Many may think that casting is simple. You pick the best actors for the roles and everyone accepts the decision. If you have EVER tried to cast a play, especially in a High School or Middle School setting, you know that this is most definitely NOT the case. Whether you are casting your play right now or know you will be back at the casting table next season, we have tips, tricks, and plans from some seasoned Stage Partners theatre teachers and theatre teacher playwrights, Emily Hageman, Barry Weber, and Nina Mansfield. Whether you are establishing a new theatre program at your school, casting your 15th show, or holding auditions for the first time, these Before, During and After Audition steps are for you.
BEFORE THE AUDITION
When holding auditions, it’s important to make sure all of the students/actors auditioning have all of the information they need before the auditions to make this process an opportunity for success.
First and foremost, I want to make sure my student actors know the show dates and the days and times we will be rehearsing. I also like to give them as much information about the play as I can so that they can prepare for the audition. They should know if they are auditioning for a drama or a comedy. Ideally, they’ll be given detailed character breakdowns, and have an opportunity to read the script beforehand.
Auditions can be nerve-wracking for young actors, but we can help reduce the pressure by ensuring everyone knows what to expect in advance. I typically hold informational meetings about our productions for students and their families, and I also walk students through the process in “how to audition” workshops. Each student receives an audition information packet/FAQ with detailed notes about how auditions will go. (Having a take-home paper copy of these details is especially good for students who may have trouble remembering something important you said during a lecture.)
I expect my students to perform a monologue of their choosing, but I try to be as flexible as possible so that auditions are a relaxed and fun experience for all. My students are encouraged to memorize their monologue in advance, but memorization is not required or expected. (Remember that everyone is good at different things, and many talented performers may still struggle with memorizing a monologue on short notice.)
I provide my students with a packet of age-appropriate sample monologues to choose from, but I encourage them to perform an entirely different monologue if they find one that better suits them. Perhaps they may even want to write their own! The point is that they perform a monologue they enjoy and that they feel shows off their talents.
On a related note, I believe it’s important that all students who audition can be in the show in some meaningful capacity, provided they can agree to attend rehearsals and keep a positive attitude. When actors are secure in the knowledge that they will have a role, this too removes a lot of audition anxiety!
Casting is all about finding the right place for the right person. Directors know that sometimes you're in a situation where the pieces of the puzzle can only fit together a certain way–and while Jimmy would play an amazing lead, he would also be amazing in a secondary role that Timmy couldn't play, so Timmy gets the lead. Encourage students to support, love, and encourage each other. If we are not cohesive as a company, the cracks will show in our production.
- Always have students fill out their information/conflict sheet before they audition so that you can ask them about any potential rehearsal conflicts.
- Have extra sides, because your students will forget them!
- I always have my student assistant-director sit in on auditions with me. It is great to have an extra set of eyes, and someone to help me make those tough decisions.
It is crucial to NEVER discuss the auditions of others with an actor. Do NOT compare or explain. Tell them what they did well in auditions and how eager you are to have them play their role, but, resist the urge to plead or beg. A seed of bitterness and resentfulness in the cast will only spread. You have made your choice and so it must stay.
Consider reaching out to administration if you are going to make a controversial casting decision. Explain your reasoning and make sure that they are behind you before you send the list out. Protect yourself by utilizing other directors/members of the community.
This also leads into a discussion about casting practices that we may not need to get into now, but remember–you are casting the ACTOR, not the CHARACTER. I cast attitude and work ethic over talent and I have never regretted this, not even once.
ANNOUNCING THE CAST LIST
AND HANDLING THE REACTION
While I wish that I could make the cast list release a more fun experience for my students, I also recognize that there is inherent disappointment that comes with the announcement. I always tell my students that it's okay to be disappointed–after all, it means that you really cared and wanted a part! But then we have to move ahead to make the play the best that it can possibly be. In my program, I encourage my students to be each other's biggest fans–and I'm proud to say that my students love and support each other so much that the cast list release creeps more towards being a celebration with each release!
