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Casting in Educational Theater: Entitlement vs. Empowerment

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

When I was doing theater 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 around me, social hierarchy, age, and any other factors in play to determine how I was likely to be cast. I’m sure I inflated my own ability and potency, but I believed that if I could foresee what the overall casting would be, I’d know what to expect, and wouldn’t get my heart broken if it came to pass as I predicted (even if it wasn’t what I hoped for). I was often wrong, and 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’ve decided is possible to manifest.

In the theater, anything must be possible.

At the root of this compromise is the belief that I deserved recognition. Put more grossly, that my passion, dedication, and talent entitled me to opportunities. Let’s be clear: I was extremely fortunate as a theater student. I remain grateful to my teachers for their guidance and the opportunities they entrusted me with on and off stage. However, due to an insatiable ego masking major insecurities, I felt I was passionate and talented enough to be an undisputed star and cornerstone of the programs I was in. I never got that satisfaction. Not because of anything that was objectively true, but because my need was impossible to satisfy. I’m not proud to admit any of this, and I’ve worked to shift my attitude. (I was also a teenager, which I hope affords me some grace.) Eventually, I realized the circumstances surrounding my disappointments had nothing to do with my value as an aspiring artist. I certainly don’t fault my teachers, who gave me many wonderful and varied opportunities.

It’s because educational theater doesn’t, and shouldn’t, work that way. 

Fast-forwarding to my adult life, I’ve worked in educational theater on and off for over a decade, including casting and directing student productions. Casting educational theater is a much different story from the other side of the table.

I remember one particular production where I auditioned an amazing group of students. I was excited to cast and work with every single one of them, knowing their combined efforts and talent would benefit and elevate the whole production. But for all these students, I only had three “lead” roles to cast. Every track in the production would 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 rock stars, 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 when they didn’t get one of those roles.

Casting in educational theater is different than casting professionally. In educational theater, you have a specific pool of actors. You arrange those actors into what you believe will be the most fruitful alignment of roles for a successful overall 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, attitude, and other logistics are also important factors. (Scheduling can make a HUGE difference)

But what happens when you have two genuinely viable candidates for a role? A choice has to be made and it has to become 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 have the license to make these 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. In both cases, it dismisses a subjective perspective on the world, and that rejection may 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 people 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 person. None of us get what we want all the time, and if an artist doesn’t get to experience shattered expectations and rejections as a student, they’ll surely experience it when they begin their professional pursuits. However, to proclaim divine injustice without considering other people’s perspectives is, I believe, inconsiderate.

Whether or not my expectations of how I should have been regarded as a young actor were reasonable (they weren’t), my feelings were valid. They stemmed from the same confidence that needs to be cultivated in an aspiring artist. Having a healthy, robust confidence is how artists survive the rejections and blows that will fill their professional lives, however that life may manifest. A healthy sense of confidence helps us develop resilience. We learn to continue pursuing our aspirations no matter what opportunities are (or aren’t) presented to us.

I believe it’s important for theater teachers to engage in honest dialogue with their students on these issues (if the student is willing and available). My hope would be that the dialogue encourages the students to be considerate of the whole production and process, while helping the teacher to better know their students and helping them contextualize their feelings as a teaching point. Even if I don’t think Becky or Allison have or ever will have a dram of talent, I’ll be damned if I extinguish their creative 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].”

The only things we are entitled to in this world are consideration and kindness.

Opportunities are created. Anything that’s created has been done so by a someone with a subjective vision for how that opportunity is going to be realized. We are therefore not entitled to any opportunity created by another person. When you create your own opportunities, it’s a different story.

I don’t know what it means to succeed as an embodied storyteller (my preferred term to “actor” or “theater artist” these days), 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 it’s a fairly common perception of success in the field.  It’s not an unrealistic dream – many people achieve it. But given the vast number of people and perspectives involved in producing a Broadway show, it’s not something we can independently control (though we can take specific and concentrated steps to increase the odds).

My biggest regret as a theater student was the time spent lamenting over how I was cast in shows and over-pressuring myself to “perform well” so that people would see me in a certain way. I wish I put that energy into my training and discipline. In training, you can deepen, develop, and embrace the craft rather than put unnecessary stock in landing opportunities. Ideally, a training program incorporates a balance of development and application, but the incubation period of an educational program creates space and time 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 inspires action.

It would be a shame for a student to define the relationship with their teachers by how they’re cast in shows. Again, casting in educational theater involves a particular group of students, and casting decisions are often about the composition of the group rather than individual talent. Sometimes a teacher and student simply won’t be on the same page about how they see each other. For as much connection and conversation that can happen, there is nothing to be done about that. Both parties may need to fundamentally accept that truth, and find another way to build a fruitful relationship. The teacher will probably have to spearhead this, but the student also has to be available to it and come to trust that the teacher is ultimately in their corner.

Part of a teacher’s job is to empower every 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 see the world and communicate what we see is how we develop (and empower) our artistic vision. We’re all built differently, we experience the world differently, and hopefully we become 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.

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