My boss, who is one of the wisest educators and administrators I know, often say that the two most important components of his job are to hire the right faculty and accept the right students. If he does those things right, everything else seems to run itself.
That's true in theatre. An old directing cliche says that if you pick the right play and cast it correctly, the play will direct itself and there is a lot of truth to that.
Choosing the right play is critical. Not all plays can be performed equally well by every cast. Choosing the right play will be the first step in making sure the kids have a successful--therefore enjoyable--experience because with the right play, they will be able to flourish and shine.
I never, ever pre-cast. It's impossible to do it correctly. Over the years, I've noticed that the people I would have predicted would get specific roles almost never do. Once, my daughter pushed me into writing down my predictions for which students would get which roles. I wrote them down and hid them. After the casting was done, we looked at my list. I believe I was wrong in all but one instance. One of the most common things I hear after a performance is, "So-and-so was so good! I never would have guessed s/he could have done that!" Exactly. That's why we have auditions and call-backs. It helps eliminate the guesswork and gives everyone an equal shot. And so, I never pre-cast. Not even in my head. It's a waste of time.
That being said, I have to consider the students I have. I can't pick a play with a lyric soprano leading lady if my most experienced students are altos. I can't do a play with two singing male leads if I have only one guy with a super strong voice.
I also have to consider the personality and experience level of the students I know will do the play. A large group of students has a personality as distinct and unique as each individual. Some are fun, some are serious, some are quirky, some are emotional, and so on.
We did Fiddler on the Roof one year with a group of students who were fairly deep and were able to understand the emotional currents in the play. This year, we did Aladdin with a more fun-loving crowd. Both plays were successful, but neither would have worked as well with the other group of students.
Another critical factor is experience. We all love the stories of the chorus girl who gets her big break, steps into the leading role and shines. It's a lovely story, but it rarely happens--and there's a reason for that. It takes years and years to develop the confidence to do that. It takes years and years for the voice to mature to the point where it's safe to have a child even try that. While everyone thinks they would like a lead, putting an inexperienced child in a huge lead is actually quite cruel. It puts a tremendous amount of emotional, psychological, and cognitive pressure on them and might even do some physical damage to their voice.
You would never send a high school athlete in to start in the NFL. It would destroy him and everyone would see the coach as a villain for letting it happen. Most people don't realize that it's the same thing in a theatrical context. One has to be more than just dramatic or like to doing plays to bear the enormous responsibility of carrying a show. Talented, trained, confident, and emotionally resilient enough to make some very big risks. I think this is one thing that perhaps most parents don't fully appreciate and understand, and that's fine. If you've never done it, it's difficult to understand. So, I try to explain it as often as I can.
There is also work ethic. Our school pays a lot of money to do these plays and parents work like sweatshop slaves to do costumes and sets. We can't take a risk on messing the whole thing up by casting a flake or fair-weather performer in the lead only to have him/her decide they don't really want to put in the time and effort. Before I cast a child in a lead, I need to know s/he is capable. Talented. Focused. Dedicated. Emotionally steady. And, a hard worker. It takes years to build those skills up. It's why most often, leads in middle school productions are 8th graders with some 7th grade exceptions. It's the same in high school and college.
Finally, I always try to pick a play that will push the students a bit--meet them where they are, but require them to stretch themselves. Having a play with lots of fun parts in a plus, and also some parts for kids who may act quite well but aren't the strongest singers is another thing I look for.
Here are my givens this year: I have a fairly large group. It could be anywhere from 25 to 50 or more. So, I need a play with a large ensemble, one that can be huge or small as needed.
I have an unusually high number of boys, many of whom are both talented and seasoned performers that I know I can count on because of past performances. A number of them are also good comedians. This is usually one of my weakest areas. This year it is my strongest and I want to take advantage of that. It may not happen again for a few years.
The bulk of my girls are talented, but skew a bit younger and don't have quite so much experience in the aggregate. A large number of them can sing and act, but I have fewer that have been tested in performing terms. Among them, I also have some with strong comedic abilities--something that is actually quite rare. For the most part, they are altos or mezzo-sopranos. I need a play that will provide some good growing roles for the younger ones and some good opportunities for those who are more experienced, that will not require a high soprano, and that will make use of their comic ability. A number of girls are also very good dancers.
I have spent the last two months thinking in almost every spare minute about which play to do with my students. I have spent time thinking about literally every individual student who is signed up or likely to do the play. Thinking about their talents and strengths, as well as their weaknesses and where they need to grow. I've thought about their individual strengths and weaknesses as well as their collective strengths and weaknesses. I've thought about the most experienced as well as the newest in terms of trying to build the bench, so to speak. I've thought about our larger school community and what kind of play they might enjoy seeing.
