Generally, I shy away from interjecting myself into these School of Theatre and Dance alumni spotlight articles. However, if I am going to write about Toni Cobb Brock (BA, 1977), I just can't resist. Known by most as a gifted and prolific casting director for film and television, to me she is something much more.
When I was an aspiring actor at Lubbock High School in the early ‘90s, Brock was a rock star in the local theatre community. She had cast some friends in an episode of television's Unsolved Mysteries, and she was directing off-beat plays in a converted storefront theatre on 34th Street. Brock was generous with her talents and remarkably accessible, conducting acting workshops throughout the Lubbock community and making herself available to young actors.
I can point to Brock as the reason I believed my dreams could become a reality, and I am not the only one who could do so. She has touched the lives of so many, it would be impossible to quantify. A true trailblazer, Brock not only inspired us with her example, but literally showed us how to do it. She is hands-on, plain-spoken Lubbock-native whose passion for "the work" is unmatched.
You can imagine how humbled and thrilled I was when Brock agreed to speak with me.
When you were studying at Texas Tech, was your focus mostly on acting?
To be honest, my first love was stage management. And then I took Ron Schulz's class and I fell in love with directing. Don't get me wrong. I did some acting and I actually got paid for some years to act. But my love was always directing.
It's so interesting to think about my time at Tech. I mean, I was a kid. I grew up there. I met friends that are still friends. We are a unique little group of people who are all still working in the industry and doing great stuff. And we're successful – not only as artists, but as people.
So many people went on to do great things from that period. What was going on? Was there something in the water?
We all really loved each other. We had a mutual respect for the art, and we spent a lot of time together. And it was interesting because if we ended up not in a play, we figured out a way to be in a play. I didn't get cast one semester and was pretty disappointed. So a man named Tony Everton and his wife, Jeanne Everton asked if I wanted to be in a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? they were putting on at the Methodist church across the street from campus. Tony also directed a little traveling production of Everyman at Christmas. We built a cart and did the whole Commedia thing, running around campus doing the production for whomever. We just liked doing stuff, and we had lot of energy and passion – and the freedom to do it. I have to give credit to the inspiration that was there not only from the instructors – Ron Schulz, Clifford Ashby, and Larry Randolph – who were incredible teachers and artists themselves, but also to the students that were there during that time. It was a great group of people.
What did you do after graduation?
I stayed in Lubbock for a few years. I owned a restaurant called the Chick ‘n' Sea on Fourth Street across from the Tech Museum, and I was the children's theatre director along with Jane Anne Cummings for Lubbock Community Theatre. Later, Pam and Jay Brown came in. The three of us also started another group called Actors and Co. We directed plays and children's shows, and we took them to the schools and those kinds of things. I was also teaching dance at Texas Tech. Diana Moore hired me to teach a tap class and a beginning jazz class. To teach with her, I needed to enroll in school again. So, because of that, I was God blessed to meet George Sorensen! I took a couple of classes with George and had an opportunity to get to know him and work with him.
You were really busy! And then you moved to Dallas?
I did. Jeanne Everton had become the broadcast agent at the Norton Agency. I went in there to see if I could get her to represent me. Well, she was really busy that day and asked if I would help make some calls. I did – and then I worked there for a year as an assistant broadcast agent. I went on to work as an agent for three years after that. I owned my own agency.
What made you decide to go out your own? Do you just have an entrepreneurial spirit?
Either that, or I'm not very good employee. I just have that thing where I go, “I just know I can do this better.” I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I think it's both. Anyway, at a certain point, I could see a cap on what I was going to be able to do and make – and that was not okay with me. So, I decided to sell the agency and come back to Lubbock for a little while. And during that period, I met an inspiring group of people – Luke Morris, Brett Brock … whom I ended up marrying later, Tom Eppler, Kevin Grammer, Bridgette Poe. We opened up a little black box theater called The Deadwood Theatre. I ran that for three years. It was a great theater – and we did great work.
So that's around when our paths first crossed. I was a senior at Lubbock High School, and I somehow managed to get into your production of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead at The Deadwood Theatre.
Yeah, you did. Ha, ha! What a fabulous experience. But during that time, I kept having casting directors who I had worked with as an agent, calling me to help cast projects. And so, sitting in Lubbock, I did the kids casting for Forrest Gump, for The Sandlot, for COP and ½. I did a bunch of Unsolved Mysteries. Then, Barbara Brinkley called me up and asked me to do the extras casting for a show in Austin. I did that for her and then she asked if I wanted to assist her on Walker, Texas Ranger – which is what moved me back to Dallas. I did a lot of work with Barbara Brinkley. We did Varsity Blues. One of my favorite pieces we did together was called The Only Thrill. Pete Masterson directed it, and it included Diane Keaton, Robert Patrick, Diane Lane, and Sam Shepard. It was just such a beautiful little film. So, we did some great work. But I had three kids, and it seemed like all of the work that she was getting was outside of the Dallas area. At a certain point, I just didn't want to be away from my family. So, Barbara and I parted ways. Out of respect for her, I didn't do much of anything for about a year. Then, Bill Paxton called me up and asked me if I would do a casting search for Frailty. That sort of got me going again. After that, we did everything from Breaking Bad to There Will be Blood to Comanche Moon. And the rest is history. I have been casting pretty much nonstop ever since.
That's fantastic. Let's switch gears a bit – if that's okay. I'd like to hear a bit about the work you do. First off, if you didn't do casting at all, you would still have a pretty incredible legacy an acting teacher. I'm curious about your approach to that.
If Texas Tech taught me nothing else, it drove home that, if you are not working at doing this every day, you're not going to be competitive. We have decided to go into one of the most competitive industries there is, the chances of getting parts and doing this thing professionally are overwhelmingly low. So, you have to be ready every minute to jump on an opportunity. You have to be able to dance and sing. You need to be incredibly physically fit. You need martial arts. You need all kinds of training in those areas – whether it's fencing or stage combat or whatever. You have to be your very best physically, mentally, and spiritually. Education is imperative. I think I have the best of both worlds. I have the education to teach, and I have the up-to-the-minute industry knowledge to impart. I've changed my teaching over a slew of auditions. I'll suddenly go, “You know, what I'm teaching isn't working, let's go this way with it.” And I've done that more than several times in a year because I'm seeing what's happening in the industry everyday – what's working and what's not, you know?
Let's talk about casting. I think there's a consensus out there that you have sort of – I don't know if you want to call it a gift? or knack? – for recognizing talent. What is that?
It is a gift. It's a God given gift – but just like any other of our gifts, you know? People ask me a lot: “What is it you're looking for when you're looking for an actor?” And so, I may change. If we have this interview next week, it might be a different answer. But today, the answer is … I think I am looking for that person who makes me stop thinking that they're acting and start feeling that they're the character in my piece. And I don't think it takes too much to figure that out. Now, do we always get it right? Well, we do a lot. I've worked on enough Academy Award-winning and Emmy-winning productions to prove it. We're working on a beautiful series now called The Chosen. It's a faith-based project that is just getting all sorts of acclaim. And one of the things that they always say is how real the characters feel. There's no better compliment you can give than what you may see on the screen is real life.
Since 2006, Brock has been working with notable School of Theatre and Dance alumna, Sally Allen. Based in Austin, Brock Allen Casting is one of the busiest, most sought-after casting agencies in Texas – and they show no sign of slowing down.