The MMIAM Journey

A blog about the Master of Management
in International Arts Management program

“Watching a kid experience the magic of Disney is lightning in a bottle.”

A MMIAM Journey interview with Hayley Pickess

Hayley Pickess graduated from the MMIAM program in 2020 and is based in Toronto, Canada. In December, Hayley became a Talent Casting Coordinator for Disney Live Entertainment. She and Brittany discussed what it’s like to work for the arts in a corporate role.

Are you an artist? How did you become interested in the arts?

Musical theatre has always been part of my DNA. My family jokes that I was singing before I was talking. I fell in love with everything the art form encompasses, from the smallest middle school gym to the largest Broadway house, the community formed, the incredible collaborative effort, and the power it holds to triumph a message, make you smile on the grayest day, or immobilize you in your seat after curtain call from being so moved.

I started performing in shows at 11 and jumped off the deep end. There was nothing I loved more, and when it came time to choose a post-secondary path, when considering performance, I was wisely advised, “If there is anything else you can picture yourself enjoying, do that instead.” My answer was no; there was nothing else; this was my greatest joy and deepest passion, and I pursued a Bachelor of Music in Musical Theatre from Oklahoma City University, where I honed my craft as an artist but also developed a deeper appreciation and greater academic and business interest in the industry itself.

Shortly after graduating from my undergrad, I decided that for my career, I wanted to pursue the industry from “the other side of the table,” which led me to the MMIAM program.

You’ve held roles within the Disney ecosystem. Can you tell me about your current role?

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I was first exposed to working for Disney through the internship program, The Disney College Program. I worked in Florida at Walt Disney World for a year and garnered enormous respect for how the company operates on such a large scale, specifically in entertainment. In the long term, I made it a goal to work for Disney in live entertainment. My MMIAM7 cohort would share with you that I rarely let an opportunity go by without tailoring my various papers and projects to Disney – even my thesis was oriented in Disney corporate leadership.

Hayley Pickess working with Stitch as Character Attendant at Walt Disney World in 2018 (personal archive)

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to work for Disney in a few different roles, which has been the highlight of my career. My current role is Talent Casting Coordinator for Disney Live Entertainment, in which my team focuses on casting live performers onboard Disney Cruise Line, including Broadway-style musicals, deck parties, entertainment restaurants, and more.

What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

As a Talent Casting Coordinator, my responsibilities include supporting our small but incredible team of Casting Directors as we audition and hire the performers to bring the Disney shows to life onboard. Every day is different, which I enjoy. One of my main responsibilities is the planning and coordination of auditions domestically and internationally, and some of my other responsibilities include long-term scheduling, performer processing, pre-screening submissions, communicating with partners, performers, and agents, creating documents, and maintaining databases and records.

My role allows me to combine the best of my skills and knowledge from both facets of my education: the musical theatre knowledge from my performance degree, as well as my administrative and management skills gained from the MMIAM program. Although this role is new to me, I have always been interested in casting, and my experience thus far has demonstrated why that is true. It is an incredibly complicated puzzle, but when the right pieces are found and fit into place, it is (at risk of sounding cliché) magical.

Do you have a favorite Disney movie? A favorite park?

This is a tough question for me. I grew up on Disney movies and love so many. I was a princess girl, and Cinderella was always my favourite – I loved her unwavering kindness and friendship with animals —the blue ballgown didn’t hurt either. I love the music of Hercules. The Emperor’s New Groove is endlessly quotable and always makes me laugh. I also love seeing how some of the newer movies, like Encanto or Frozen have positively impacted the little kids in my life.

As for a favourite park, it’s a goal of mine to visit all the Disney parks around the world, and I’m not there yet, so you’ll have to ask again in a few years – but there is something special about Disneyland Park in California. As a history lover, I find that there is something intangibly different about Walt Disney’s personal hand in that park’s development and creation – you can feel it while standing on Main Street in front of the castle. However, I’d be remiss not to talk about Disney Cruise Line. I sailed with my family when I was seven, and it remains my favourite family vacation. I have sailed several times since, and I believe there is something unparalleled with what a Disney Cruise has to offer a family – and the quality of entertainment truly is unmatched. Watching a little kid experience the magic of a Disney musical, to me, is lightning in a bottle – I feel very privileged to feel so passionately about my job.

Hayley Pickess celebrating one year working for Disney Cruise Line (DCL) at DCL Office… with Minnie (personal archive)

Many of the MMIAM graduates go on to work for theatres, museums, or other non-profit organizations. What’s it like working in the arts in a corporate setting?

In some respects, the arts are the arts, no matter what organization you are working for. In speaking directly of a theatre environment, there are many similarities: the process of creative development, the structures of a rehearsal period, the incredible people drawn to the work, the collaboration required, etc. Most days, on the ground level, it feels very much like any theatre environment – I’m working on a team of passionate, dedicated, and talented individuals who are team players, willing to work hard to create shows we are proud of.

When working for a large corporation, differences lie in working within a corporate structure – especially one as vast as Disney. As a few examples –

  • Disney is rightly protective of its reputation for high quality, technological innovation, and exceptional guest experiences – therefore, decisions are made with incredible care and insight, often involving many perspectives, which may result in a longer project timeline than a more traditional non-profit theatre company.
  • We are fortunate to have experts from incredible departments around the world within the company – as just a few examples, our Disney partners in costuming, technical design, operations, show writers, learning and development, and puppetry are experts in their field and are incredible collaborators and resources.
  • The scale at which we pre-produce is much larger than that of most non-profit theatre companies, mounting 35+ Mainstage musicals each year across the fleet not including our countless additional offerings. This drives the necessity for efficiency, and we are a well-oiled machine. Yet our creative team maintains creative integrity and buoyancy as each new cast breathes fresh life into their version of classics.
  • Disney has been described to me not as a corporate ladder, but as a lattice. The opportunities are bountiful within such a large company with many different facets, and I can attest that this is true. In my short time with the company, I’ve held three significantly differing roles and have gained incredible insight and experience from each. I know there are endless possibilities within Disney to explore over my career, should I wish to.

Can you share how the MMIAM program prepared you for working in a corporate setting?

The MMIAM program set me up for success in the corporate setting in a few key ways. The largest is learning how to clearly and succinctly communicate complex concepts, both written and verbal. This skill has been my number one asset in all of my roles, both corporate and non-profit, and one I honed during the MMIAM program. I learned the value of being solution-oriented, how to apply “outside the box” thinking to a professional setting, and how to effectively work on a team with varying points of view and different strengths. Often, many of the skills I am praised for in the professional setting are ones I developed or sharpened during the MMIAM program.

Can you share something you’ve done, either personally or professionally, in the past year that you’re really excited about or proud of?

This past year, I became a Traditions Facilitator for Disney. Traditions is a Disney orientation class that every new member of the company, regardless of title or department, attends to begin their journey, in which we discuss Disney’s history, our legacy, and how we create magic. Traditions titled the way it is for a reason; it is a tradition for the Company, dating back to Walt himself, and facilitators are not chosen lightly. I consider being a facilitator a true privilege and honour, which I am very proud of.

Hayley Pickess sliding with MMIAM 7 friends – Jessica Drymer and Jiahui Zhao – in Winter 2020 in Bolton East, Quebec (personal archive)


*Hayley Pickess’s headshot credit: Adriana Tomeu Photography.