Thursday, May 23, 2019

Age Appropriate Casting: A Discussion about Challenges, Ethics, and Best Practices

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.


2014 production of Ramona Quimby

2014 production of Ramona Quimby

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?


2014 Production of A Christmas Story

2014 Production of A Christmas Story

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.



2014 Production of A Wrinkle in Time

2014 Production of A Wrinkle in Time


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    0 Response

    1. Gillian McNally

      Really good questions Brian. This was something we had to deeply consider when I worked at People’s Light. We went above and beyond: providing tutors and transportation for the young people cast in the show. Overall, I think it was an incredible experience for the young people–however, it was VERY difficult to arrange school responsibilities with a very busy rehearsal schedule. I’m not sure there was a healthy balance of sleep/work. I think you have to have young people and families willing to take on a huge challenge to make it work. Also when you cast young people in main stage shows, they are up for public criticism through reviews. How do you prepare them for this part of the process?

    2. My experience is a little different. I was hired to build a Theatre Program at a public High School. They had gone through 4 Theatre teachers in almost as many years. The first year I was there the school had one Drama class with 13 students in it. They didn’t know stage left from right and had no interest in learning it. Because that’s how they thought it was done. The school had been doing big musicals year after year and lost large sums of money every time. The program was not growing, it was almost dead. Things had to change if a program was to be built. The students had to learn about the theater and understand it in order to love it. So I began developing talent and focusing on producing high quality shows. Two years later I was teaching 5 full classes of students. Give the students responsibilities and instruct them about the fundamentals and a program will flourish. No successful sport program would neglect developing a history and training it’s players thoroughly. But it happens all the time with Theatre programs. With trained students we rehearse for 25 days, two hours a day. Only after school, never on weekends. Then four polished shows are performed the 6th week. No “hell week” or last minute chaos. Audiences should come away from a High School performance saying it was as good or better than a College show. High expectations and high standards. Hard work and thorough planning. Trained students with a passion for perfection are what works. Students should see the program as a serious endeavor not a goof off. Kids will pick Theatre over a sport if they see that the respect is earned. No need to hire professional actors to play leads. What’s the point of that? The football team doesn’t bring in Tom Brady or other pro players, why should Theatre programs? Teach the students and it will be a joy to produce and direct plays. They will learn more than theatre too.

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