Having spent the better part of the last ten years actively working in theatre education, I have witnessed first hand more methods than I can count for teaching theatre to youth. I have worked with high school teachers who do not allow their younger students to be onstage until they have reached upperclassmen status with two years of theatre classes under their belt. I have also worked with teachers who have no problems casting freshmen as the leads in their spring musicals. I have worked with college productions where student casts were supplemented with professional actors, and I have worked with professional theatres who are most interested in placing students in production roles where they have the most room to grow as opposed to what might seem the perfect fit. What do students, parents, and administrators expect of a high school production? What is expected of students who come to learn about drama at a professional theatre? Should we be more focused on what the end result is, or the growth the child is making along the way?
A public school theatre teacher may have the easiest time defending their answers to these questions. Most theatre students have their first introduction to the art within the walls of a middle, or high school classroom. In this safe space, they are able to learn the basics in a relatively low-risk environment. In my experience, the majority of teachers work to find the balance between giving each child the opportunity to grow and putting on a quality production. Obviously, the pressure is there to put on an impressive show, but it is understood by faculty and (most) parents that what matters most is that students learn from the experience.
We as educators understand what a significant learning opportunity that a role in a production plays for our students. Whether working onstage or off, students are learning communication skills, how to work in a group, humility, how to cope with pressure and work on a deadline, and so much more.
The issue arises when that learning environment focuses too heavily on the product over the process. In many professional theatre education programs, as well as some school programs, the pressure for a top-notch production overshadows the educational aspect. This can take many forms: casting the same talented students as the leads in every production, taking work away from technical theatre students to get it finished faster for the sake of keeping things running smoothly, or turning down novice actors in favor of more experienced students simply to avoid the extra work of teaching them basics, such as projection and blocking. Several institutions and departments receive high praise for their quality productions, but are the students involved being given the best possible learning experience?
A fine balance between the process and the final product is a difficult thing to strike. It requires so much more effort of us as educators to give each student the maximum opportunity for development. We may need to put in the extra work to teach a new student how to focus and stay in character or we may need to give our new stage manager bit of extra coaching in calling cues before we just take over and do it ourselves. In a world where all STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) subjects now include a “student growth” component to their yearly assessments, why aren’t we applying this to the students in our productions as well?
Since my years as a public school teacher, I have crossed over into the world of arts education administration. Along with helping my teaching artists develop and grow, I also teach my own acting and production classes. It is here that I have noticed a significant spike in the number of programs similar to my own that focus heavily on the final product at the sacrifice of the learning experience. I regularly watch directors of community youth performances choose the child who has the best voice, the best look, and that they’ve worked with for the last three years over the new student who has the same talent without the polish. It is something that I have actively strived to push against in my current role.
There is a slight stigma attached to paid acting classes and productions where parents and students expect these programs to turn their students into instant professionals, without taking into account the student’s current level and capabilities. Before the start of each production class I teach, I start with a conversation for students to remind them that they are here to learn and improve. I make it clear that to me, their experience is so much more important than the outcome of our production. Often times my decisions are met with questions, and sometimes frustrations from parents and students alike. In each case, I remind all parties of my duty as an educator to create an environment conducive to growth, not necessarily stardom.
Last year, I had the opportunity to work with a wonderfully talented teen girl who was a director’s dream. She easily had all of the talent required for the lead. I chose to cast her in a supporting role. Later, she respectfully questioned my casting decision. I told her I was aware of her talents and ability to handle the starring role, and I wanted to give her the opportunity to prove herself as an ensemble member as well. We worked to stretch her out of her comfort zone to create a juxtaposition between her and the student cast in the lead role. Afterward, she and her father thanked me for the opportunity.
Obviously all student/parent interactions don’t always go that smoothly, but it is our job as educators to prepare our students for real life. In the end, no one will care who starred in that production of Pippin twenty years from now. They will remember that you gave them the opportunity to grow as an artist and as an individual. Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed those who put their students and their process first end up with an amazing product in the end.