This is Part 2 in a lengthy post about some of the challenges involved in casting a play. In Part 1, I talked about some of the factors that go into casting, and how it does not usually come down to favoritism. In this post, I'll address some of the other questions and concerns that often come up. This is basically a FAQs section, responding to questions that I (and a lot of other directors get asked).
After almost every play, or every cast list is posted, I get a few people who say, "Have you ever thought of doing [insert idea here]." I don't mind constructive feedback, and sometimes the suggestions are very well-meant. At the same time, most of these suggestions are generally an effort to make a change because someone doesn't like the result and want to change the program. It is essentially putting the cart before the horse, and it's not a good way to run a theatre program. It's important to keep that in mind. Sometimes what works in business or other artistic endeavors programs doesn't work in theatre. Or, it's just not the way it's done. Theatre has a set of practices that is pretty consistent. Different programs and people might tweak or adjust, but generally, there is a general way of doing things that is consistent. Those practices evolved for a reason. That being said, not every theatre program is the same in terms of objectives, resources, and parameters, so what worked in one place may not work in another. I'll address this below.
FAQ 1: "Why not have a committee of people vote for the best person?"
I see the appeal of this. And in an era of "American Idol," "The Voice," and other shows, it seems logical. In my own auditions, I almost always have people I trust there to give me feedback--a musical director, often a choreographer, and an experienced assistant, former students, sometimes more. But it's not a committee or a vote, and it can't be.
There are two reasons why we don't do this. First of all, because that's not how theatre works. I'm serious about that; I'm not being glib. In longstanding theatre tradition, an artistic director is uniquely responsible for the entire production.
In professional theatre, there might be producers, investors, music directors, choreographers, designers, and other skilled people. In schools, there might be a musical director, assistant director, choreographer or someone else as well. But there always has to be a final word on every decision, and there needs to be a unified artistic vision. The artistic director is the person on whom this falls. Casting is an artistic choice. Like all else, it has to be subject to the artistic director's vision. That's not ego anymore than it's ego for a CEO to define the company's vision, the HR director to set hiring policies, or the coach to decide how to allot playing time. That is his or her job.
The other reason this doesn't work terribly well is human nature. When people suggest this committee approach, it is usually because they either don't trust the director, or are trying to remove subjectivity from the process. First of all, art is subjective, and theatre especially so. There is no way around that. And if you don't trust the director, then a committee really won't fix that.
If the director is subject to human error, so is everyone on the committee. However, they may not always have the training and experience to overcome that bias. In other words, the committee can make every error that people accuse the director of making! Possibly moreso because they may not have the same experience (which usually comes by making mistakes early on).
For example, in a musical, do you know that the audience will generally forgive a weak singer sooner than a weak actor? And they'll definitely forgive a weak dancer more quickly than a weak singer. Ideally, you can get all the skills you want. But when you have to choose, as one often does in an educational program, the fact that most plays require more acting than singing means you go with acting. A musical director, choreographer, or community volunteer might not realize that.
What if the committee disagree on the outcomes? What if one member likes Person A and another member likes Person B? Ultimately, someone is going to have make the decision. And it will be the director--and we're right back where we started again. And if you think there was drama before....
An experienced director knows what to look for in an audition. They know what kinds of things can be coached and taught, and what can't be, and therefore which person would be the safest bet to cast. It's a risk every time you cast someone. There are never any guarantees, even if you know that actor. But directors learn over the years to recognize certain things to minimize the risk.
In the first play I directed at my current school, I cast a student as the Wicked Witch of the West. She was very quiet and reserved in class and everyone was very surprised. Frankly, people thought I was crazy. I didn't know her, so they couldn't accuse me of favoritism, but they really thought I had blown it.
But I had seen something in her during the call-backs, a little spark of life that convinced me she was a fine character actress: a hunch of the shoulders and a flaring of the eyes when she read. She became the witch; she just needed practice to project her voice and get in the habit of being loud. That's very possible to fix. So we worked on it--and she was wonderful. Stole the show and really surprised people. This didn't happen because I have mystical powers. It's because I spent five hours in call-backs carefully evaluating everyone in the actual context of the lines and songs and scenes from the play.
I said this in my last post, but it bears repeating: parents are subject to everything directors are sometimes accused of: favoritism, subjectivity, etc. However, the parents generally don't have all the same information, focus on the big picture, or professional experience that the director has to offset these human traits.
A good theatre program is going to have unequal outcomes. It just is. And, if you are lucky, it will garner enough interest that there will be more people who want to be in the plays than can be given leading roles. There is simply no way to make it so that every child who wants a lead or featured role is going to get one.
The best any director can do is try to give everyone a fair shot and make a space for as many people as humanly possible. Hopefully, he or she also tries to be kind about it. A good director also tries to find shows that will showcase different talents: different voice types, and different kinds of acting skills. But even then, one cannot predict how roles will fall.
More than once in my early years, I felt sorry for a student who had payed their dues, so to speak, and never had a big part. So, I chose a play I thought would provide the perfect platform for that student's talents.
