Casting in Educational Theatre: Entitlement vs. Empowerment

It is heartbreaking to disappoint an ambitious theatre student. When you teach theatre, it is unfortunately inevitable.

When I was doing theatre in high school, I used to predict how I might be cast. There was safety in predicting how the stars would align, like a military general strategizing against enemy troops. I would consider the talent pool, social hierarchy, age, and whatever other factors were in play to determine what part I was likely to get. I often inflated my own ability, but I believed if I could foresee how the whole cast list would look, I’d know what to expect, and wouldn’t have my heart broken once it came to pass as I predicted. I was often wrong, and like many high school theatre students, sometimes I was disappointed.

There is a deadly compromise in this strategizing approach: I give up the fact that anything is possible, and in return I expect what I deem possible to manifest. In the theatre, anything must be possible.

But, at the root of this compromise is the notion that I deserve recognition. Put more grossly, that my passion and talent entitle me to opportunities. To be clear, I was fortunate as a theatre student, and remain grateful to all of my teachers for everything they gave me on and off stage. I got to play a lot of great roles in great shows, but I felt I was passionate and talented enough to be an undisputed star and the keystone of the programs I was in. Due to an insatiable ego masking major insecurities, I never had that satisfaction. It would have been impossible to satisfy. (I’m not proud to admit this, and I’ve worked hard to shift my attitude. The real world has helped a lot.)

Eventually, I learned the circumstances surrounding my disappointments had nothing to do with me as an artist. I certainly don’t fault any of my teachers, who gave me fabulous and eclectic opportunities. It’s because educational theatre doesn’t and should never work that way. 

Working on the other side of the table, it becomes a whole different story. I’ve been working in educational theatre for nearly a decade and have auditioned, cast, and directed many youth productions. I remember directing one show for which I auditioned a pool of extremely talented, lovely human beings. I was excited to work with every single one of them. But for all these fabulous students, I only had three “lead” roles to cast. Every track in the production was going to be extremely busy and have featured opportunities, but I only had three major roles that were especially desirable in their eyes.

Oh, how I wish I could have given each student the role they wanted. How I wish I could have made them all feel like the stars they felt they were, to cultivate their confidence, to give them the chance to exercise their craft and passion, and selfishly, to artistically collaborate and create with these wonderful people.

But I only had those three “lead” roles to offer.

So, what do you do? Hopefully, the best you can.

Inevitably, some students dropped out because they didn’t get one of those three roles.

I cast educational shows more or less the same way I would cast a professional show: You take the pool of talent and configure them into what you believe will be the most fruitful combination of actors and roles toward successful storytelling. Sometimes there are objective requirements: Necessary skills including singing (which has its own set of specifications), dance/movement capability, musical instruments, and other special skills. With students, there’s the consideration of maturity and savvy: is the student emotionally available enough and/or mature enough to take on a role? Pedagogical development, equitability, scheduling, and other logistics are defining factors as well.

But let’s say it comes down to two genuinely viable candidates for a role. What happens then? A choice has to be made and it is no longer objective. It becomes subjective, and therefore personal. Not personal toward the actor, but personal to the director’s perspective. How I see the world of the play, the world at large, the actor, the role, my aesthetic preference, which actors I trust, past experiences – all of these consciously or unconsciously brew within me, and at some point I have to make a gut call: I choose Joanna over Becky.

As a result, Joanna gets her dream realized and Becky may be crushed. Or vice versa. A different director might not even consider Joanna for the role in the first place. But how sad it is that I, doing the best I can, may break Becky’s heart. And what about Allison who wasn’t even in the conversation but had her heart set on the role? That second director might have immediately cast Allison without even considering Becky or Joanna.

But if I choose Joanna, I have to trust that I did my best and be comfortable with my decision. I will gladly talk with Allison and Becky about the process, but in the end I am casting a show using my artistic sensibility and I have the freedom to make my own decisions. To attack a director for invoking his artistic sense is no different from attacking an actor for believing he or she should play a certain role. Attacking my choice to cast Joanna is the same injustice that Becky and Allison perceive I’ve committed when I didn’t choose them. In both cases, it dismisses a subjective perspective on the world, and that rejection can be a blow to the authentic self for speaking out.

