professors complied with social distancing measures by moving their classrooms to Zoom. The transition took place just before the University’s regularly scheduled spring break, and, initially, it seemed like a temporary fix for a short-term problem. Online instruction began on March 11, 2020 with the expectation that it would continue through the week after the break. Soon, however, it became clear that the pandemic wouldn’t be managed in a matter of weeks, and Zoom learning emerged as a more permanent fixture—first for the rest of the semester, and then, ultimately, for the entirety of the 2020/2021 academic year. 

The new instructional model was adopted by most of the School of the Arts’ graduate programs, including those within the Theatre department, with one exception: the Acting concentration. “We made the very early decision last summer to take the year off,” Calleri says. “We called it sort of a maintenance year, where we worked with the students once a week. In a way, it was like a research arts year. Our goal was to all just get back in the room in the fall of 2021. So everyone was given an extra year.”

During the hiatus, Calleri relocated to his home upstate in Saugerties, New York. On the 12-acre property, Calleri has spent time tending to his garden, which he cites as an inspiration and lifelong passion inherited from his parents. Calleri turns his computer screen to the window, showing me the flowerbeds ready to bloom. “I’m a big gardener,” he says. “I find digging in the dirt very therapeutic. I can see my forsythia, and I have a lot of lilacs and things like that. I can see the buds about to start. It’s still chilly up here.”

For Calleri, finding his work as a professor and casting director indefinitely on hold offered him an opportunity to reflect on who he is as an artist. He says, “What I found fascinating was that I had two full time jobs, and I was not able to do either of them for a good amount of time. And that was very eye opening for me. I feel so grateful because I really love what I do. And there was a moment when neither of those things was happening. I was like, ‘Well, who are you when you're not doing what you do?’ It made me really think about that. That was the biggest take away.”

Though classes at the School of the Arts were suspended for the year, Calleri continued to teach virtual classes through his acting studio, Calleri Studio. While he taught his classes in person in the city prior to the pandemic, he’s found teaching film and television acting on Zoom to be quite effective. Calleri teaches two levels of an on-camera exercise class, offers an ongoing systems training group for actors and performing artists, and provides private coaching.

“It’s been sort of the most productive teaching I’ve been able to do in a weird way,” Calleri says. “I geared everything to on-camera and film work, so we’ve been doing specific film exercises for the actor. They can go out into the street, and they’re doing things in their apartment with their phones and with their laptops. We’re studying the actors’ work through that medium. I didn’t expect it to be as fruitful as it’s been.”

The casting process was paused for several months at the outset of the pandemic. “Theatre in general really took a hit, as you know,” Calleri says. “I made the very active decision to not lean into the Zoom readings of theatre. I don’t think it’s the same. And I found it actually healthy to take a break from that.” 

Since then, casting has made a comeback, albeit in modified form. The process would typically take place in person before the pandemic; now, as with so many things, it relies on virtual methods. “We’re casting things for next season,” Calleri says. “I’m casting things for the summer right now, even, that are going to be outside. We’re doing all the work remotely. So most of the work is actors doing self tapes, and then I’m doing callback Zoom sessions. And it’s been surprisingly good, actually.”

Calleri is the owner and president of casting company Calleri Jensen Davis, where he and partners Erica Jensen and Paul Davis cast theatre, film, and television. Some of his upcoming projects include the ABC pilot Harlem’s Kitchen, season three of Dickinson, and several Broadway shows. In the past, Calleri cast Tony-nominated Broadway productions of Burn ThisFool for LoveThe Elephant ManHedwig and The Angry InchOf Mice and MenVenus in FurThe Visit, and A Raisin in the Sun. He’s cast for Center Theatre Group, Classic Stage Company, Rattlestick, The Flea, Williamstown, and Long Wharf, among others. 

Some of Calleri’s numerous television casting credits include DickinsonThe Path, Monk, EdLipstick Jungle, and Army Wives. Calleri has worked at the Lincoln Center Theater, for ABC Television, and was the casting director for Playwrights Horizons for ten seasons. He is the co-author with Robert Cohen of Acting Professionally: Raw Facts About Careers in Acting (Macmillan). 

Additionally, Calleri has taught at schools and colleges across the country, including the NYU Tisch Graduate Acting Program and Syracuse University, and he currently serves on the board of the Casting Society of America. He is a graduate of Trinity University and holds an MFA from the University of California at Irvine. 

Over the course of his decades-long career, Calleri has come to recognize the importance of patience and determination in professional creative pursuits, urging aspiring artists to consider the journey a “long game.” He says, “I think young people today, especially, want sort of the quick fix on how it can happen, and it’s definitely a long-term plan that you have to make.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the mix of art and commerce,” he continues. “I got into doing this because it's what I love doing. I love casting. I love teaching. And the work came out of that. Meaning, I think you have to find what you really love and then trust that that's going to keep leading to other things. I never thought ‘Oh, I need to go make money.’ I thought ‘Oh, this is what really inspires me, this is what creatively is interesting for me.’ And the best thing about it is when those things can mix—art and commerce—you're doing something you love, you can actually survive doing it, you can actually put food on the table. You have to follow your heart and trust that that's going to keep leading you down the right path.”

Read more from the "This is Who We Are" series