About Sarah Mattie

Sarah Mattie is a middle school theatre teacher--her dream job!--and a theatre teaching artist. She has also worked as a language arts teacher, an ELL aide, an elementary librarian, a substitute, and a stage manager. She has three special needs cats and one typical cat, who does not get the appreciation he deserves, and a very patient husband.

You are fourteen years old. You got up the guts to try out for the school play, something you had dreamed of for years but was too embarrassed to do. You also know involvement in school activities looks great on college applications, so you are willing to work hard and give it your all. Perhaps this can be your “dedicated activity” for four years of high school.

You walk up to the cast list. You see the lead roles are the same kids they are every time. Fine, you think, that’s expected. You scroll down and down and down until you find your name under the chorus.

You pause. Chorus? But this isn’t even a musical. What the heck does that mean?

Fine, I’ll still give it my all. I don’t back down from my commitments.

You show up on the first day of rehearsal. This will be your life, four hours a day, every weekday, for the next six weeks, plus two eight-hour Saturdays. Scripts are handed out. All of the leads get “real scripts,” not photocopies. The secondary characters do, too. The chorus, then, is handed photocopied ones. They aren’t even three-hole punched so you can easily put them in a binder, which you know you will need to do. You have your highlighter ready, excited to highlight your lines. Your pencil is ready to go with your blocking.

The first rehearsal is a read-through. The whole cast, a whopping 60 people for a 13 person script, sits in a circle and reads. The director says, “Chorus, I’ll tell you when to mark as we go.”

Hour one goes by. No comment from the director.

At one hour and thirty minutes, you hear ten chorus members’ names. They are to shout out random things. You do not have one of those names.

An hour and forty-five minutes in, twenty chorus members are called. You ARE one of these. You break out the highlighter, just as the director says, “Pencils out.” Okay. You get out the pencil. Crowd scene. Parade. You and the other twenty chorus members are to “watch the parade, silently, so the lines can be heard.” The ten chorus members from before are IN the parade, along with several named characters.

Ten minutes later, the remaining 17 chorus members are named to be church congregants. They get to shout out “when the feeling strikes them.”

And, that’s it. You and 19 other chorus members, standing silently in a crowd, for a two-minute scene.

Going in, you knew you would start from the bottom. You knew you wouldn’t be playing the lead. But, to spend 136 hours of your life, 136 hours where you could be doing literally anything else, to have a two-minute scene where your whole job is “look enthusiastic?” What a waste of time. Your contract is stapled to the back of your script. You note where it says “leaving the play for any non-emergent reason (illness, death in the family, etc.) will affect future casting decisions.” You have a choice to make. Stay in, doing nothing, or never get a chance to advance.

You stare down those 136 hours and decide to stick it out. What is 5.7 days of your life, after all?

This is not an uncommon situation in youth theatre. Kids are turned into “human props,” decorating the stage, making money via ticket revenue (and possibly participation fees) for the theatre department but given really nothing to do.

In an Educational Leadership article by Danielle L. Iamarino, “Engaging Our Most Challenging Students in Fine Arts,” she recounts the story of “Lou,” a free-spirited young man who was known for causing mischief. Lou had a memorable, if short, part in the performance, and was allowed to be creative and fun in the creation of his character. After the performance, Lou’s mother approached Iamarino and thanked her for “not making my kid cry….This is the first time a drama teacher didn’t just sit him at the back of the stage and tell him to be quiet.”

Iamarino talks about some of the pranks and troubles Lou caused during the show, so he may be a strange person to bring up when I talk about the importance of cuts from school plays. “Are you arguing that ‘bad’ kids shouldn’t be allowed to do theatre?”

Absolutely not. Quite the opposite, actually. Kids like Lou, as well as the kids on the opposite end of the behavior spectrum, need cuts to help them succeed.

What are cuts?

Cuts are, simply put, deciding to not have an actor or crew member involved with a show. It is not a simple process for most directors. We do not do what colleges, according to urban legend, do, and just throw half of the audition forms into the trash. We don’t let a kid start an audition and immediately yell “next!” as does actually happen in the professional world with hundreds or thousands of auditioners. We let them audition or turn in their application and make our decisions.

It is really, really hard, both on the kids and on us.

Why should we have cuts?