I send out an email after hours with the cast list. I tell the students I will not be reading any correspondence from students until twenty-four hours have passed, and if they want to meet about the list, they must meet with myself and all three directors. Students MUST learn that it is okay to feel negative emotions, but it is NEVER okay to make someone pay the consequence of those feelings!
I've had several students over the course of my time as a director be disappointed by the results of a cast list. As I have grown my program and worked with my students, I've seen this number decrease–and I believe that this is due to a culture shift in my students. I have explained to the group as a whole about the idea of competition being the best thing we can provide for each other. Healthy competition pushes EVERYONE–for example, we would not be as excellent as we are without the amazing high schools around us who push their students to perform at a high level. We MUST compete with each other to become great–and it's an AMAZING thing to have a competitive theater program.
At the end of the day, the actor has two choices–they can either push ahead despite disappointment or they can quit. There is no right choice. An actor may simply decide that he or she has too many negative feelings about the show to continue on. You can try to talk to this student, but it may be the best in the long run if they remove themselves. Once an actor has forfeited a role, that role is lost to them and they must be replaced. It will be the best in the long run for the overall health of the cast.
You can prevent a lot of future disappointment by first making sure each actor has a good part! When considering what play to produce, try to avoid plays that center on just a few lead roles while the rest of the cast is made up of “bit parts.” Instead, pick a play that offers meaningful opportunities for everyone involved. (A personal favorite for middle and high school ages is Home Shopping Studios Live by Claire Epstein, which has lots of hilarious and satisfying roles for all genders and skill levels.)
If an actor is disappointed with their assigned role, it’s often because they feel their role is not very important or challenging. This feeling is usually overcome during the rehearsal process, provided you have given that actor enough meaningful work to do. But if you have merely relegated that actor to an anonymous role in the chorus, well…is their role important? Would you be happy with a role like that? I didn’t think so.
Stay in good communication with your actors and listen to their ideas–this will be especially important with actors who feel bored or under-appreciated. You can also consider additional duties depending on the actor’s skills and interests. For example, an actor may wish to “double up” as the production’s chief makeup artist!
Parents’ reactions can further influence how a student feels about their part. You should remind parents about this early on, and request that all parents model grace and professionalism for their child when it comes to handling any disappointments. Just as you do with your students, be prepared to listen to parents and hear them out. Perhaps they have had some negative experiences in the theater when they were kids, or maybe they need reassurance that you value their child’s contributions to the show.
Photos from the Harrison High School production of Anitgone: 3021, Directed by Nina Haberli
More Audition Tips and Ideas
Hold a read through of the play before the auditions, if possible. This is a great way to get students excited about the show and also to help them prepare for the auditions.
Reflect on your own childhood theatre memories, both good and bad. What made your favorite play experiences so special? How can you best emulate your favorite teacher’s methods? Also consider approaches that you did not find helpful, and what you learned by observing your past teachers’ mistakes. Think about what kinds of theatre experiences you wish you could have had when you were a student, and let that answer influence your lesson planning.Be aware of your own limitations, and, be prepared to change plans if it’s clear what you’re doing isn’t working. Be ready to delegate and hand over control to the actors whenever you can. Remain humble. Be willing to ask for help and admit when you’ve made a mistake.
Above all else, listen to your students and observe what drives them. Strive to give them opportunities to make art on their own terms. Resist the temptation to embody the “Teacher as Savior” cliché we see in the movies; and instead recognize that your role is as a guide and collaborator.Just remember to pick a play that allows all the performers to have a meaningful role. No parent should have to watch their kid play a random “tree” or “rock” in the big spring play!
At its best, theater is a social experience that makes us all feel connected and valued. It is your sacred task to help all your students realize there is a place for them in your theater, whatever their skills or background. Let this mission guide you in all you do.See you at the curtain call!
I knew I had been successful as a director when one of my students told me this–"I love and hate auditions, but all I know is I want to go in there and do my best. Then I know if I didn't get the part, it was because someone else was better, but I know that I gave it my all."