Category Archives: Auditions

Tired of the Old Song And Dance Routine? Surviving Yet Another Ensemble Casting

Dear Drama Student:

There are a few things you need to know about your most recent audition, and frankly, all auditions.

Yes, auditions are grueling. No, there’s really no other way to cast shows.

I met with you today, on the Monday after the cast list went up Friday. I saw the tears, the frustration, even the anger, and I saw you search for encouragement and some sort of guarantee of future success in our conversation, that if you took the feedback I gave you, it would somehow magically make the next time easier.  I know too that because you’re a teenager, this doesn’t just feel disappointing, it feels unfair.

Because you were cast in the ensemble again when you “should” have gotten a lead. 

First of all, what you need to know is that everyone behind that table has been where you are. Every member of the artistic staff has auditioned for shows and not even gotten cast, not gotten a callback. We’ve been cut off less than a minute into our monologues, we’ve been sent home early from dance calls. We get it. You don’t believe that, but we do.

The second thing it might be important for you to realize is that we worked for those auditions too, the ones we got cut from. We worked on our monologue or song, we took the dance classes, we lost the weight, learned the skill, we shmoozed with the directors, and sometimes that didn’t work. Sometimes somebody’s friend got the part, sometimes we had the same hair color as the lead, sometimes somebody had heard something about us, sometimes we just weren’t what they were looking for.

Sometimes we didn’t get cast at all. 

But that was different. Those were community or professional auditions. The people who didn’t cast us had no obligation to us. We, your teachers, do, you think. We have an obligation to see you, to see how hard you’re working, to give you opportunities.

That is totally true, kids.

But we have another obligation, and that is to help you create your best work and grow as a performer, while honoring the mandate of theatre, that we must serve the story. We are not doing you a favor by casting you in a role you cannot sing. We are not doing you a favor by casting you in a part we can’t believe you in. We are not doing you a favor by setting you up to be mediocre or overwhelmed.

And you made a good point.  We don’t always know your potential. We don’t always know what you could do if we just gave you a shot. But we do. It’s called the audition.

Kids, most of you don’t get what you want out of auditions for a few of the same reasons.

You don’t do your research and you don’t prepare. You have the opportunity to research the show, find an appropriate song or pick the character you might get and really go for it. Do those things. Get comfortable with the script if you can get it. Impress us with your readiness.

You’re in your own way.  It has taken me a long time to realize that 80 percent of high school auditioners are unbelievably nervous, and the callback process exacerbates this. You can’t get away from the callback process, so you gotta learn to game it, kids. You need to know what you want going in and give it your best shot.  And you gotta keep a clear head. I don’t want to go all Abby Lee Miller on you, but those tears may need to be saved for the pillow.

You throw auditions for small or “unglamorous” roles you don’t want.  I have never seen this happen anywhere except high school, where the entire subtext of someone’s audition is “how dare you call me back for this role that I didn’t want?’ I have seen it done deliberately,  I have seen it done subconsciously.  It is incredibly frustrating to witness, it doesn’t work in the real world, and it makes it difficult to have empathy with you and want to cast you when we have the opportunity. You aren’t fooling us.

You don’t size up the competition and make different choices. Callbacks are conveniently held in groups so directors can see combinations. This is also a convenient time to watch your competition and do something else, or steal what they are doing and do it bigger.

You reject gifts. Left out of a callback for a role and get called in at the last minute? Asked to read with another actor?  Do it up. We’re not playing headgames, we’re trying to give you another shot. Take advantage of it.

So what if you do everything right and you still don’t get what you want?  You’re back in ensemble.

Well, you have options.

You can choose to not do the show. This is a dumb move if you are in this for the long haul, because you’re depriving yourself of a free opportunity to build skills and be in community, which is supposedly why you are doing this. If you’re a senior, you’re still depriving yourself of a fun thing, and you’ll probably look back and be annoyed with yourself, unless you realize this is not what you want, which is perfectly ok too.

You can choose to step into a different path. Tired of the old song and dance routine? Try crew, design, publicity, stage management. These are where the jobs are anyway.

You can choose to take what you got and slay it. I can’t count the number of high school shows I’ve directed where I needed an ensemble member moment and that incredibly reliable, unresentful chorus member stepped up and did an amazing job, which led to great things down the road. It happens constantly.

