Sometimes, good guys finish first.
Kazarian Measures Ruskin & Associates is a rarity: The agency has a division devoted to performers with disabilities. KMR supported that arm for years even though it always operated in the red. But this past year, the department surged into profitability, and the agency has chalked up $3 million in bookings for clients with disabilities.
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KMR president Mark Measures says it was never an option to shutter the branch, noting, “The department was a loss leader, but I think it’s the true legacy of our agency.”
He adds: “My ultimate goal is that I don’t want the department to exist. I want everybody to just see actors as actors, so that someday we can eliminate the department.”
The tenpercentery opened in 1957 as Wormser Agency and became KMR six years ago. There are 16 agents in L.A. (including three in diversity) and nine in New York.
The diversity department was begun by Cynthia Kazarian (now retired) and agent Riley Day. Gail Williamson signed on in 2013.
KMR clients with disabilities include Ali Stroker, a Tony winner for Broadway’s “Oklahoma!”; Lauren Ridloff, who has played a recurring character on “Walking Dead” and will be the first Marvel deaf superhero in “The Eternals”; and Natasha Ofili (“The Politician”). Some clients are stil in the diversity division while others are now repped by a KMR team.
“The measure of success is not only that these people are getting work,” Williamson says of her department. “They are playing characters who are not defined by their disability.”
It wasn’t easy at first to gain the trust of casting agents and execs.
“I think there is a fear of the unknown,” says Williamson. Decision-makers “are afraid of offending someone, so they’ll avoid it. Or else there is a lack of life experience, so they’re not thinking of people with disabilities. Even now, when people talk about diversity, disability is usually not part of the conversation. We still have to say, ‘Don’t forget about us!’”
KMR wanted to keep the word “diversity” in the department title. The agency doesn’t want people with disabilities to be pigeonholed; the name is a reminder that PWDs are part of the bigger picture.
Williamson had never been an agent before joining KMR. Her son Blair has Down syndrome and was cast in a Procter & Gamble commercial through the Special Olympics when he was 11.
“He had a good time, so I tried to find him an agent; it was impossible,” says Williamson, who started working at California’s Media Access Office for PWD employment, which led to her meeting the people at KMR.
“I became an agent because I’m an advocate, and I want to create more employment in a more inclusive world,” she says. “If you’re in HR somewhere and you see a character on TV in a wheelchair, you’re going to be more open the next time you interview someone in a wheelchair.”
Her clients have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, as has everyone. But if anything, they’re more prepared, since PWDs are accustomed to solving big challenges every day.
Williamson says clients have been using the time to perfect their craft: “There are a lot of acting classes online, making participation more accessible. They know they need the skills if they’re going to compete for ‘typical’ roles.”