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.

 

 

Advertisements

10 Ways to get an Education in Theatre Outside of College

A college education in theatre is an incredible opportunity. However, for many reasons, it’s not always attainable. With the current cost of college, any degree should be closely examined for its post-graduation worth. Though a theatre degree is as worthwhile as any other degree, the capital required to earn the degree is a huge barrier for many, with often uncertain returns.

Whether you cannot afford a degree, or are in the process of preparing for a degree, it is necessary that those seeking education take initiative. In today’s society, the ability to learn on your own is paramount. There are many resources available waiting to be taken advantage of by those committed to their own growth!

Here are 10 suggestions for taking your education on theatre into your own hands.

1. Learn on the job.

This is hopefully the most obvious way one can learn about theatre– do more of it. I place this first on the list because I believe it is also the most important. Do as much theatre as you can, in as many places as you can, in as many ways as you can. Branch out! While it’s good to determine favorite production companies or theaters to work with, and the connections derived from frequent work together are highly important in an industry as reliant on who you know as theatre, it’s also in your best interest to see a gamut of styles, atmospheres, and conditions. Seek as many different locations as you can, and seek varied work there. If community theatre is your usual gig, consider going to some professional-level auditions. If you normally act, consider trying directing or stage managing. Even if all of these experiences don’t lead to big roles or opportunities, the opportunity to evaluate the experience and use it as wisdom later is invaluable.

I must absolutely emphasize that any engagement with theatre in any way is a success. Usher for shows. Take tickets for shows. Be a carpenter, costumer, or props master. Act in the ensemble. Go out for auditions for ensemble and get cut. As you work your way into more roles in theatre, you will broaden your skillset, build your resume, and create for yourself a more holistic understanding of the art. This is a fun and free (maybe even paid!) way to learn!

2. Go to classes, lectures, and private lessons.

The very same classes offered at $500 a credit to college students are often offered much cheaper through other means. Search your area for opportunities like classes, lectures, talkbacks, seminars, readings, and private lessons. Community colleges are cheaper and less commitment than large universities, and often offer “non-credited” classes to the public body. Some performing arts companies and theaters offer classes on the side, and private voice and speech teachers are usually easy to track down, depending on your area. Local Facebook events are a fantastic way to search for these opportunities! If you struggle to find anything nearby, “webinars” and skype lessons can also be beneficial.

It’s important to remember that some classes aren’t going to be as good as others. Be wary of taking anything as gospel in these classes. Unless it really, personally works for you, it simply may not be your style. Add it to your personal bank of information and move along if that’s the case. However, remember that an important part of education is keeping yourself open to possibilities– even if you’re skeptical, remember to search for meaning and use in every opportunity.

Speaking of keeping your mind open, remember that there are a variety of skills connected to theatre, and I want you to dip your toes into as many areas of theatre as possible. Therefore, a community college class in welding or carpentry totally counts here! Any way you expand your horizons is never wasted.

One on one classes in voice are so beneficial to anyone interested in musical theatre, I heartily recommend them whether you are currently in theatre school or not. Find a voice teacher you love and never let go!

3. Read, read, read

Reading is a great way to learn, especially if you’re limited on time, monetary resources, or mobility. Nonfiction can be a little dry, but when you’re passionate about the subject, it becomes easier– and learning to read and understand nonfiction is a valuable skill! Check your local libraries for books on or related to theatrical arts. If this fails, you can also seek ebooks. Scribd.com is a great resources for ebooks, for a small monthly fee– much cheaper than individual purchases. You can also find books heavily discounted on Amazon if you’re lucky– I bought Anthony Rapp’s memoir on his Rent experience, Without Youfor $0.01 (plus $3.49 shipping) through Amazon. Shop around! Of course, you can also buy books full price at bookstores, but I always recommend thrifting before going for the gusto.

If you’re absolutely diametrically opposed to nonfiction, there’s hope: reading plays and scripts is also beneficial to your growth! Again, consider seeking these cheaply before purchasing them full-price. Scripts are often easy to find online.

You can also consider taking out subscriptions to magazines or news services related to theatre!

4. Use online resources

Alt title for this point: “Duh, use the internet, you goof.”

There are quite literally infinite educational resources online. YouTube, podcasts, blogs, and Facebook groups have, at times, done more for my education than anything else. Best of all– they’re typically completely free.

