When you have more performers than roles

A new school year is here, and that means it’s time for school play directors across the country to begin casting the fall play. Take a look at this article I wrote about what you can do if you find more talent at auditions than you need. This article appeared in today’s newsletter for Pioneer Drama Service (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum). Don’t forget to subscribe to their newsletter for great articles about working with student performers.

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter:  Creative Casting Ideas – When You Have More Performers Than Roles

By Mike Steele

September 1, 2015

You just sat through a long evening of school play auditions.  Forty-nine students came out for this year’s show.  You would be elated with the talent-filed turnout…  but the play you’re casting only has 22 roles, and you want to feature as many students as possible.  After all, a large cast translates into an excited student body and an increase in ticket sales!

But you don’t just want to flood the stage with a bunch of extras who do little more than move as a generic clump.  So what can you do?  How can you utilize as many students as possible while making each feel like a necessary part of the production?

Take a look at these ideas…

Double-Up!  Cast two students in each of the roles.  Divide the performance calendar between an “A Cast” and a “B Cast” (let actors in the smaller roles perform in both casts if you don’t have enough students to fill two complete casts).  Double casting provides double the students the opportunity to learn, shine, and experience the fun of being a part of a school show.  Be warned, though, that you’ll need to manage the rehearsal schedule carefully since you’ll be teaching each role twice.

Cast understudies.  We always see students at auditions who have great potential but aren’t quite ready for a leading role.  What a great learning experience it would be for these students to discover what it takes to handle a large role by rehearsing as a back-up performer.  Whether you decide to have only a handful of students understudy all the parts or you assign one unique understudy per character, these additional students will benefit from the opportunity to develop their skills.  You’ll be doing yourself a favor, as well.  Not only do understudies come in handy when main performers are absent from rehearsals, but you’ll be training up-and-coming talent that may become next year’s stars.  You can even add an additional understudy performance (a great idea as a matinee) to give these students the chance to showcase their hard work to family and friends.

Split one part into two or three or four.  Does the script offer a logical opportunity to divide the dialogue from one role amongst multiple performers?  Some plays have incidental characters such as “Man 1” and “Man 2” that each have a few non-specific lines which you could assign to several actors.  Some plays have settings that span several decades, so different actors could play younger and older versions of the same characters.  Some plays have non-human roles that, with some inventive direction, could be played by multiple performers.  (Can’t you imagine a caterpillar performed by a group of actors lined up to create a long body or an ogre played by several students working a large puppet?)  Pioneer Drama is extremely flexible about allowing you to alter the script to accommodate additional actors, but be careful.  Not all publishers allow you to make these, or any, changes.

Add background performers.  Is there an appropriate place in the script you can incorporate additional actors into the action onstage?  Think of the play’s various settings and whether background characters milling around could add to the atmosphere.  Maybe the play is set in a restaurant and background diners reacting to a food fight started by the main characters will add to the humor of the piece.  Maybe there’s a scene set in a park and background performers having picnics, flying kites, and relaxing on benches will help establish the setting.  Give your background performers unique characters to portray so they won’t be just a blob of extras, but rather they will be integral to establishing the mood of the show.  Get creative, but be careful that your background performers don’t distract from the main action.

Offer cut students first shot at stage crew.  Many students who audition simply want to be involved in the production in some capacity and will gladly accept a backstage position.  Offer these opportunities to students you won’t have room for in the cast, and place these students in positions that will utilize their individual strengths.  You’ll have artists who will be an asset when it comes to set painting, designing the logo for the production, and constructing props.  You’ll have highly organized students who will keep your production running smoothly as stage managers and student directors.  From technical design to moving set pieces to applying makeup to ushering, there’s a job for everyone.

Stage an additional play.  Who says this has to be the only performance opportunity for the students?  If you’re struggling to whittle down the cast for a one-act, choose a second one-act and stage a two-act event.  If the play is a full-length, produce a second play later in the school year.  If the thought of another large-scale production is too much for you to bear, host a talent show, an evening of short scenes, or an improv or sketch comedy show.  If students have an interest in one production, they will have an interest in another.

Add entertainment before the show or during intermission.  While it might not be the same as being in the main production, some students will jump at the chance to be onstage for some pre-show entertainment.  Duet scenes, TV commercial parodies, or other small comedy scenes are perfect for this type of venue.  Or maybe a group of students can perform an instrumental or vocal number in the lobby during intermission.  This will let more students be involved while giving you a chance to develop younger students’ stage presence.

These general ideas may not be right for the specific title you’re directing.  One of the perks of producing a Pioneer show is that you can talk to their customer service reps or email the author directly through the play’s page on their website.  He or she might be able to share some creative ways that past productions have dealt with your dilemma.  Maybe the playwright will suggest turning the role of an annoying little girl into two annoying twins who speak in unison.  Maybe the customer service agent will describe how other directors have utilized background performers.  Who knows what ideas will come up?

So get inventive and incorporate as many students as possible into your production.  The more students involved, the larger your audience.  Just remember, though, if you get so inventive that you want to make any changes to the script, you will need permission from the play’s publisher.

Pioneer Drama Service