Kay Magson 13 January 1962 – 7 September 2023


Reflecting on Kay Magson’s life, by Nikolai Foster.
Yorkshire born theatre Casting Director Kay Magson, who died of cancer aged 61, was a formidable force in British theatre for the past 34 years. Kay leaves behind a phenomenal legacy in the many actors she has cast and with audiences who possibly didn’t realise they had been touched by that special Magson magic that Kay brought to all of the shows she was responsible for casting.


Growing up in a working class community in the north of England in the 1970s, a career in the theatre was never on the cards. Kay’s mother, Jean was a primary school teacher and her father, Harry worked at the Rowntree’s chocolate factory in York. Magson went on to read Spanish and Hispanic studies at Newcastle University in 1981. Language and literature were her passion and this degree was “just for her”. After her formal degree, Kay studied short-hand typing at Newcastle Polytechnic in order to get a “proper job”, working first as a secretary at the Courage Brewery in Horsforth; this brought Magson to the place she would forever call home in West Yorkshire. When the brewery closed, Kay took a job as a secretary at the old Leeds Playhouse, working under visionary Artistic Director John Harrison. At that time, the theatre was operating out of a portacabin at Leeds University, before the team moved to the magnificent new theatre on Quarry Hill in Leeds. Alongside a formidable team led by Harrison and later Artistic Director Jude Kelly, Kay was part of the team who not only opened one of the UK’s most successful regional theatres (the “National of the North”), but helped put regional theatre on the map as theatre hurtled towards the 21st century and the focus started to become less London-centric. Kay stayed with the Playhouse for 20 years (eventually as their resident casting director), before embarking on a hugely successful and eclectic freelance career in casting.
Today the role of casting director is ubiquitous and an essential part of any theatre team, however, when Kay started her career the role of Casting Director was very much in its infancy and as one of the very first people to inhabit this new role, Kay was a trailblazer and helped define what the casting director does today. Kay’s superb taste in actors, ability to spot unique talent and desire to promote regional actors and those from underrepresented backgrounds meant she was a natural in this new role. At the Playhouse, Kay helped put together ensembles of actors which featured Ian McKellen, Josie Walker, Patrick Stewart, Kay Mellor, Warren Mitchell, Anne Reid, Sheila Hancock, Willie Ross, Sharon D Clarke and Patricia Routledge. Directors enjoyed her sagacious, laconic and witty insights. Actors loved her warmth, kindness and sense of mischief.
Like all great artists, Kay was able to surf a multitude of different genres within her field and since going freelance, her work was seen in London’s West End, our regional theatres and in touring venues the length and breadth of the UK. Magson leapt effortlessly from Shakespeare to new works, radical revivals of plays from the canon, to large scale musicals, pantomimes and community events. Whether it was a play by Stephen Sondheim or a rock ‘n’ roll panto, Kay made everyone feel relaxed in the audition room merely with her presence, she cut through ego and theatre-babble.
Kay was meticulous in her work, setting up audition days with military-style precision, curating them to ensure actors were always treated with respect. Her audition rooms were filled with laughter, joy and ensured the actor was the focus of the meeting, empowering them to do their very best work. Kay’s vibrant personality, immaculate taste and warmth always set the tone and any bumps along the rocky road of making theatre were always met with stoicism, panache, Yorkshire wit and an ingenious, understated wisdom.
Kay adored working with young people and whether it was putting together a team of 60 local kids for Leeds Playhouse’s Annie or inspiring young actors in training at the recently opened Leeds Conservatoire, Kay’s generosity of spirit, altruism and unassuming knowledge was felt deeply by all of the young people she helped to nurture and inspire, often leading to dazzling and memorable stage debuts.
Kay was rarely seen at Curve opening nights, eschewing the showbiz scene for a quiet life with her three beloved cats in Pudsey, West Yorkshire. Some of the greatest casting ideas have been borne from a spare room in a terraced house in Pudsey. Kay would take pride in visiting all of the companies she had brought together, enjoying a matinee visit, often with her mum Jean here at our Green Room Cafe. However, Kay was an avid Manchester United fan and the only time she’d miss a matinee was if her beloved United were playing that afternoon.
Kay was never star struck with the plethora of world-famous actors, writers, directors, producers and stage designers she collaborated with. However, when working on the David Essex musical All the Fun of the Fair, Kay did revert to her teenage self, having been a member of the Essex fan club for many decades!
Kay battled her illness with a dignified defiance, quietly and privately navigating her new reality, supported by the incredibly kind and resourceful NHS consultants and nurses at Jimmy’s in Leeds. Kay continued working as long as she could; her final project was our production of Evita, where Kay delivered the sensational company you are watching today. And Kay was recently represented at arguably the most famous theatre in the world – the London Palladium – with our production of The Wizard of Oz, which plays the Liverpool Empire for the 2023 Christmas season.

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