There’s a story I tell my theatre class at the start of every semester.
During my sophomore year of high school, I decided to audition for the all-school spring play. After getting the audition packet, preparation involved memorizing the monologue and talking to more experienced upperclassmen about what to expect and how to prepare. The varsity track coach was informed of my intentions to be in the all-school play that year, preventing me from running the indoor track season because it would interfere with my rehearsal schedule. I was convinced of being a lock for the cast and planned my spring schedule accordingly.
At the auditions with 80 other hopeful students, I bombed my monologue and didn’t even get a callback audition and was crushed.
My students hear this story for two reasons. They need to understand that disappointment in the theatre happens to everyone, including the drama teacher! Secondly, they need to understand that disappointment in the theatre does not mark the end of the experience. After tanking my first audition, I got involved on stage crew and eventually did make a cast.
Still, I am keenly aware of how it feels to take a risk, become vulnerable on stage and then get rejected. It is a different kind of disappointment to feel unwanted. The reality was that the director didn’t make cuts because she didn’t want every student involved, but rather out of necessity based on the requirements of the show. As a new director, there was a concern about the disappointment my students would face. How would we get kids to love theatre while simultaneously having to exclude some kids from theatre?
The answer to that question evolved slowly through a gradual shift in culture. First, the student’s expectations of entitlement in the program needed to be tempered. It’s not uncommon to find in high school theatre programs the expectation that seniors get lead roles. Similarly, it is common for the same kids to have lead parts year after year of their high school careers.
In my first years as director, there was a lot of added disappointment from students who believed they were being slighted because they had “earned” a part through longevity rather than talent, or earned a part this year because of the one they had last year.
It said a lot about the students in the program what they did with that disappointment. Some kids quit. But the kids who stayed, who took chorus parts, worked on stage crew, painted set, learned to run the lights, etc., they paved the way forward for what our program has become – shaping a culture that promotes success in theatre as more than just what happens on stage in front of an audience.
While the crew undoubtedly drives the success of the production, this feels counterintuitive to many high school thespians who crave the spotlight. If you want to jump-start a stage crew culture shift in your own program, or just prove a point as to the importance of a good crew, simply pick a show that necessitates more stage crew members than cast members.
Our production of The Giver had a crew that outnumbered the cast, and they were so integral to the telling of the story that they were invited out on stage with the cast to take a bow on closing night. I wasn’t surprised to find interest in the theatre program skyrocketed – both cast and crew – after that production.
The capstone of our culture shift was the development of varsity letter standards for theatre arts. It’s important to note that it was a culture of excellence that drove the ability to develop requirements that reflected how students could demonstrate exceptional achievement in the program – not the other way around.
Creating letter standards doesn’t automatically make a program great. A great program, however, can easily identify the qualities its most exceptional members demonstrate. A varsity letter in a program that does not promote student growth, reward achievement or reflect excellence is, in my opinion, not worth much.
With those things already in place, it was then important to make earning a varsity letter in theatre arts a process that encouraged students to take part in all aspects of our productions, and one that reflected the whole culture that had been created.
As such, our lettering requirements state that a student must participate as an actor in two shows – both a musical and stage play – and must participate in stage crew for a third production. Additionally, students must earn 15 “points” from a list of activities including participation in additional productions (as either an actor or a crew member), theatre coursework, leadership positions, community theatre and competition.
Students looking to earn a varsity letter can make progress toward that goal during every production season, regardless of what happens at auditions. Not making a cast list, though perhaps initially disappointing, immediately leads into the next opportunity of earning stage crew or production team points instead.
In almost every audition cycle, we have had at least one student, who previously has always acted, decide to work on stage crew points instead. And similarly, we have had at least one student who has been exclusively on stage crew decide that it’s time to try appearing on stage.
Of course, it cannot be understated the role that collaboration between departments, as well as the support provided by the administration and the community, plays in the implementation of this culture and the ultimate success of the program. Systemic, district- wide vision that values arts programs as equal to athletic programs is critical in developing a culture that strives for excellence, and it is the single biggest contributing factor in how far a program is able to go.
By the time we were ready to implement our letter system, there was little debate. The administration, school board and community had already long supported the implementation of a varsity letter in music, and we were simultaneously considering and supporting a varsity letter process in visual arts, which spoke to the overall esteem and value they placed on those programs. These programs, as we launch each musical, work very closely together to build on each other’s strengths, and to hold each other accountable to the standard of excellence we expect from our students and ourselves as professionals.
When students first learn they can letter in theatre arts, most of them are surprised. Then we walk through the process and standards for lettering, and they get very excited – and then mostly forget about it until auditions roll around for the first production. Everyone comes in nervous for tryouts; the cast list is posted a few days later, and then comes the inevitable conversation. Eventually, the door cracks open and the disappointed, sometimes tear-streaked face of a student appears asking if he or she can talk about the audition.
I remind the student about my audition story, and assure that student that one audition is not going to define his or her entire theatre experience. It is then suggested that even though the student is disappointed not being in the cast, perhaps working on his or her varsity letter is a good alternative. The student is then presented with all the requirements and all the things he or she can do instead of performing on stage that would contribute to the success of the production and the program.
The only thing harder than being the disappointed student who isn’t selected for the cast is being the director who wants every kid to love theatre but has to tell some students that they can’t be in the cast.
Almost every time, however, students leave my room with smiles, and almost every time they will try to work in a different capacity for the production. And that’s a win for the whole program, cast and crew!
So, you didn’t make the musical...now what? How about you help us make the musical!
Kate Laack is the director of theatre arts at Pine Island (Minnesota) High School. She minored in theater studies at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, and previously directed at Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School in Galesville, Wisconsin, before moving to Minnesota and her current role. Additionally, she serves as the fine arts representative on the Region 1A committee. In 2018, the Pine Island theatre program was recognized nationally as one of 50 recipients of a Recognizing and Inspiring Student Expression in America theatre grant award.