Whatever you choose to do, know this. No director worthy of your respect is in this to mess with you. We are here and you are there because we want it that way and we believe in your contribution to the story we are telling.  If you want to work with us, we want to make you part of the best experience we can. If what you care about is playing a lead, though, you may want to think about why you’re doing this in the first place.

To sum it up, there are a lot of factors that don’t seem important to getting a lead but are actually incredibly important. Are you reliable? Are you an independent learner? Were you undeniably the most capable performer in the callback? Can you handle the vocal demands? Have you demonstrated that you can handle the pressure of a role? Does your physicality match the other performers?

Ask yourself these questions and see where they take you. You may be surprised at what you discover, which may prove very useful in your next audition.

As Ever,

Your Drama Teacher

 

 

 

 

Tech, Please: Creating a Thriving Technical Theatre Community At Your School

A few days ago, my ASM (assistant stage manager) started posting rehearsal reports to the department’s tech group on social media. Rehearsal reports. Like the kind you see in a real theatre.  I am thrilled beyond measure. I had vaguely asked for this for years, and it is awesome, because it means that we are all on the same page.  It made me realize how far tech has come at my school. It then occured to me that at Monday’s first listenthrough of our Spring Musical, my stage managers, rather than I, had opened the meeting and run it.

I don’t teach in my performance space. Like many theatre teachers, I work out of a classroom, and load shows in and out between two weeks and four days before something goes up. This means that my technicians could be at a severe disadvantage when learning and having the time to practice the necessary skills of tech theatre. However, I am blessed with a huge and active tech theatre community, who run everything for the department, from auditions to strike.  Sometimes they begin as technicians as a pathway to performance, other times they leave the stage to become technicians.  I credit department practices evolved through trial and error, rather than circumstances, for this happiest of situations.

Things my student technicians do:

  • Create an entire rehearsal schedule from scratch
  • Worry about student rehearsal conflicts (I am informed of absences by stage managers when class begins)
  • Design the set
  • Singlehandedly pull and coordinate costumes for an entire ensemble
  • Hire someone to make posters or a program
  • Count and track rented scripts for musicals
  • Run sound for rehearsal
  • Schedule  auditions
  • Recruit technicians
  • Hand build props
  • Design makeup
  • Manage ticket sales
  • Maintain all backstage discipline
  • Maintain call times, time rehearsals or breaks
  • Run fight calls or dance calls
  • Handle interpersonal disputes between crew members
  • Run strike
  • Organize the official cast party
  • Maintain a cleaning and racking schedule for the costume and prop shop

Not having to do these things leaves me a bit freer to do what directors are supposed to do, create and maintain the artistic vision of a show.

WHAT TO DO TO MAKE IT EVENTUALLY POSSIBLE

1. Teach the value of technical theatre.  Reflect on anything that’s glorifying “Broadway” and “Hollywood” and sending the message to students that if they’re not onstage, they are less-than, and maybe stop doing that. Teach the principles of design in your intro classes.  You can build white models with index cards and tape, you can create costume design projects for any play you want to teach, you can teach students to create a poster by showing them pictures of professional posters, you can build puppets from newspaper and paper bags. Google now has a set design program. Allow students in classes to direct or design as part of a project, and give them credit. Insisting that everyone act in everything all the time is not a realistic mirror of the business you are trying to teach. 

2. If you see something, say something.  Your leaders in Beginning Drama are often your future leaders for mainstage shows. Allow them to know they’re doing good work. Observe and tease out the guardians, too, the students who are constantly searching for order or asking how they can help. Giving these students tools to be effective, and not taking them for granted early on, is key to building your group.  If someone shows promise in design or organization, TELL THEM. Invite them to observe after school rehearsals. High school theatre is an interesting beast. Many students think they’re interested in it, but lose that interest when they see the reality. Open your doors, allow visitors and tourists, and you will often find that you will turn around to see that you have an entire crew in place, composed of those who stayed.

3.  Maintain hierarchy, with you at the top of the Great Chain of Being.  Explicitly show the hierarchy of the production process to your beginning classes and  cast and crew using a flow chart.  For every project, put a team of stage managers in place and teach them how to score a script, write down blocking, make prop lists, create costume and shift plots, draft rehearsal reports, and run auditions. You can practice these skills by doing a festival of one acts, rehearsed in class. There are always one or two students in every class who live for this. Give them credit for it, and allow them to do it in lieu of performing, and most importantly, empower them.  Empower them to ask for order, empower them to correct misbehavior, empower them to strive for excellence, and most importantly, TO TEACH NEW PEOPLE WHAT THEY HAVE LEARNED.  Then get mostly out of the way.

