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.
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.
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!
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.