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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A Director’s Guide to Making your Set Builds and Strikes more User-Friendly

Getting your cast and crew to stay focussed and productive during set build and especially strike is always a challenge. Although it can seem like inaction on the part of your actors is purely a matter of laziness or disrespect, many actors simply don’t know how to help or be useful. If you want to keep everyone active, some small steps on the part of the director can help.

Keep your goals clear and visible.

Make sure your team is clear on everything that needs to be done for the day, and make these goals visible. If you have access to a large whiteboard, write out every individual goal for the day. Otherwise, print out sheets of paper and post them somewhere they may be easily referenced. Check off tasks as you go. When everything that needs to be accomplished is clearly established, no one can claim ignorance as an excuse for inaction. It also lessens the amount of questions you’ll have to field– everyone has an easy resource to consult should they complete their task and find themselves seeking another. 

This also makes it easy to keep track of what you’ve accomplished and what will still need done. I’ve been to many set builds where the day’s goals are only clearly enumerated in the TD’s head, and things are easily forgotten. Posting a list anyone can see keeps everybody on track and knowledgeable about the total progress.

Assign specific tasks to specific people.

Don’t just assume your cast and crew know where and how to be helpful. Give everybody a specific task, from your previously established list of goals! If you have enough people, create teams in charge of specific areas. This is especially useful at strike, where you likely have a large cast available to help and a lot of work to get done. For example, you may establish a “dressing room team”, who clean out the dressing rooms, a “costume team”, who gather and store all costume pieces, and a “tear-down team”, responsible for the heavy work being done on stage. When one team finishes, they can find another team to assist. 

Teams are a good way to “divide and conquer” when it comes to your goals for the day. This allows several tasks to be reliably undertaken at once. If you establish teams, make sure you group people who are liable to work well together! Otherwise, teams may wind up being less productive than individual work.

Establish leaders besides yourself. 

You may find yourself quickly swamped with questions if a lot of people are approaching a lot of different tasks. To take the pressure off of you and keep the work flowing smoothly, make sure everyone knows who besides you they can report to with questions. You can also appoint leaders for each “department”– for example, establish one person as the authority on costumes, one as the authority on props, one as the authority on construction/tear down. Ideally, this is your costume master, props master, and TD, though in small theaters or school settings, all of these titles may belong to one person. Dividing the responsibilities keeps things moving and increases accountability. With many authorities, it is easy to supervise lots of work. Actors are also more likely to ask for help if their authority is easily available to help, and not already helping several other people. 

An especially useful authority figure is one who can show people how to do things. For example, if many of your cast don’t know how to use necessary power tools or don’t know the theater’s organization system for props or costumes, having people who can explain protocol to others in invaluable. 

Always be ready to assign further work. 

Inevitably, a time comes during strike and build when one group is accomplishing a particularly difficult task that all the rest depend on, and the rest have nothing to do but sit and wait until this task is completed. There is always a surplus of things to be done in these settings– if only you know what they are when the time comes. Be ready to hand out lots of odd jobs, even if they’re not directly related to what you wanted to accomplish today. For instance, there is always something to be organized, cleaned, or prepared for future rehearsals. Keeping a list of these “nonessential but helpful” tasks ready in case the opportunity arises will keep everybody busy. 

This is especially paramount if you’re working with young actors– downtime can become dangerous, especially minimally supervised downtime!

I’m Disappointed, Too: A Letter to a Young Actor

Dear actor,

It’s very clear what you expected to happen at auditions. It’s very clear you’re unhappy with the results. In a sense, I’m not happy about them either.

You had reason to feel good about these auditions. You’ve gotten a few shows with us under your belt. You have some experience with all the proper skills. You know how we work and have a working relationship with us. By all means, you should have nailed this audition.

Here’s the thing, though: Whether you did or not wasn’t really the issue in the end. What really ruined your chances was your attitude.

It was clear that you came into this audition with the mindset that this show had already been cast. You expected nothing less than the lead, and didn’t think for a moment you might have to really fight for the role. You prepared for your audition as a formality, and it was clear in your presentation. You did not show us your best performance. We have seen your best performance before, and we are honor-bound to hold you to it– you deserve nothing less than to be held to the highest standard, because you can meet the highest standard. If this audition were based on what we have seen you do before, you’d be home free at the top of the cast list. Instead, you gave us a half-hearted effort and a lot of attitude, leaving all your talent and hard work a ghost in the back of our minds. That is disappointing to all of us.

To be clear: I’m not disappointed in this outcome. I’m disappointed in your actions. You have gotten the role you earned. This is the role you deserve. By not giving your best effort, you earned less than you wanted. That was strictly your own doing– you have no one else to blame. I am as disappointed that you chose to give us less than your best as you are disappointed in the outcome.

However, please note: This is not a punishment.

We are not personally spiting you. To say I cast the show out of spite is an insult to every other actor who did their best in auditions. Everyone earned their roles in those auditions. There is not a bad role in this show. We, as a production team, see and respect the actors who recognize this. The ones who show up and give their all will always be favored over those who rest on their laurels. After all, they will always give their best effort, and that is a powerful thing.

Not being the lead is not a punishment. If you treat it as such, though, you’ve given us good reason to continue not casting you as leads. It means you think you deserve the lead, and I am always eager to break that line of thought.

To let you get comfortable and think you “deserve” leads would be to do you a great disservice. Casting is a complex process based on many variables, and the only way to improve your chances effectively in an audition is to work. As a growing actor, one of the best lessons you can learn is that you earn your dream roles only when you strive for them. There is truly no limit to what you can achieve if you are willing to put in the effort to reach your goals. I know you have it in you to play amazing roles– if only you give them amazing effort.

Please remember, this does not mean I have any ill-will towards you. I hope there is no love lost between us. It is because I know you can do better that I have not insulted you by accepting less than your best. Please use this as a learning opportunity.

You deserve to be rewarded for your best work, and nothing less.

I hope to see your best again in future auditions.

Best,

Your Director