Seriously, if you need a resource for anything, you can bet your bottom dollar you can find it for free online. Want to learn how to work the archaic light board at the high school where you’re volunteering? Great news, here’s a complete YouTube tutorial and a copy of the user manual that the school lost the instant they installed it. Want to learn how to sew costumes? Here’s a thousand free downloadable templates with step-by-step instructions in the readme file. Don’t know much about theatre history? Here’s a twice-weekly podcast and a blog that’s been active since 2008 written by a PhD holder.

Do yourself a favor right now and google any topic related to theatre you want to learn about. Right now. It’s free and easy and fuller than any library you can imagine. Go wild.

Apps can also be highly useful in this department!

5. Seek employment

If you’re lacking the free time and capital to attend classes and volunteer your time for rehearsals, seeking a paying job even tangentially related to theatre is a great move for your wallet and career.

Available jobs will often deal with the business and customer service side of theatre more than the artistic fulfillment side. As I’ve already established, this is all useful to your education, and since it’s connected to your passion, it’s easier to stomach than retail or food service in terms of jobs requiring entry-level skills. Even if you can’t find a job in a theater, there are a lot of jobs where you can flex theatre skills– “Princess Parties”, where actors dress as princesses for children’s birthday parties, Renaissance Festival work, and haunted house gigs are popular paid acting opportunities among my theatre friends. Anything requiring public speaking is also generally of your benefit.

Jobs in technical theatre are usually readily available as well. Join your area’s technical theatre job-seeking Facebook group. Stagehands and riggers are almost always in demand, especially for concerts and music events.

Keep an ear out, and make those connections! You never know where a seemingly insignificant job opportunity can turn into a better one.

6. Create a study group

If you have a lot of friends interested in theatre, there’s nothing stopping you from getting together to learn. Start a book club and read plays together! Do table reads of your favorite shows! Critique each others’ audition songs! Start an unofficial improv troupe! Possibilities are endless as long as you are all committed and willing to learn.

7. Practice skills on your own

Theatre is a team sport, so solo learning can be a little antithetical. Further, having the input of others is often very beneficial, and at times crucial, to your growth. However, there are a lot of tangential, useful skills that can be practiced entirely on your own.

Think about things that are relevant to theatre. Being physically in shape is important, as is being flexible. In musical theatre, basic piano and music reading abilities are useful. The ability to analyze characters and scripts gets easier with practice. These are all skills you can flex on your own.

8. See more theatre

Seeing theatre is just as important as being in theatre to growth as a performer. Similar to the first point, see as much of it as possible, in as many places as possible. See school theatre. See community theatre. See touring broadway companies and one-person shows in coffee shops. Go to improv shows and voice recitals. See shows you love and shows you hate and shows you’ve never heard of. See classic Greek plays and contemporary rock musicals.

Don’t be afraid to be a critic. While airing negative opinions about every performance you see is unlikely to net you friends, and is a quick way to get your name out there in a rather bad way, thinking about what you did and didn’t like about every performance is invaluable. Having an opinion is great! Just maybe keep your thoughts to yourself. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”

9. (Social) Network

If you’re doing and seeing and auditioning for as many shows as possible in as many places as possible as well as taking classes, as I’ve advised, you’re probably doing okay in this department already. Theatre is an industry where who you know is especially useful to you, and you never know when connections may come in handy.

More importantly, I’m also a huge proponent of “learning by osmosis”: simply immersing yourself in a culture and letting it wash over you is a great way to learn. Surround yourself with conversations about and related to theatre, even if you don’t fully understand all of it. Social media is a great way to do this. Follow Twitter pages and Tumblr blogs and join Facebook groups! Especially feel free to follow groups/pages/people posting about things you don’t know much about. If you’re an actor, join a high school theatre teacher group. If you’re a stage manager, follow pages handing out vocal tips. Taking in information through passive Facebook-feed scrolling is an easy way to expand upon your knowledge.

Also included in this point: get out there, people! Go to meet-ups, conferences, conventions. Most importantly, and most easily, go to your cast parties and company galas! I’m not encouraging you to schmooze, but you never know where rubbing elbows with the right people might lead you.

