During the 28 years that Dr. James Larson served as artistic director of the Omaha Theater Company, our professional theatre for young audiences cast professional adult actors in the majority of the roles on our main-stage. For our summer musical or holiday show (which didn’t have school performances), we would often augment the professional cast with youth performers in supporting roles. We have always had many opportunities for young actors to perform in youth productions, teen theater shows, and acting classes at our theater company for young people. Our new artistic director, Matt Guttschick, arrived two and a half years ago. Matt is more open to casting young performers in our professional productions if it strengthens the show. So for the last two seasons, we have begun to cast youth actors in leading roles for several of our professional main-stage shows.
This new shift in our company’s casting philosophy has brought surprises, excitement and new challenges to our rehearsal proces and education programs. As Education Director, this change has also brought up several questions for me about the ethical consideration of using young performers (the majority of whom are full time students) in professional productions. The following questions are swirling around my head surrounding age-appropriate casting in our field:
-How do you balance the educational goals of training the young actors with the production needs of a professional show?
-How do we help the young actors balance the requirements of acting in a professional production with the requirements of being a full-time job as a student?
-If our goals are to make sure the young performers are productive in rehearsal, are getting enough sleep to stay healthy, have enough time to keep up with their school work, and put on the best production possible…
How late should rehearsals go each night?
How many hours per week should we require young people rehearse?
-How do you set up boundaries, guidelines and procedures to ensure positive experiences for young performers when working with professional directors, production staff, and adult actors who may not be trained educators?
-What are the ethics of asking young people to pay to have this experience (which some companies do)? What are the ethics of paying the adult actors to be in the show, but not the youth?
-How do we help the young people navigate the pressure of doing theater in a professional environment?
-How can you assess the experience and artistic growth of the young people who are in the production?
What do I do when I am faced with these deep questions regarding the practice of theater for young audiences? I turn to my colleagues at TYA/USA to cull their experience, wisdom, successes, and failures to begin a discussion about the ethics and best practices of age appropriate casting. The wonderful blog committee at TYA/USA has sent out invitations to many of our friends and colleagues to write a blog post around this topic.
-We are excited to share success stories and unique strategies.
-We also want to hear from colleagues with failures and horror stories on these topics as well so we can all learn from others.
-We also want to hear more questions and challenges to the field about this issue that have come up in other companies.
The goal of these discussions is to support the high quality productions on our professional stages, while providing a supportive, positive experience for young actors. (Note: This is NOT a discussion about IF you should do age appropriate casting. While a worthy discussion, this blog is focusing on best practices for theaters who do cast young performers in professional productions).
So keep your eyes peeled on this spot to read blog posts about this topic. And if you want to join the conversation, feel free to email me your questions or even your blog post of 500-1000 words around this topic. We love to hear a wide range of voices on this topic. We’ll keep this blog conversation going for a month or so.