There were several plays I wanted to do. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one I've wanted to do for a long time. The Pirates of Penzance is another. I also considered Guys and Dolls, which is a lot of fun and has some great parts.
Each of those shows is great, but none of them completely fit what I have. Joseph has one lead and that's about it. There are not really any female leads to speak of. When I have a lot of talented boys, it seemed like kind of a waste. It is likely that I will have years again where I have very few boys. This would be better to save for a year I have fewer kids, or a year I have maybe one super talented boy, and two strong female singers, but not a lot of other male participants. I might do it as an all-school musical in the winter because I need a huge ensemble play to accomodate 130 kids and Joseph can be done small or large scale. And, it doesn't really fit what I need for the girls.Finally, the personality just doesn't seem to match my kids, although it's close.
I have loved Pirates since I was a boy and wanted to do it for years. But you need a coloratura soprano. And there aren't many leading or featured female roles, although there is a great female ensemble and several great roles for non-singers. Vocally, it's kind of a tough one for kids to do, although I was going to have the keys lowered, though. I came very close to doing this one. In fact, I settled on it several times. But at the end of the day, it didn't feel like quite the right fit for this group. I didn't see them getting or enjoying the humor collectively. I think we could have done it well. I don't think it was the right one, though, and I don't think it would have been wonderful.
Guys and Dolls was another one I almost did. Lots of great roles--2 male and 2 female leads plus some featured roles that are a lot of fun. Highlights the male talent but still have some fun things for the girls as well. This was perfect in some ways. It hit the talent and experience level pretty well and they would have got the humor. Downside--a lot of dancing for the boys. Lots and lots of it. This takes a lot of work since they generally have no or little experience. Hello Dolly had a lot of it and it was great--but time consuming and stressful. Not sure about that. Also, Dolly had HUGE, wonderful sets, but they took a lot of time and work. Not sure we're up to another huge set show again so soon, and Guys and Dolls would be one. Still, all that can be overcome.
Biggest problem though: really antiquated notions about gender relationships and marriage. It's a fun show, but has some really dated things. I feel a big responsibility to be careful what I pick. These students are in a formative phase in terms of how they view themselves and relationships. There is a humorous cynicism about relationships in G&D that can work in high school and adult productions. Frankly, I didn't want to go there with my young students. We may do this sometime--there are not an infinite supply of good shows out there--but not this year. And not without lots of careful thinking and contextualizing.
None of these shows felt right to me and I've learned to trust my gut. I spent a lot of time over spring break listening to shows and thinking and thinking. I listened to My Fair Lady one day. And had an intuition. This is it, I thought.
Then I went through and started looking at the talent profiles. Leading lady could be a soprano or mezzo. Good, strong male and female roles for singers and non-singers (Higgins and Doolittle can sing or speak-sing. Mrs. Higgins does not sing. Col. Pickering only sings a little. One really strong male singer for the romantic lead). Big, flexible ensemble with really fun songs--cockneys in "I'm Getting Married in the Morning" and "Wouldn't it Be Loverly?" and upper class English aristocracy in "Ascot Gavotte" and the Embassy Ball, so lots of range. Also, lots of songs for the ensemble. I always feel bad when they are in only one or two songs. This has five or six, plus some good opportunities for good dancers.
Most of our kids at school who do the play also want to do sports. This would allow the vast majority to play a sport and make it easy to rehearse with the few who didn't. A logistical plus.
Most of all, it seems to fit. I don't know why exactly, can't define it. But I know this play (I've known it since I was a little boy. My grandpa loved it). I played Prof. Higgins years ago, so I really know this play. And I know this group of kids. I feel like someone who is dying to introduce two friends who have never met--but am sure will get along well. This is widely acknowledged as one of the best musicals ever written, and I relish introducing my students to good work like that and having them become familiar with a cultural icon.
I also love the thematic elements. There is a lot middle school kids will understand. Teacher student dynamics. Male, female relationships--romantic and platonic. The fear of being made a fool of in front of everyone. Being in the wrong group and trying to get in the right one. Being yourself--but being the best you can. I look forward to some really great talks with my classes about these themes next year.
It's a hard play. I'm taking some real risks, for sure. It will stretch everyone, from the leads to the ensemble. It's not going to be easy to pull of. It's not as big scenically as Dolly, but it's not small. I'd love to do a show with one small set and costumes are jeans and t-shirts. That's not this show. There are lots of costumes. At least they are Edwardian, so they won't be all that hard to find, make and tweak. But, it's not about me and the grown ups. It's about the kids. What show will give them the best chance to learn, grow, and succeed?
There's a line from a song in the play I love. "I could have spread my wings and done a thousand things I've never done before..."
To me, that is one of the purposes of middle school theatre--to give them wings and help them do things they (and everyone else around them) never thought they could do!
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