Cuts are an important learning experience, both for those who plan to continue doing theatre and those who do not. No one gets every job they interview for.  No one gets every award they work for. No one gets every part they try out for. The best time to learn how to handle those disappointments is when you are young and emotional responses are more acceptable. Directors and/or parents see kids meltdown after not getting in and can help them through it, learn how to react appropriately, and how to improve for next time. These kind of reactions would not be acceptable anywhere else; if you do not get a job, it is not acceptable to melt down and scream at the interviewer. If you do not get a part in community or professional theatre, you will never be considered for a part at that theatre, and possibly at others. Directors talk.

Cuts are also important because they allow us directors to give our actors and crew members the attention they need to learn the craft. In a company of 50, 100, 150, you cannot give kids the one-on-one or small group time needed to develop a character or learn how to quickly stitch up a ripped costume. In many circumstances, directors don’t even get to learn all of their company members’ names.

In the aforementioned circumstance of Lou, things can get more complicated. I won’t deny that there are directors who care more about the quality of the show than about the educational opportunities. That’s a whole other can of worms, which I could write a book. But, for kids like Lou, cuts can be hugely beneficial when the theatre department is handled by someone who is, first and foremost, an educator.

When a director does not let the educational opportunities slide and casts kids who have challenges, all of the thespians can learn a great deal about teamwork and show their skills in new ways. The Lous can get the one-on-one time they need to figure out how to effectively channel their energy and become the creative geniuses that are often just hiding under the surface. I have seen kids with ADHD, ASD, and other challenges go from being “troublemakers” to being my most responsible and enthusiastic leaders, almost consistently! Lou had never gotten to do more than just sit in the back because his teacher did not have the time to help him succeed; with smaller groups, the teacher can spend that time appropriately. The other company members who work with Lou learn how to effectively communicate with other theatre kids who are different from them and all can find new ways to succeed.

The Lous also won’t always be cast, and that’s okay. Learning to self-advocate is an important skill for everyone, but for kids who have additional challenges, it is even more important. Someone who has additional challenges may need to ask for extra time or explanation with tasks in the workforce; if they have never learned to ask for this help, they won’t know how to do it correctly later on.

There is also one problem with not having cuts: unreasonable expectations for the future. Students who are never cut from school plays get the idea they will never be cut from college, community, or professional shows. This is particularly true of those who always get the leads. I have seen exceptional actors, those who had real futures in the theatre, give up early on in their careers because they never learned to handle the disappointment. “They just don’t understand how talented I am!” is the refrain, and they go into a different field. We lose amazing talent by not allowing them to learn to handle disappointment early on.

Parents and cuts

The greater challenges, though, are not with the Lous or the other kids; they are with the parents. Kids do occasionally get upset when not cast or put on the crew, but they almost always move on pretty quickly. Parents, on the other hand, sometimes send really nasty emails or make harassing phone calls. In fact, they frequently skip right over the teacher or director and go to administration. This is why cuts are often not allowed; it’s not to spare kids’ feelings but to avoid these awkward interactions with parents. I have been lucky. Most of my kids’ parents have been amazing; they occasionally email with questions, but rarely they get angry or accusatory. But, I have had those messages, and I have even had to have administrators intervene for the sake of my actual safety.

I would never stop doing cuts to avoid this. I will always stick by the opportunity to really hone students’ talents instead of allowing everyone into a situation with fewer educational opportunities. I will always let kids learn to handle disappointment rather than allowing them to not experience it until it truly counts.

Parents, if your child wants to be involved with theatre, be ready to handle disappointment as well. Feel free to ask those questions, but remember to assume positive intent over negative. Most of us are not here to hurt your kids’ feelings. As I said, there are youth directors out there who don’t have the kids’ best interests at heart, but that is not the majority. If your child tries out a lot and never makes it, despite having grades that allow participation, working really hard for their auditions, etc., that is the time to arrange a meeting. I recommend having your child there as well, so they can hear firsthand what is going on.

Conclusion

Cuts help everyone. They allow for truly good shows, not because we have the best cast or crew (even though I truly believe every cast and crew is the best one for that show), but because they were able to get the attention they need to succeed. Kids who have challenges can get the focused assistance they need, and kids who do not have them learn to work with everyone. They also teach kids to handle disappointment early on, as life is full of them and it’s an important skill to have.

Kids are not props and should not be treated as such. Cuts allow them to be people.

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