10. Do your research

This is a bit of a cheat-point, since it’s tangentially connected to every other point, but the best possible thing you can do for your education is explore your options. Find out what’s available to you. Seek out local theaters and theatre people. Find free PDFs of books. Read news articles and blog posts. Watch documentaries. Get into conversations and debates and disagreements with actor friends. There are possibilities for growth in literally everything you are doing already– explore those possibilities. Figure out how to use them to your advantage!

Bonus point: You’re never done learning

This is less of a “way to learn” than it is a word of caution: make yourself an expert on as much as you can, and then, once you’re an expert, throw all of your assumptions away and seek to learn from new experts. Seek feedback on everything you do, even from people who know less than you. Learn about stuff you know nothing about, learn about new ways of doing things you’ve resigned to habit. Keep learning, and never rest on your laurels.

We live in an age where information has never been easier to find. We also live in an age where education prices are astronomical and the cost of living rises every day. The resources you want and need are out there– you need only to track them down.

“We Have No Troubles Here”: Cabaret, Escapism, and Censorship

(This is an old post that was originally made on a blog for an English class. I was happy with the post and still like the ideas, so I am posting it here.)

(Note that I later realized my description only applies to the ’98 version of the show.)

The musical Cabaretbegins and ends the same way. The show opens with the Emcee greeting us and promising us that “we have no troubles here!” Along with our protagonist Cliff, the audience falls for the “mysterious and fascinating” Sally Bowles and the languid, pleasure-seeking denizens of the Kit Kat Klub, and we give into the enticing escapism that the over-the-top sex-god Emcee promises. Then, in the finale of act one, a character takes off his jacket to reveal a Nazi armband and suddenly our entire paradise is thrown into chaos. We, along with Cliff, watch helplessly as the Third Reich rises to power, much to the apathy of our heroine and her hedonist friends. And then, at the very end of the show, our old friend, the Emcee, returns to us once more. He mugs to the audience, and we think he’ll make us laugh- give us some quip to leave us out on a high note- and then he removes his jacket to reveal a striped uniform marked with a yellow star of david and a pink triangle. “Where are your troubles now?” He asks us. “Forgotten? I told you so.”

It surprises me how frequently I see the song Cabaret sung out of context. I’ve seen young girls at vocal recitals happily belt out “life is a cabaret, old chum,” as if that’s really the takeaway of this musical. As if the song isn’t originally delivered by a post-abortion Nazi sympathizer who has just broken off the only meaningful relationship in her life because she was afraid to give up her lifestyle of debauchery.

The message of Cabaretis, unequivocally, that life is most certainly nota cabaret, old chum.

Cabaret tells us to shove our escapist fantasies and be aware of our lives in three ways.

First, there’s action on stage- Cliff gives in to escapism and is happy to ignore reality until he realizes he’s been unwittingly serving the Nazi party in order to support his comfortable life with Sally in Berlin. Sally seems like a beautiful, carefree spirit until Cliff is forced to come to terms with the fact that she’s really an irresponsible, clueless mess. Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz comfortably fantasize about marrying happily until Nazi party members who were once their friends remind them that Herr Schultz’ status as a Jew means their marriage would be grounds for great repercussions. Every character gives into escapism and is forced to return to reality by the end. The only character who stays in denial is Sally, and by this point in the story she seems not only like a bad person, but a pitiableone, doomed to spend the rest of her life in a strained, unhealthy fantasy.

Then there’s what happens in the audience. The Emcee in Cabaret is both the Emcee of the fictional Kit Kat Klub as well as the Emcee of the audience’s evening in the theater. From his very first entrance, we are inserted into the show. He speaks directly to us so the line between audience and actor becomes blurred. We’re invited into a dreamworld ourselves- the world of Cliff and Sally and the Klub- and we fall for the perfect fantasy of this world the same way Cliff does. We ignore the warning signs and allow ourselves to be taken in by sex and show biz until it’s too late to deny our bystandership. The audience, by proxy, becomes an unwitting accomplice to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps my favorite scene in the show is just after act two begins. A heavy scene ends, and then the Emcee prances on stage with a gorilla in a tutu, and the audience laughs and claps along as he sings a characteristically nonsensical song about love and acceptance. “Why can’t the world leben and leben lassen– live and let live?” He asks, and we laugh, because he’s describing a relationship with a monkey. We laugh right up until the final line of the song: “If you could see her through my eyes… she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Suddenly, no one is laughing.

