"Audition for the show, not the role" - Stephanie Maysonave, to thousands of parents and students over the past decade.
This post is mostly for my students. Professional actors can be a bit more choosy when it comes to their projects but in the world of youth theatre, it's best not to hang your hopes on the lead role. And here's why.
There's only one Annie. Or Elle Woods. And there are often times 50-100 kids auditioning for that role. So heading into that audition determined to get the lead will most likely have disastrous results. There are tears. There are friendships ruined. There are uncomfortable conversations with parents who demand that the director recast the show...
DIRECTOR: Let me get this straight. You're telling me that I should call the 3rd grader that has been cast as Alice and tell her she is no longer cast as Alice because I've given that role to your daughter? That's what you're asking me to do right now?
DIRECTOR: ...um, no.
But most importantly, getting your hopes up for one role is a sure fire way to suck the joy out of the situation. Auditioning for lead roles is exhausting! No matter how talented you are, there is no way that you're the right actor to play every lead. The same actor should not be playing Tevye, Usnavi, Danny, and Tommy (Fiddler, In the Heights, Grease, and Tommy for the newbies). So heading into an audition dead-set on getting the lead role can lead to total disappointment. And that's no way to start rehearsals. So here's what I recommend.
Parents, do what you can to promote the idea of the "show" over the "role". "This show is so amazing with such great ensemble parts!", "Any part will be so much fun" or "If you get a part in the chorus, you'll be dancing in almost every scene!" are all good ways to pump up your kid for auditions. This is a really big deal. For people outside of the theatre, the idea of a chorus part seems like it's less important than a lead role. "My kid is playing a villager in Beauty and the Beast so what does that mean?". That means your child is responsible for creating a character on their own - they often don't even have names. These kids need to come up with a story. So they are the baker in the village where Belle lives. Awesome! How do they feel about baking? Do they like Belle? Do they secretly wish they could give up a life of baking to become an artist? Encourage your child to think about their parts this way. In the chorus your child will be responsible for learning complex harmonies. For filling scenes with life without using their words. Your child will be silent in most scenes but still have to push the action forward. They will sing and dance and grow as actors. But more that that, as chorus members, they are essential to the story. So if your child sees their name on a cast list next to a chorus role, you tell them they are in for a lot of work! And they should be so proud of what they get to contribute to the story.
"I only want to play the lead" - thousands of extremely talented kids I've encountered over the years.
And I ask them, "Why????". Most of the kids I get to work with are incredibly talented. They all play the leads in their school plays and they all intend to go on to win Tony and Academy Awards in the not too distant future. But to get a Tony Award on Broadway, you're probably going to have to act in the chorus on Broadway for awhile. Very few people get swept up from high school to star in a movie or a show and go on to fame and fortune without paying some dues. So these kids that only perform as leads in their youth miss out on learning the very important skills one needs to be in the chorus. They often don't have to dance as much or come up with character choices on their own. They lack the ability to give focus on stage because they're so used to taking focus. Being in the ensemble, or chorus, of a show also helps these young talented performers learn about humility. They understand what it's like to share a dressing room with a dozen kids, what it's like to bow first in the curtain call, what it's like to support your fellow cast members as they receive the standing ovation. These are very important experiences and they are best had at a young age before their performer ego grows to an unhealthy size. I honestly cannot stress the value of humility enough and will probably dedicate an entire blog post to it soon.
And lastly, if a young performer auditions for a show and doesn't get the lead role, then they were not the best person for the role. Thems the breaks. Either they didn't sing or act the part as well as someone else, they were too tall to play Annie, or sometimes, they were such a great dancer that we needed them to play another role! But by dropping out of the show, they are missing an opportunity to GROW! I worked with a young actor who auditioned for several productions that I directed and every time she didn't get the lead, she dropped out of the show. Her mother told me that she didn't want to waste time/money if she wasn't a lead in the show. I finally told the mother that this young girl, while talented, did not have the acting chops she needed to play a lead role. And by dropping out of the shows, she was missing a great opportunity to grow as a performer! That's how you learn to act/dance/sing! By being in the chorus. So it always seems so silly to me to drop out of a production because you didn't get the lead. Do you think next year you will have improved on your own and will magically get the lead role?? Probably not. Better to learn on this production and show that you're a hard worker and a team player and try again next year - after wowing your director with your excellent work ethic (another topic that will be discussed at length at another time).
And that idea of working hard to get better is kind of true for life, not just theatre. If you're not where you want to be in sports, academics, work, etc, then you work harder and try again. Letting our children audition for shows and drop out when they don't get the part that they want sends a really bad message. It says that the lead role is the only one worth having - which is ridiculous - and that if you don't get your way, you can quit. Many of the parents who let their children drop out of shows would never think about letting their child quit soccer or baseball if they weren't playing the position they wanted. Because they understand that there is a commitment to the team in the world of sports.
Well, there's a commitment to the team in theatre. A huge commitment. These kids are being asked to take risks and be incredibly vulnerable on stage in front of an audience. That is so brave! So we need to support them. And help them understand that every role is important. And by auditioning for a show, they are entering a commitment to their fellow cast members.
I, myself, am a chorus performer. I spend most of my time directing, but when I do occasionally appear in a musical, I am a member of the chorus. Mostly because I'm terrified to sing by myself! So as a chorus performer, I can tell you that it is one of the most rewarding and challenging roles out there. The chorus is the heart of the production and anyone should be proud to call themselves a member of that ensemble.
I hope that I've helped inspire some young performers to look at auditions differently and some parents to encourage their performers to consider the "show", not the "role".