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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“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.