In his excellent book on theatre, The Empty Space, Peter Brook writes of categories of theatre pertaining to how they effect their audiences. The two that fascinated me most were the Holy theatre, wherein the audience is moved to total self-forgetfulness by the magic onstage before them, and the Rough theatre, wherein the audience is moved to painful self-awareness and even discomfort.

Cabaret is the perfect example of Rough theatre- it forces its audience into happy complacency and criticizes them when the consequences of their complacency are made clear.

This is the third way Cabaret is tells us to kill off our escapist fantasies. Cabaret is not just about characters or even the audience giving into a fantasy… it’s about reminding us to live the rest of our lives differently, too. Our night at the theatre alienates us, makes us uncomfortable and self-aware, and so we return to our regular lives with a grain of salt and a sense of unease about where else we may be an unwitting, complacent accomplice.

“We have no troubles here” indeed.

Cabaret tells us sardonically that if we claim to have no troubles, we are probably clueless, or else simply bad people in denial. It spares the audience no discomfort in order to inform them that they’ve all been had- and that they sorely need to wise up to face the future.

I love Cabaret for this message. It’s one of my favorite musicals. It’s deeply uncomfortable, and wildly inappropriate- and yet, it is one of the most profoundly effective musicals, made only more powerful by leaning into the things that make it uncomfortable.

I’m thinking about Cabaret right now (more than I usually do, anyway) because of this news story. LaGuardia High School was forced to remove all of the Nazi imagery from their production of The Sound of Music after the principal deemed it too offensive.

Well, of course Nazi imagery is offensive. That’s the point.

As Cabaret illustrates, the offensive and uncomfortable can be powerful. This isn’t to say we should encourage senseless offensive behavior, of course. Cabaret is purposefully shocking. It contains generous sex, drugs, Nazis, violence, and even an abortion. But the inclusion of these elements is not an act of worship. Some seem to think Cabaret is a raunchy free-for-all, but not a single one of these elements are glorified, unless ironically in order play the audience as the fool. Sex is seemingly glorified, until we realize it’s just the fancy gimmick used to lure us in- and the second act is decidedly sexless. We are tempted to ignore Sally’s drug use and implied alcoholism because she is so “mysterious and fascinating”, but are forced to come to terms with the fact that she’s really a mess- not at all the lovable idol we fell in love with. By the end, the offensive content is just that- offensive. We’ve seen it for what it is, and that’s why it’s in the show.

And Cabaret illustrates, of course, that ignoring our problems is not a solution.

The Holocaust is a part of our history. The Sound of Music is based on the memoirs of the real-life Von Trapp family, who really did flee Austria when the Nazi party rose to power. And, like it or not, it seems we can’t go more than a few days recently without comparisons of either American political party to the Nazi party. We can’t pretend there were or are “no troubles here”.

Censorship in high school theatre is a widespread problem, and most often, it comes back to this idea- pretending that problems don’t exist. Instead of discussing suicide, domestic violence, drug addiction- real problems students today face- theatre departments are gagged. We are to pretend the Nazis never existed, even though Nazis are currently marching in major cities.

High school administrators are engaging in a strange sort of escapist fantasy themselves, in which everyone else is aware of the problems, but they plug their ears so as to avoid addressing them.

Never before would I have thought to compare high school admins to Sally Bowles, and yet, here we are.

When these problems are addressed in a theatre, it allows a dialogue to begin that benefits actors and audience alike. Cabaret does this brilliantly, as we’ve discussed. These benefits can be multiplied in school theatre, where the actors are students under the direction of someone who is often a teacher. The school auditorium becomes a place not just for harmless family fun, but for learning- real, meaningful learning- which is what it should have been all along.

Cabaret tells us to look for the problems in our own world and make them our business. Cabaret tells us that life isn’t carefree, and trying to pretend it is only brings unhappiness. Cabaret reminds us that escaping from the real world might mean forgetting your troubles temporarily- but in the end, they’ll still be there.

If we let ourselves get wrapped up in laughing at the man dancing with the gorilla for long enough, we’ll discover we’ve missed something important- and if we let that happen, no one will be laughing at all.