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Casting in Educational Theatre: Entitlement vs. Empowerment

It’s heartbreaking to disappoint an ambitious theatre student. Unfortunately, when you teach theatre, it’s inevitable.

When I was doing theatre in high school, I used to predict how I would 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 get my heart broken if 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.

At the root of this compromise is the notion that I deserve recognition. Put more grossly, 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 because it would have been impossible to satisfy. I’m not proud to admit this, and I’ve done a lot of work to shift my attitude. The real world helps a lot.

Eventually, I realized 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 a wide range of wonderful opportunities. It’s because educational theatre doesn’t and should never work that way. 

I’ve worked in educational theatre on and off for over a decade, auditioning, casting, and directing many youth productions. From the other side of the table, casting educational theatre is a whole different story.

I remember casting one production from a pool of extremely talented, wonderful students. 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 spotlit, featured opportunities, but I only had three roles that most of them would consider desirable.

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 could only cast three actors in those three roles (Double casting wasn’t an option).

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.

Casting in educational theatre is different than casting in the professional world. In educational theatre, you have a specific pool of actors. You take that pool and configure it into what you believe will be the most fruitful combination of actors and roles toward a successful production. Sometimes there are objective requirements for a role: Vocal range/quality/ability, dance/movement capability, other special skills. With students, there’s the consideration of maturity and savvy: is the student available enough and/or mature enough to take on a role (or in some cases, appropriately immature)? Pedagogical development, equitability, scheduling, and other logistics are also important factors.

But let’s say you have 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 in regard to my perspective as a director: How I see the world of the play, the world at large, the actor, the role, my aesthetic preference, which actors I trust to take on certain material, past experiences – all of these consciously or unconsciously brew within me, and at some point I have to make a 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.

If I choose Joanna, I have to trust that I did my best and make peace 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 their artistic sense is no different from attacking an actor for believing they 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 be upset by these choices. That’s also inevitable. Actors (and humans in general) experience rejection, sadness, and deprivation, which may evolve into anger. All of these are important, valid feelings to experience as an artist and a human being. However, to harbor resentment and proclaim divine injustice without thinking of other perspectives is, I believe, inconsiderate.

Whether or not my own expectation of how I should have been regarded as a young actor was reasonable (it wasn’t), my feelings were valid. They stemmed from the same confidence that needs to be honored, cultivated, and primed in all aspiring artists. Having a healthy, robust confidence is how artists survive the rejections and blows that will fill their professional lives, however that life may manifest. We can learn to continue pursuing our aspirations no matter what opportunities are (or aren’t) presented to us.

I believe A theatre teacher should be willing to engage in honest dialogue with their students on these issues. My hope would be that the dialogue encourages the students to be considerate of the whole production and process, and helps the teachers to know their students better while helping them contextualize their feelings as a teaching point. Even if I don’t think Becky or Allison have a dram of talent in them, or ever will, I’ll be damned if I extinguish their aspirations. Without communication, the disappointment of not getting what we want can harden into casting ourselves as victims of divine injustice. This breeds entitlement: “I objectively deserve this opportunity 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.

I don’t know what it means to succeed as an embodied storyteller (my preferred term to “actor” or “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 in that field. It is, unfortunately, a dream that is out of our control. It’s not unrealistic. Many people achieve it (and remember, in the theatre, anything must be possible). But, given the vast number of people and perspectives involved in the process of producing a Broadway show, it’s not something we can independently control.

Looking back on being a theatre student, my biggest regret was how much time I spent pining over not getting cast in shows and pressuring myself to “perform well.” I wish I put that energy into my training and discipline. In training, you can deepen, develop, and embrace their craft rather than put unnecessary stock in landing opportunities. Ideally, a training program can balance development and application, but the incubation process allows us the space to find and develop authentic expression. We become our own triumph, competitor, and guide. We become empowered in a way that isn’t dependent on external approval.

Entitlement is passive. Empowerment begets action.

Casting in educational theatre involves a particular group of students. How a student is cast shouldn’t define the relationship between them and their teacher. Often, it’s about the particular composition of the group. Sometimes a theatre teacher and a student just won’t be on the same page. For as much connection and conversation that can happen, there is nothing to be done about that. Both parties may need to fundamentally accept this truth, and find another way to build a fruitful relationship as two individuals. The teacher will probably have to spearhead this, but the student must also be available to it and trust that their teacher is looking out for them.

Part of a teacher’s job 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. The ability to see the world and communicate what we see is how we develop (and empower) our artistic vision. We are each built differently, experience the world differently, and hopefully become inspired to articulate and share that 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.

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