Since First Stage’s inception 28 years ago, we have used young performers, or YPs, in our professional theater productions. It is a critical component of who we are and a direct reflection of our mission to “transform lives through theater.” I sat down to talk about First Stage’s approach to age appropriate casting with Artistic Director, Jeff Frank; Company Manager, Jeff Schaetzke; and Academy Director, Jenn Adams.
To start with, it’s important to understand why age appropriate casting is so important to us. Our commitment to age appropriate casting helps us achieve our pursuit to produce the best artistic pieces we can, crafting productions that connect deeply with our audience – and seeing young people on stage is part of that depth and connection. Jeff Frank notes, “There is a truth and honesty that imbues all of our work. For example, June B. Jones is a rough character to love – loud and obnoxious – and when played by an adult, it continues to be a really hard sell. But when played by a child, you see the innocence and fragility of the character and audiences get a better sense of who that child is. I have seen adult actors play young people with integrity and truth over the years, but there is a tendency often in the acting of the plays and sometimes in the writing of the plays, to create caricatures which fail to respect the intelligence of the character or the audience.” Jenn adds, “So everything about a YP performing young characters is real and passionate and authentic in a way that resonates with our audiences more.”
For First Stage’s 2014-2015 season of six main stage productions as part of our Family Series and two First Steps productions for our preschool audiences, 558 young people participated in general auditions, with 333 being called back for specific shows, and ultimately 172 YPs cast (we double cast the YPs for all of our shows). Our Theater Academy was started in 1993 to foster personal development and to train YPs to be on our main stage, however you don’t have to be an Academy student to audition for a production at First Stage. The Academy’s motto is: Life Skills through Stage Skills. One of the hallmarks of the program is that we work to cultivate an environment where young people feel comfortable taking the kinds of risks needed to develop as people and as artists. Not all of our students want to be on stage, but all of our students gain empathy and confidence, and become better problem solvers, communicators, collaborators and critical thinkers. For those students who do want to be in a show, we want them to be prepared for the challenge. Jenn explains, “We aim to emphasize those tools students need to thrive on stage. We always start by helping a student be grounded, calm, confident and in the moment. We work with that from three-years-old till they graduate our program after high school.” The experience of preparing to be on stage supports the development of life skills – students are realizing what it means to be in rehearsal, what behavior is expected, what their homework is as an actor, and that you’re only going to get as much out of an experience as what you put in. The next step of being cast in a production at First Stage and working beside professional actors is looked at as a continuation of a YP’s training.
Even with our Academy in place and 28 seasons worth of age appropriate casting under our belt, auditioning is an extensive process and as Jeff Schaetzke mentions, “There is an added level of patience and encouragement in the audition process. Just getting from the car to the front door, and then into the audition room can be extremely frightening and we don’t want it to be; we want the audition experience to be the same welcoming experience students have in the Academy.” Jenn continues, “We want students to feel excited, confident and prepared – and we strive to do whatever we can to help achieve that.” We look at the audition experience like a workshop – students are brought in as a group, we warm them up, explain what it means to introduce your piece, and give them guidance throughout the process. Students watch each other’s work and give support to their peers in the room with them. We then offer the opportunity for feedback via phone, email or in person after the audition. Throughout the audition process we work to prepare students, give them a chance to succeed in the audition, and then a chance to reflect – continuing the training process of life skills through stage skills. We know getting cast in a main stage production is a life changing experience for a child, and we strive to prepare them so they are ready, socially and emotionally as artists. There are a lot of conversations between casting and Academy – Jenn mentions, “We are constantly in communication about students’ demeanor in class and their work ethic that support the promise they showed in the audition. I appreciate when casting comes and asks us about our students, because we know them on a really deep and personal level.”
