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On Season Selections and Casting

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Welcome to Teaching Theatre, a podcast about the practice and pedagogy of theatre education produced for HowRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, playwright and theatre professor Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.

Welcome back to Teaching Theatre, a podcast series on theatre pedagogy hosted by HowlRound. With more emphasis being put on collaboration, inclusion, and student buy-in, I wanted to look at how departments are exploring these issues in the context of season planning and casting. Today we’re going to do a deep dive into the practices that have been put in place at the University of Florida. Joining me today is Dr. Colleen Rua, the interim associate director and assistant professor of theatre in the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of Florida. Her primary area of research focuses on Latin American and US Latinx theatre. Colleen, thank you so much for joining me today and for your willingness to share the practices put in place at your institution.

Colleen Rua: Thank you, Elyzabeth. I’m happy to be here.

Elyzabeth: So, let’s start off with talking a little bit about what you do there at the University of Florida and the role that you play in season planning and casting.

Colleen: Sure. Specifically to season planning and casting, I am currently chair of our season planning committee, and I also direct productions regularly in the School of Theatre and Dance. So I am both chair of that committee and a director within our season.

Are all of our students being well-served in their curricular needs through producing a particular script?

Elyzabeth: Awesome. So, what kind of structures are in place to guide your season planning process?

Colleen: Sure. So we have a season planning committee. Our season planning committee is comprised of faculty and students, so I chair the committee; our producing director, Jenny Goelz, is a part of the committee; then we have faculty representing the different areas of our school, and we have students representing the different degree programs in the school. So as it turns out, in this iteration of our committee, but this is typically the number is in the world of ten, and it’s balanced between student and faculty representatives. So that committee meets, we convene in early September, and then we meet every other week for the entire academic year or almost the entire academic year. Our process is that we put out a call, the three directors of the school—which would be the school director, me as the interim associate director, and our producing director—come together to put together the charge for the committee.

That charge is communicated to the committee at that first meeting. Then the committee works on some language that has been drafted by the directors, works on some language for the call for proposals. That call for proposals goes out to the entire community, so anyone in the community can propose a script. Then we’ve got our Google Drive, where folks can propose and drop their scripts that they’re proposing, and the committee reviews the scripts. We read in two teams so that we can move through what is typically a large number of scripts that comes through. We read in two teams, and at each of our meetings every other week, we discuss each of the selections that came through, and then we vote. We have a long list to start, and then we vote to move to a shorter list.

Once we’ve gotten to a short list for both a musical—we produce one musical theatre selection a year—and the non-musical plays, which comprise the rest of our theatre part of the season, we also have offerings and dance for the season. Once we’ve shortlisted those two things, then the producing director, along with the director of the school, look at all of the other considerations in terms of what’s feasible around resources like the calendar or budgetary resources, et cetera. The producing director will come back to the committee with a proposed Season A and Season B, and then the committee votes on which of those to move forward with. Then that goes to the entire faculty for a vote, and then that season is communicated to the community, and we’re actually planning two years in advance. So right now we’re planning the ’25-26 season.

Elyzabeth: Oh, wow. What are the things that you take into consideration when you think about season planning?

Colleen: In putting together the call, both the charge for the committee and the call for proposals, we really are looking at connecting the charge to the school’s mission and vision. Then that becomes part of the call for proposals. So for example, three points or key sections in which we have, yes, connected the charge to the mission of the school or the vision of the school this time around are that we’re asking for scripts that speak to the idea of building communities grounded in fierce solidarity and courageous vulnerability. We prioritize inclusive representation in terms of intersectionality and identity. Also, in terms of, are all of our students being well-served in their curricular needs through producing a particular script? So design and production students, are they well served by this script? Performance students, are they well served by the script? Are the selections meeting learning outcomes, skills that we’re hoping that students will acquire in their time here or rehearse in their time here? And we also understand that no script is perfect, but some will speak to the charge more urgently than others.

Elyzabeth: So when you’re considering your season planning and the plays that you select, how much do you take the students in your program into consideration, specifically castability? Do you have the students who can play those parts?

Colleen: Yeah. When the committee is reviewing scripts and proposals, we have an initial rubric that we look at or that we complete to start the conversation. That includes things like, “Is there a complete proposal and a complete script? If it’s the musical theatre selection, is it from the time period and in the style that we’re looking at?” Which feel like really fundamental basic questions. Also, in that rubric of very fundamental things that we need to have to move forward is, can this play be cast from our student population? The proposal and script, are they embracing wide conceptions of intersectionality and identity? And is it inclusive in terms of participation of all students’ design production, performers, et cetera? So that is a fundamental question around casting, and if it can be cast by our student population, that’s a fundamental question that we engage with on the committee.

In looking at our proposal form, I also wanted to add, I’m reviewing it here. We also have questions for folks who are proposing. We ask them to provide a breakdown of roles that can be played by any gender, male presenting roles, female presenting roles, roles for gender non-conforming or trans people, ensemble roles. Yes. So in thinking about castability, we’re really asking both the committee and folks proposing to consider our student population.

Elyzabeth: I love what you were saying in terms of making sure that there was plenty of representation in the play, which brings me to my next question. How do you make space for trans and non-binary students in that casting process, and how does that impact how you select shows that you produce?

