A Director’s Guide to Making Your School Theatre Casting Process a Learning Opportunity for Everyone

If you’ve ever performed in school theatre, you know what a horrible, exciting event the posting of the cast list can be. When the roles are assigned for the annual fall play or musical, tensions tend to run high, and students sometimes turn their backs on teachers. Feelings can be hurt, and the casting process can often seem like a personal rejection. Finding ways to keep this process productive and educational for everybody can make your program stronger and help increase retainment between shows!

Truly, every student can learn from every experience they have in the theater. This can be a hard lesson for young people to grasp. Directors can help by making small adjustments to their auditions and communication with students.

The following is a list of suggestions for directors following a rough chronological order. The list is divided into four sections: Before Auditions, Auditions, Casting Considerations, and Posting the List.

A side note: Many teachers are of the mindset that casting drama is below their circle of influence and not of any priority. They will also argue that the casting process is not about making anyone feel good about themselves, but setting yourself up for the best show possible and preparing students for real-world auditions and experiences. This is true. However, I urge all educators to remember that experiences in school theatre can make or break a student on performing for the rest of their lives. While I don’t advise pandering to students with bad attitudes, I strongly believe it’s necessary for educators to enforce fair, understandable casting policies, and treat all students with empathy and respect.


Before Auditions

  • Establish a good relationship with your students. Before auditions even begin, do your best to open lanes of communication between your students and yourself. Make clear that you are a trustworthy figure that harbors no ill will toward any student. This will also help keep nerves low.
  • Be clear about your program’s values and realities. Make it clear that the program will be enjoyable no matter what, and that while not everyone can be a lead, your program will celebrate every member of the cast. Set a clear example of what it means to respect ensemble members.
  • Make your expectations for auditions clear. Explain what the audition will look like, how to prepare for it, and what you want to see. The clearer you are about your expectations, the easier you can justify your casting decisions. This way you can also make sure every student has a fair chance to prepare, and that your auditions will be relatively smooth and stress-free.
    • Host an audition workshop. An audition workshop is a great way to do this! If many of your students are first-time performers, they may have never auditioned before. Going over the process of preparation, choosing a song, and performing in front of the production team can be very helpful for veterans and first-timers alike. Check my article about audition preparation if you need some ideas for preparing your students!
  • Explain the casting process. Explain that casting is never personal, and that many diverse factors impact your decisions. The more students understand the process, the less likely they are to argue with it.
    • Be clear about casting realities. Make sure students know that ensemble is a fact of life, and never something to be ashamed of. Share your own stories of being in the ensemble, or about getting cast in parts you didn’t feel right in, or about getting cut altogether– the more you can show you understand and have been through the same situation, the more likely your students will be to work with you.
    • Find ways for students to try out the process themselves. If your students can get hands-on experience with casting others, they’ll understand how complicated the job actually is. If you can set up classroom projects, workshops, or student-run productions where young performers can experience this, you may find the drama and intrigue around the process minimized.

In general, seek to humanize yourself and the process as much as possible. Keep discussion about what to expect frank and simple, and try your hardest to make sure students never think of auditions as any sort of personal judgement.

Auditions

  • Make sure everyone gets a fair shake. It is disheartening to feel like the director is done with you while everyone else reads multiple times. Don’t be disingenuous in your process, but give everyone an equal chance– don’t let one student read four times while another reads one, for instance. You can also lessen post-list hard feelings if everyone is given completely equal opportunity.
  • Consider creating an audition rubric. Even though you don’t necessarily have to follow this rubric by the word, having one makes defending your casting choices easy and makes your expectations very clear to students. It can also make giving feedback post-auditions easily demonstrable.
  • Be supportive and lessen students’ anxieties. As famed director William Ball states in his book A Sense of Direction, actors are vulnerable when they audition– part of the director’s job is too make the process easy for their auditors. In school theatre, I believe this goes double. Being a young adult is already hard. Don’t make it harder with unnecessary panic.

Casting Considerations

  • Cast according to best fit. Remember that your first and foremost consideration is casting the best show possible.
    • Stay strong! Even if you feel bad about a decision, never apologize to another student or tell them they deserved a role over another. Always stay strong in your decisions. Do not risk jeopardizing your students’ trust in the process by wavering.
  • Consider spreading the wealth. Look for ways to cast people who don’t normally get roles. Don’t be disingenuous, and always favor best fit over personal relationships. An opportunity to rise to a higher standard is always beneficial for every student nonetheless, so definitely seek ways to provide them as much as possible.
  • Keep an eye out for new talent, and don’t be afraid to take a risk. Don’t shy away from casting new faces. New students can really be hidden gems! Use your best judgement– a new, very talented student who is unreliable is likely never a better choice over a reliable but perhaps less gifted veteran.
  • Consider using students as crew leaders. If you have a particularly reliable student with useful skillsets that aren’t necessarily in the realm of performance, consider using them to create student-centered technical theatre programs. Student stage managers, technical directors, and sound or light ops (to name a few) can lighten your workload and really shine with an opportunity to do so. However, these students must be responsible and you must really commit to giving them real responsibilities. Never relegate students to technical roles as punishment or because they didn’t make the cut to be in the cast!
  • Ensemble is never to be used as punishment. Enough said. This totally undermines your message that the ensemble is important. If you need to make it clear that a student’s behavior or attitude isn’t acceptable, don’t cast them at all.
  • Consider establishing rules and regulations related to casting. For instance, if there are multiple performances a year in your department, consider establishing a rule that says no student may hold more than 2 leads roles a season, or set up cabaret performances exclusively open to students who weren’t cast in other shows. This will show your actors you are committed to providing opportunities to many students, and grant them chances to show their stuff.

Sharing the List

  • Consider sending personalized casting emails. Instead of posting the list with no context or fanfare, consider sending personalized emails to every student to offer roles. This can remove the feelings associated with finding out roles in a public space or from others. This is also a good way to make sure every student feels seen, rather than like a forgotten name at the bottom of the list. However, the emails must be truly personalized in order for this to be effective– sending one generic email to everyone is no better.
    • Offer constructive criticism. Open yourself up for questions related to auditions. Be sure to establish clear parameters for doing so. You could offer specific questions for your actors to ask: “Is there anything in particular that impacted my placement?” “Is there anything I can work on to improve for next time?” This way, the exchange remains entirely productive and avoids accusations or self-pity. Provide the actor with a few examples of things you liked and things you disliked. If you used an audition rubric, feel free to share it with them with some contextual notes and suggestions for the future. This promotes a growth mindset among students and creates dialogue rather than unspoken frustrations.
    • Only offer criticism in writing or in the company of others. That being said, sharing constructive criticism can open the door for further drama if you’re not careful. Give advice in ways your words cannot be twisted around.
  • Make it clear you will not tolerate drama related to the list. Be strong and unapologetic on this point. If students behave poorly in regards to casting, do not be afraid to remove them from the show where appropriate.
  • Celebrate the list. Celebrate every student on the list and make it clear everyone who auditioned has done something brave and commendable. Uplift every individual cast member and show you are proud and solid in your choices.

 

 

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