I’m not saying actors shouldn’t have these feelings. That can’t be helped. Actors feel rejection, sadness, and deprivation, all of which are important, valid feelings to experience as an artist and a human being. These may even turn into anger. However, to hold them as divine injustice without thinking of other perspectives is, I believe, inconsiderate.

Whether or not my own expectation of how I would be regarded as a young actor was reasonable (it wasn’t), my feeling stemmed from the kind of confidence that must be honored, cultivated, and primed in all artists to exist independently of the opportunities presented to us. Having a healthy, robust confidence is how artists survive the rejections and blows that will fill their professional lives, no matter how successful they wind up being in the end.

A theatre teacher must be willing to engage in honest dialogue with their students on these issues. My hope is that this dialogue would encourage students to be considerate of the whole production and process, and simultaneously allow teachers to better hear and know their students while helping them contextualize their feelings. Even if I don’t think Becky or Allison have a dram of talent in them, or ever will, I will be damned if I extinguish their passion and desire. When there is no communication, and not getting what we want hardens into perceiving ourselves as victims of divine injustice, this breeds ENTITLEMENT: “I objectively deserve this opportunity and am entitled to it because [insert reasons here].”

No one is entitled to anything except consideration and kindness.

Opportunities are created. Anything that’s created has been done so by a creator with a subjective vision for how that opportunity is going to be fulfilled. We are therefore not entitled to fulfill any opportunity created by another person. The only guaranteed way to get what we want is to create opportunities for ourselves.

It’s a shame that people put such gravity in landing a role in a show. I’ve done it myself, and allowed that weight to affect how I see myself: How can some people think I’m so great and I can’t even land this role? I must not be any good… 

It’s like unrequited love: I love you so much and can so clearly see us together, how could you possibly not see it that way?

I don’t know if there is any surefire way to succeed as a theatre artist, but perhaps it starts by defining success. For many years, I defined success as consistently performing on Broadway while sharing the stage and being in the same conversation as the people who inspired me to get there. I don’t know if that’s how I’d still define it, but I imagine that’s a fairly common perception of success for a theatre artist. It is, unfortunately, a dream that is out of our control. It’s not by any means out of reach. Many people achieve it, and remember, in the theatre, anything is possible. But, given the vast number of people and perspectives involved in the process of producing a Broadway show, this dream is out of our control. In the end, it’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz: We put stock in something that we believe has power, only to find out that the power has to come from ourselves.

My biggest regret from when I was a theatre student was how much time I spent pining over getting cast in shows and feeling the need to “perform well.” I wish I put that energy into my training and discipline. In training, the student can deepen, develop, and embrace their craft rather than focus on landing opportunities. Ideally, a balance of development and application can happen in training, but the incubation process allows us the space to find our own context for the passions we’re inspired to pursue. In that space, we are more capable of discovering our authentic selves. We become our own greatest triumph, competitor, and guide. We become EMPOWERED in a way that isn’t dependent on external approval. To be entitled is passive. To be empowered is active.

Casting in youth theatre involves a pool of students. How a student is cast shouldn’t define the relationship between them and their teacher. Sometimes a theatre teacher and a student will just not be on the same page. For as much connection and conversation that can happen, there is nothing to be done about this. Both parties may need to fundamentally accept that truth, and find another way to build a fruitful relationship through their interactions as two individuals. The teacher will likely have to encourage this, but the student must also be available to it and trust that their teachers are looking out for them. Part of a teacher’s job, no matter what, is to empower every single one of their students to the best of their ability. Inspiration leads to action, not complacency. It allows us to see, and the ability to honestly see the world and communicate what we see is how we develop (and empower) our artistic vision. We are all built differently, experience the world differently, and hopefully are inspired to articulate and share our unique perspective.

Doing a good deed doesn’t entitle me to a cookie. If I learn how to bake and make one myself, I can have as many as I want. If I’ve made a whole batch of cookies, I may as well share a few, and maybe eventually I’ll teach someone else how to bake.

Jeff with the cast of “The Dining Room” at ARC Stages.

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