Colleen: So I think a couple of ways that we’re working toward trans representation in our season are, one, looking at plays in which playwrights welcome any gender for a particular role. So, we recently did a staged reading in November of a play called The Day the Music Came Back by Alvaro Rios. There are eight characters which can be played by any person, person of any gender, any ethnicity, any race, any ability, et cetera. So I think finding plays and playwrights that are representing trans people or offering space for people to be in roles is important. So I hope that we will continue to find scripts that allow for trans representation, both within casting and by trans playwrights. Also, that scripts that allow for flexibility in casting particular characters, that particular characters can be played by all different kinds of people. We also recently did a production of The Prom, and there was trans representation and gender-nonconforming representation in that production. So I think we are still working toward representation of trans people, and I hope that we will continue to do that good work.

The students just really have a lot to offer in terms of assessing scripts, offering feedback on scripts, really thinking about how a season would look overall, how their four years—sometimes five years—here will look, if the season we’re working on how that fits into what came before, what might come after. So it’s just super important for their voices to be in the room.

Elyzabeth: That sounds amazing. I love how intentional that you are being as you’re looking at potential projects for your students. How important do you feel it is to include students in season planning?

Colleen: So important. It’s probably the most important thing in terms of season planning because our students, it is a part of their curriculum. They’re also really on the pulse of what’s happening in theatre right now, and what scripts are out there, and what is speaking to them, to their lives, to their generation. Also, really thinking about... I think they’re really mindful about what, in the season, can complement what’s happening in the classroom and how what’s happening in the classroom can complement this season. So I think our season planning committee is really collaborative in terms of faculty and student representation, the conversations, the dialogue that happened there. The students just really have a lot to offer in terms of assessing scripts, offering feedback on scripts, really thinking about how a season would look overall, how their four years—sometimes five years—here will look, if the season we’re working on how that fits into what came before, what might come after. So it’s just super important for their voices to be in the room.

Elyzabeth: What role do your students play in selecting your season?

Colleen: Sure. So anyone in the community can propose a script. So often, students are proposing, and then the student members of the season planning committee represent their constituencies on the committee. So they’ll be in conversation with folks who are proposing, letting folks know what things are under consideration. All of our season planning minutes are posted and accessible. There’s nothing secretive about the season planning committee. Everything’s transparent. Then students who are on the committee, students and faculty, all have an equal vote on the committee. So students are voting for scripts to either move forward or to be put on a list for consideration at a later time if they’re not right in this moment. Yeah, so students and faculty have equal part in the voting and discussion, and the committee.

Elyzabeth: Are all of the students allowed to vote, or are there students who are specifically on a committee?

Colleen: Yes. So there are representatives from each degree program on the committee. So there’ll be one student from each degree program that sits on the committee, and they vote.

Elyzabeth: How are those students selected?

Colleen: Those students express interest. So in the spring, we’ll have a student interest form that goes out to the community, asking students, “Hey, which of these committees might you be interested in?” And students will self-identify as having an interest in the season planning committee. Then maybe we’ll look at if someone has had that opportunity before. Perhaps another student should have an opportunity this time. Maybe if a student is in their third or fourth year, they may have a good understanding of how the process has worked in the past or maybe have been mentored by a student that came before them. So yeah, they self-identify, and then we see how that all matches up.

Elyzabeth: So the rehearsal process can be very intimate, and it’s important to create a safe space. Our department has just instituted new guidelines for casting that includes ensuring that students are in good standing with our Title IX office. Does your program have things in place to create a safe space for students during that rehearsal process?

Colleen: It’s really interesting. We don’t have a process of ensuring that students are in good standing with the Title IX office, but that’s really interesting that that’s happening in your department. Yeah, some things that we do to ensure a safe space is, first, that when students are considering auditioning, they are provided with character breakdowns and an intimacy and violence dossier that is created by our school director, Tiza Garland, who is also our violence and intimacy coordinator. So all of that information, along with content advisories or content disclosures, are all provided in advance, along with access to a full script and a full rehearsal and performance schedule. So students hopefully understand what the content of the script is, what the expectations are around scheduling. In terms of the violence and intimacy dossier, there is a very detailed breakdown in a particular script:On page ten, it calls for this action; and then is that action negotiable or not?” And the director will respond to the violence and intimacy dossier before it is published to the community to say, “This kiss on page ten is non-negotiable in terms of the plot and what has to happen. This kiss has to happen.” Or, “This is negotiable. There needs to be an action of intimacy or warmth or love that happens on page ten, but it does not have to be a kiss.” So that very detailed breakdown is there, and students have a real understanding of what the expectations are.

There’s also, in terms of safe space or maybe accessible space, that personally I like to do, which is for an audition, offer accommodation for time. So if the call is, you have two minutes to do your monologue or monologues, I like to offer accommodation for time because not everyone has equal access to time. There was, a few years ago, a This American Life piece called “Time Bandit” that featured Jerome Ellis, a musician who talks about access to time. That was really impactful. So since listening to that, I try to allow for, or I do allow for, accommodating time for folks who might need more flexibility on time with an audition.

Elyzabeth: What exactly do you mean by that? Giving them more time to prepare or giving them more time to perform?

Colleen: Oh yeah. So in that specific instance, it would be more time to perform. So if two minutes doesn’t work for a particular student in terms of accessibility, then maybe they need three minutes or maybe they need three and a half minutes, and that’s something that we can arrange for.

Elyzabeth: Oh, interesting.

I just really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. I love hearing about all of these things that you’re doing to make the season selection process, plus the casting process, much more equitable and more accessible to students, giving them a bit more agency, which I think also leads to more investment and buy-in overall. You guys are doing great work down there. Thank you so much for joining me.

Colleen: Thank you, Elyzabeth. I appreciate it.

Elyzabeth: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show and other HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com. Submit your ideas to this digital commons.

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