Scary Stage Mom Stories: Part 2

I took a deep breath and hit send.  There. The cast list was posted.  I let out my breath and tried to ignore the anxious butterflies in my tummy.  Posting the cast list is always so nerve-wracking.  Especially this one since I was at a new school, working with these kids for the first time.  They didn't know me, or trust me yet, so I was worried that I would hear from some parents with questions or concerns.  I knew that in the past, the director of these school shows gave the lead roles to older students, the 8th graders, but I did explain to the parents in our meeting that we would be doing things differently this time around.  Our belief is that the best person for the part gets cast, regardless of age or even gender.  If two children are equally capable of performing the role, I generally resort to seniority but only if it's a dead tie for the role.  I was worried that these parents might be disappointed with the casting since, after much deliberation and discussion with my creative team, we decided to give the lead role to an incredibly talented 5th grader.  
Putting my concerns out of my mind, I closed up my computer and head out the door to grab Starbucks before rehearsal.  Just as I was taking my first glorious sip of my Chai Latte, my phone rang.  It was a number I didn't recognize.  I braced myself and answered.
PARENT:  Hi! I just saw the cast list and I think there must be some mistake...
DIRECTOR: Oh?
PARENT:  Well, the girl playing Dorothy is a 5th grader and the girl playing the Scarecrow, well, my daughter says she didn't even want a speaking role, and I think you must have made a mistake.
DIRECTOR: Let me just pull up the list here on my phone...no, it's correct.
PARENT 1:  Really??  Because if that's the case, you're going to have a lot of these 8th grade girls who are going to drop out.  This is ridiculous.  They have been doing this show for the past four years and have worked so hard.  I mean, my daughter has been dancing competitively for years and now she's just in the ensemble?  She would have to drop out of  a dance class in order to come to rehearsals and it's just not worth it.  And these girls are heartbroken.  I mean, seriously.  We are all just shocked.  And if the kids are so shocked, don't you think that you have made some sort of mistake?  You only auditioned them for a few hours; how could you possibly have seen everything you needed to in that amount of time?  I don't think there is any way that we will be able to participate in this production.

I listen.  I assure her that there is plenty for the actors to do in the ensemble. I explain that our very best dancers were cast in the ensemble since they are the ones who will be featured in the musical numbers.  I remain calm.  I do not interrupt.  I let her voice all of her concerns without comment until she says "I mean that tiny little girl you cast as the lead, with her squeaky little voice" to which I responded:
DIRECTOR:  "Mam, I will listen to your concerns about your child, I will listen to the concerns voiced to you from the other parents, I will even listen to you questioning my methods and abilities as a director, but I must ask that you absolutely refrain from speaking about any of the other children cast in my production.  I am going to hang up now."
I was livid and heartbroken.  I pictured the little girl, hearing she was cast as Dorothy, lighting up with joy and pride.  Then I pictured her fellow castmates, these 8th graders she was so looking forward to working with and desperately trying to impress, dropping out of the production because they couldn't support my decision to cast her in the lead role.  
I sat in front of that Starbuck for forty minutes, answering irate phone calls and emails.  One mother sent me an email and reprimanded me for letting her daughter think she would get the lead role.  Indeed her daughter was a top contender for the role of Dorothy, that is why we called her back to sing and read for the part several times.  I very much wanted to cast her, she was a little older and I could tell she really wanted the role.  But in the end, the girl we cast, our 5th grader, sang it beautifully and she was just the best for the part.  So when this mother emailed me and told me: 
PARENT 2: "I am so disappointed in your casting process.  It is simply unkind to repeatedly call [my daughter] for Dorothy call backs, far more than any other student, watch her work her but off in singing, dancing and acting, then give her a chorus role. The lovely young lady who was cast as Dorothy was a surprise to everyone. Not only did she not want the role, publicly at least, but there is common agreement among your young cast that she is neither senior nor wildly talented.  If my daughter is not talented she never should have been called up repeated for Dorothy or any other major role before an audience of her peers. If she doesn't have the talent of stars actors, she and the others never should have been given the impression that she does.  I repeat this is simply unkind. It is no consolation to be called a triple threat when you and everyone else knows someone with lesser talent was given a role you worked hard for. I hope you review your casting process for future performances."  
I broke down.  I read this email through tears.  I know I talk a big game about getting a thick skin but when casting is involved, I can be an emotional mess.  I know how much it hurts to work your butt off for a role and not get it.  I hate the thought that I gave this poor actress any false hope.  But I also can't stand the idea that these poor kids who have been cast in their dream roles were being bullied and disrespected by adults and children alike because of the cast list.  
I called the boss and talked about my concerns, about the emails, about the severe backlash.  I asked if he thought I should drop this project - I was genuinely concerned that my presence would be a negative influence on this production, on this community.  I felt confident about my casting decisions but had been so beaten up with the outpouring of furious responses that I didn't know if I was up for this particular challenge.  My boss told me that I was the only one who could take this on and that only by seeing this project through, would I be able to get over this.
He was right.
About 8 students dropped out of this production.  In addition to the immediate negative feedback I received, I also began to hear some extremely positive feedback from a large portion of parents and people from the community, grateful that their kids were given an opportunity to perform.  As rehearsals continued, the cast and parents learned to trust me and I started to have fun again.  The production was a huge success.  I even had Parent 2 approach me after closing and compliment my casting decisions.  And when our Dorothy belted out the last notes of "Home" every night, she was met with a standing ovation.  I have never been prouder of any performer than I am of that sweet girl.  She had students come up to her in the halls and demand that she drop out of the show, she was told to her face that she wasn't good enough for the role, she was bullied and mocked for months but she stuck with it and turned out a stunning performance.  
Looking back on this, I would have done some things differently.  I was over confident and a little naive.  I had been working with the same schools, the same students, for years and I had forgotten what it was like to work with new parents.  I should have shown my work a bit more.  I should have better prepared them for the casting process.  I should have worked with the school to make sure these young performers were shielded from the aftermath.  
This production was by far the most extreme negative reactions from parents that I have ever received.  But in the end, it was incredibly rewarding.  Seeing the community come together and give support to this production was great.  And I think everyone learned something in the process.
Dream Big.
Steph