Well, that student would come to auditions or call-backs and absolutely fall flat. Another student I never thought of shows up and nails it. It's a mystery, and it's one of the reasons theatre is exciting. We would do well not to try to quash that by having overly programmed outcomes.
"Have you ever thought about doing [more musicals/less musicals/a variety show/a three act play/a night of one-acts]." Beside the fact that outcome-based planning is not a good way to run a theatre program, there is another problem with this. Most schools or other organizations run their program the way they do for a reason. It's neither accidental or capricious. It is the result of time, experimentation, and the school's mission, as well as the director's best judgment and experience.
Reasonable people might disagree with those reasons, but that doesn't make them invalid. But beyond that, there are trade-offs in every decision.
For example, a three-act play might have more big speaking roles than a standard musical. But most have almost no room for any kind of ensemble. So, the fifteen kids who get a part have more to do--but the other 40 who want to be in it are out of luck. Beyond that, someone is inevitably going to be a better dramatic actress than someone else, and she's going to get all the leads. That kid with comic timing is going to get more big parts. People will say the director should do more comedies. Or more dramas. Or....whatever. On that note, comedy is incredibly difficult to pull off, even for professional actors. People assume it's easy, but it's not. It's much harder than drama. And a three-act comedy with students can fall flat very quickly.
In theatre, as in life, there are always trade-offs. Plays are not the same. What if you find a play that has great roles for the ensemble, lots of songs and fun numbers--but fewer speaking parts? Whom should you prioritize? Should you do a play that has lots of speaking parts--but virtually no ensemble? What if you have a lot of really solid boys one year (a rarity), or a couple of really amazing almost-professional girls? How do you balance that? What do you prioritize?
Well, you do the best you can. And it will never be enough for some people. And, it will most certainly never be equal in terms of outcome.
A night of one-acts might sound great. But the students will be spread between many plays. The wonderful sense of community and esprit d'corps you get in a big show might not happen. The audience may not be as large. Beyond that, the director's efforts might be diluted between several different plays. A night of one-acts requires an immense amount of work. The solution is: have the students direct! Sure, but who will oversee the students? Directing is not as easy as it might look. You don't just turn it over to students without guiding them. And who will mediate the inevitable power-struggles and disagreements between peers?
Some people love melodramas; other's don't. Or Shakespeare. On and on....
All of these are viable options that fit with different programs, and the specific objectives and constraints of different institutions. But the fact that they fit at one school doesn't mean they will work everywhere. There is no ideal solution out there that solves every problem or allows everyone to have everything they want.
People who do theatre because they want specific outcomes will be frustrated a lot.
Theatre is art, the must human of arts. Because of that, it is subjective. One can take the subjectivity out of theatre like one can take algebra out of physics. It just doesn't work.
A director does the best he or she can in a highly-charged, highly-subjective field. By long tradition, their role has evolved to be what it is because it works the best that way. That doesn't mean he or she is infallible. But it's a director's responsibility to set the vision and organize all the artistic elements according to that vision.
FAQ 3: "What can I do to help my child get a lead?"
Learning to act, sing, and dance are always good. Lessons and workshops and camps and that sort of thing can help. But honestly, there is probably very little you or anyone can do. A lot of it comes down to factors beyond your control. Your child might be brilliantly talented--but too short. Or tall. Or any number of other things.
I wanted to be Captain Hook in a production of Peter Pan. But I was short and a bit dumpy. My voice hadn't changed yet. There was no way I was going to be Captain Hook; it wasn't a matter of talent.
In high school, I desperately wanted to be Skye Masterson in Guys and Dolls. Another guy was better looking and had a smooth voice that was perfect for the role. I just wasn't made for that part.
Years later, a local theatre did Dracula. A lot of people tried out. But I was tall, skinny, had severe features, dark hair, and pale skin. I got the part because it fit me.
It's important to realize that theatre isn't a ladder where you climb from larger role to larger role. The best thing you can teach your child is that we don't do theatre because we aspire to a lead. We do theatre because we like to do theatre. We do the play because we can't stand the thought of not doing it. If you have any other objective in mind, you are likely to be very disappointed.
What can you do? You might also teach your child that every time they come to a rehearsal, they are auditioning for the next play. If they goof off a lot, forget lines, miss cues, etc., then chances are that is being noticed. Likewise, if they work hard and do the best they can with what they are given, that is also being noticed.
Same with parents. You really can't do anything to get your child a lead. You can, unfortunately, do a lot of damage to your child's chances by being difficult or disrespectful, etc. I've heard that a lot from directors at many different levels and in many different programs.
Theatre is not fair in the sense of being equal. It is gloriously fair in the sense that it gives lots of people the chance to work on an exciting piece of art. More than any other art form, it allows the possibility of someone emerging from nowhere. More than any other art form, theatre allows large groups of people to come together and perform, or run tech, or change sets, or sew costumes. It integrates and brings together. It can build community and create a shared emotional experience.
Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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