3. Insist on regular meetings.  My group meets once a week at lunch, whether there’s anything impending or not. Because I’m there, it’s a great time to be able to give students information and dispel any myths that may be building about how something is going to look or go.  But because I don’t run it, it makes my job easier. Stage managers run the meetings, listen to every department, and give me my two cents.

4. Pay them.  Credits? Activity Points? Thespian points? Pizza and t-shirts? Do not EVER, EVER take these kids for granted.  It took me years to get this, and every show I had to learn it on suffered. They need recognition. Some teachers have a tech curtain call.  I think that’s weird, but do what you have to do to make them understand how valuable they are.

5. Focus on the future.  My students created and maintain an online SOP (Standard Operating Procedures Manual) to describe and document best tech practices in the department and help new hires learn to do their work.  Having students document and set the standards for what they do in writing is a powerful tool. While we’re on the subject, students need to know that there is a huge industry for this thing called technical theatre, and that it can lead to bigger and better things. As often as possible, Call in those favors, your former students who are working in the industry, your friends and colleagues from the theatre world who are managers and designers. Have them come talk to students, and accord them the same flair and excitement you do when you bring back that one kid who’s an actor now.

It will take time, but paying attention to your technicians early and often will yield powerful results beyond your wildest expectations.

God, I Hope I Get It: Strategies in Casting Youth Theatre

I just finished the annual task of placing students in their roles for our Fall Play. It was an extremely quick task this time, which may be because all of the students in my company are playing teenagers in this one (a rare occurence), but I thought I’d share some of the tips and tricks that make it work for me on a yearly basis.

WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

First of all, it’s important to note based on some of these strategies that I run the mainstage arm of my department as an audition/interview only ensemble. This means that most of the students who will be participating in both mainstage shows have been prescreened by audition and have made a year commitment to the program, which they are receiving honors credit for. Advanced Honor students participate in two shows, competitions, and department one acts, as well as educational outreach for English classes. Advanced students participate in one or two shows and can audition for the musical, and Beginning students participate in department one acts. A student’s participation level increases with their learning.  There are myriad advantages to setting up your department that way:

1. If you can get your advanced or advanced class scheduled for the end of the school day, you can start rehearsing at 2 pm and be home by 4 or 5 instead of 6 in the early stages of production, like other teachers. I’m not saying it won’t get strange later, but being able to strategically front load quality of life gives you a significant advantage as tech week approaches.

2. Keeping roughly the same group (with a few guests added as musical season comes around) enables you to create a serious culture which is enforced by students. They get a built in “family” and you get boots on the ground and role models for new performers in such areas as early memorization, silence backstage, the how can I help approach, and student ownership of design and stage management. You no longer have to be the enforcer, your seasoned vets take care of some problems before they arise.

3. Asking students to stay in a company environment where they regularly audition for opportunities makes the audition process a lot less painful for you and for them. They get practice and eventually get good at winning roles, and the same peer ethic gets passed down to the younger generation.

4. It makes certain standard drama teacher problems (hunting for male performers, sports conflicts) simply disappear. If you’re doing a sport while a show is rehearsing, you work crew. Otherwise, choose. I don’t work around anyone’s schedule, and therefore I don’t have problems securing anchor performers. The students are there because they are serious. Less serious students can pursue less serious opportunities.

5. Choosing shows becomes infinitely easier when you have some sense of who will be involved in a cast. A disadvantage, of course, is that if you’re going to give this opportunity to students, you must reward them by doing shows that cast as many of them as possible, so remember that when auditioning a group for the upcoming year. Most of my shows have to be in that magic 23 to 40 character range. This cuts out a lot of major playwrights, who get relegated to competition cuts.

DECISIONS/DECISIONS

I came in this year without a game plan. What I had was about five potential scripts that kind of spoke to me. Nothing was awake and alive in my brain. I was, frankly, terrified. So with the help of my assistant director, we did this:

1. Volunteer student readers went through the scripts and selected 5 minute sections of them for staged readings.

2.  On the first day of school, the students were artfully divided into mixed casts designed to break up cliques as well as place more experienced ensemble members with our new performers.

