We've all been there. You read a play and immediately start casting it in your mind. If you've been teaching in the same place for a while and you're lucky, you have a core group of devoted students who come back for each play, no matter what you decide to produce. They know you and how you prefer to work, and you know their capabilities. But does that influence your casting? Should it?
In my opinion, the answer is both yes and no. I usually won't choose a show if I know I don't have the talent to cast it. Often in middle school, this translates as too many male roles to fill. Haven't we all been in an audition where we need six girls and eight boys, and we are looking at an auditorium full of 40 eager girls and two boys?
That being said, casting rarely goes the way I pictured it when deciding on the play. Sometimes students who I thought would be perfect for a role are lacking that certain something that makes their casting seem inevitable. By the same token, sometimes a student will come along and blow my interpretation and ideas for a character out of the water. It’s important that we are open to this. While it can be hard to see possibilities outside of what we pictured, it definitely can work. Years ago, I was casting “Once On This Island” and had pictured the role of Asaka as it had been in the original cast; zaftig, earthy, over-the-top. No one like this walked in to audition. I ended up casting a tiny girl who looked more like a fairy than a force of nature, and it brought a whole different feel to the role.
Choosing to cast someone outside of your core group in a lead role can seem like an insult to students who feel like they’ve “earned it” simply by being an upperclassman, or by taking your class. I will admit to this sort of thinking when I was a student myself, but it is essential to do what you feel is best for your production and program, even if it means some students will be upset. It’s not a bad idea to have another faculty member on hand at auditions, just in case your fairness is called into question. It’s also vital to continually draw new people into your program. They will bring fresh ideas and attract new people to your shows. In addition, never underestimate or downplay how important crew members are, and encourage students who were set on a role to be involved in other ways if they are not cast. I have seen students discover their passion for the technical side of theater in this very way.
In summary, always involve your loyal students and keep them working, but also be open to new ideas and fresh faces. They may become part of your new “core,” and bring exactly what your production and department needs.