Once a YP is cast they are involved in the rehearsal process, working side by side with professional actors, and the key to what we do is that it isn’t any different than a rehearsal process with only adult professional actors. Jeff Schaetzke adds, “We instill YPs with the confidence that they are equals by bringing them in the weekend before rehearsal officially begins so they own the room and they don’t feel like they are coming into something foreign, but this is their space they share with the adults.” Once the adult actors join the YPs in rehearsal they are the role models for all things in the room, and we look to them to demonstrate how to be a professional both on and off the stage. They take on a mentorship role and the YPs certainly look up to the adult actors. But the giving and taking goes both ways, and Jeff Frank shares, “The adult actors remember how they were when they first got into the business and how exciting the process of creating theater is when watching the YPs early on, wide-eyed and excited. It’s a gift.” Jenn adds, “There is a joy in our rehearsal process that can’t be substituted. The YPs question, they are excited, they are curious and honest – just like our TYA audiences are – and they are that way naturally and it’s beautiful to watch them bring that out in the adults.” As a director working with YPs, Jeff Frank believes, “You must speak honestly and respectfully with these young actors. They’re really smart and you have to trust them. What you’re going to get in return is that open heart and open mind. Don’t condescend, but expect. Let’s not settle for pretty good, let’s aspire to greatness – to excellence – to do the best on and off the stage. We don’t often enough have the opportunity in our lives to pursue excellence, a chance to be part of something really great. When opportunities come in our lives, we have to embrace them.”
Now what about the logistics of casting 172 YPs every season? Here is an abbreviated list of the best practices First Stage implements:
- Have a really terrific Stage Management team.
- Students ages 8 – 18 can audition to be a YP in a First Stage production.
- Information must be readily available that outlines the audition process and serves as a guide for making the audition experience positive for the student. This includes: clear communication of the season and casting needs for the season, expectations of YPs once cast, rehearsal schedule, performance commitment and how this impacts school days, expectations for the entire family (because this is a commitment the entire family is making, not just the YP). Scripts should also be made available ahead of time so students have time to familiarize themselves with the reading prior to the audition.
- Communication is key – between families and schools – so the experience is positive for everyone involved. Before rehearsals begin, we hold a Parent Meeting where we clearly outline the rules and customs followed by the people who work in the theater and at First Stage. Parents go through the Young Performer Professional Protocol guide, where FAQs for before rehearsal begins, during rehearsal, during tech rehearsals and during performances are examined.
- Parents are given a YP permission form that must be reviewed and signed by their child’s school teacher and principal prior to the first rehearsal, agreeing to allow the YP to miss school for performances, and recognizing it is the YP’s responsibility to keep up with their school work throughout the entirety of the show.
- Rehearsals run for four weeks, which includes one week of tech. Rehearsals are from 4:00-8:30pm, Tuesdays-Fridays (with a 20 minute dinner break in addition to standard Equity breaks), and from 10:00am-1:30pm and 2:30-6:00pm on Saturdays and Sundays. With double casting, YPs rehearse approximately 15 hours per week alternating rehearsals with each cast rehearsing every other day. Show schedules vary, but there are generally two school performances each day (Tuesdays-Fridays) throughout the run, and two public performances each Saturday and Sunday throughout the run. There are occasional evening public shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. YPs perform in approximately six shows per week.
- Train YPs properly. The experience and individual attention students receive in our Academy help them become great performers and wonderful people to work with. Jenn notes, “Others talk about ‘child wranglers,’ but we believe if students are trained properly and treated with respect, they don’t need a wrangler – they are a performer. They may need different guidance, but they are part of the team, they are not a novelty or second to the adults.”
- What about public criticism through reviews? Jeff Frank comments, “From my perspective, a YP’s training in rehearsal and in the Academy has prepared them to hear people’s thoughts on their work without taking it personally. However, we also remind them that while a critic is entitled to their opinion, the actors need to trust in themselves and in the work they have done with the director – and they shouldn’t allow a critic’s thoughts – be they positive or negative – to alter their performances.”
FIRST STAGE Since 1987, First Stage has grown to become one of the nation’s most acclaimed children’s theaters and the second largest theater company in Milwaukee. First Stage touches hearts and transforms lives through professional theater productions that engage, enlighten and entertain. Committed to new play development, First Stage has presented nearly 50 world premieres in its history and has collaborated with renowned artists including Harry Connick Jr. and Stephen Schwartz, and award-winning authors Lois Lowry and Cornelia Funke. Its Theater Academy, teaching life skills through stage skills, is the largest theater training program of its kind in the nation. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-in-education programming, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs promote active learning in our schools and our community, serving over 20,000 children each year.