3. Groups had two in class rehearsal days to stage their section.

4. The entire company, my assistant, and I watched all performances.

5. We held a talkback where the company gave feedback on what they think the best choices were for our group, based on marketability, technical demands, and quality of writing. We made our decision based on both the performances we had seen and this student feedback.

The result is that the cast already felt good about the project before auditioning for it.

GOD, I HOPE I GET IT

We run auditions for the fall show like this:

1. I xerox short sections of text, 2 to 4 character scenes, and the occasional standout monologue where I’m looking for something specific. I use color coding, xeroxing on different colored paper so that I can tell kids: “Thanks, go pick up a blue side, or look at the green monologue.” This is easier than asking them to actually read things before they grab them.

2. Stage managers work the door in teams of two or 3, collecting audition sheets and sending in groups. This means that STUDENTS are responsible for discipline and order, and you are free to cast.

Audition sheets require that:

  • students list the roles they are interested in, as well as previous roles they’ve played
  • students list special skills
  • students list the classes they are taking (All AP’s? Think before giving them the lead.)
  • students list known, longstanding conflicts
  • students see mandatory tech week and performance dates
  • students understand absence policies

If you have problems with student flakiness or egomania, have parents sign it too.

 

3. Students come in in pairs and are then triaged to new reads. We do this until we’ve heard everybody or until the posted end time for the audition is over. When at all possible, respect students time, and they will respect yours.

4. We then immediately publish the callback list for the next day, on social media in our case and on the door for the musical, because that is more involved and complicated.

5. If a student requests to be called back for a particular role, LET THEM. Callbacks are public, they will then be able to see how they measure up to the other students called back. This is an area in which I diverge from “the professional standard.” These are actors, but they are YOUNG ACTORS. Their sense of themselves is not fully formed. Kill that without good reason, and hell hath no fury. They will take you down. Get them to appreciate what they’re up against, and that will either get them to work harder or fall back, both of which are worthwhile paths.

CALLBACKS

1. A simple way to see all your “Romeos” and “Juliets” is to bring them all into a room together and have them read line by line, alternating lines.

Then pair them up and have them read the same section.

Then repeat any pairs you want to see again or make new mixes. Voila.

Casting considerations to ponder when casting leads:

  • Do you want a short Romeo and a tall Juliet? Is type important to you as a director? I’ve been burned a lot by falling for type.
  • Do you believe them when they talk to each other?
  • Will both of them work hard?
  • Do they have the facility with the text or the genre you are trying to do?
  • Are they vocally and physically ready?
  • Are they easy to work with?  If you have a track record with them, you know. Don’t lie to yourself.
  • Do they take direction?
  • How prepared are they for the audition?
  • Can they psychologically handle being leads? The notes, the isolation? Not every young person can.
  • What’s your backup plan?

THERE ARE NO SMALL PARTS, ONLY SMALL ACTORS

1. Read smaller roles FIRST, and let them go when they’re done. Make leads stay to the bitter end of the callback.

2. Having trouble casting ensemble members, as we were with this play, where it’s full of named, distinct people in large groups? Grab short sections with a lot of characters and cast right off your ensemble list, mixing up those called back for leads into their lead roles in each section. You’ll see and hear a lot that way.

3. Consider concluding a large group audition by having each student get up and do ONE LINE from the script in front of the whole group. Note which line each student picks, they’re not being philosophical, it’s usually the part they want! If given a choice between students who desperately want a particular smaller  role and those who are indifferent or open, if all things are equal, the magical part of being a drama teacher is you can please some of the people some of the time!

POSTING

I post Fridays after school. This gives students two days to hate me if they must, before back to business as usual. I go mute on social media for those two days, and I expect professional behavior when we all get back.

If a student comes to you to question their role, congratulate them on having guts. These are kids, again, not grownups. Give them technical feedback about what they can do to improve, which means specific behaviors that they can control. You clearly don’t have to explain to them that a decision was based on their physicality or seniority. They can’t control those things.  They CAN work on:

  • Planting their feet
  • Taking risks
  • Listening to other performers and sharing the stage picture
  • Diction or Articulation
  • Taking dance or working with a vocal coach
  • Focusing their energy on stage
  • Developing their skills as a manager or technician

Ultimately, students do theatre because they want to belong, and be seen and heard. There is a place for most everyone in theatre, it’s just not always on stage. One of the beautiful and heartbreaking things about working in youth theatre is how much we all (teachers and students) learn while doing it, sometimes the hard way.

But hey, there’s a barn. Let’s put on a show.