by Laura Bengs
Laura Bengs is a journalist, writer and content creator. Her work has been published in Milwaukee Magazine, Sing at Home Mom and OnStageBlog.
Whether you’re new to a program or experiencing the dreaded talent shortage, developing a program – on top of everything else you manage – can feel overwhelming. Being able to produce projects that interest you may depend on having enough talented actors to produce them, so any time you invest in recruiting will be time well spent.
While good old-fashioned word-of-mouth is a reliable way to get a steady stream of talent, there are steps you can take, some without a lot of work, to make your program more attractive or inviting to new talent.
If this is a time of growth for your program, here are some considerations and actions that might help you grow your theater program:
Think about the timing. Many programs have shows at similar times of the year because “that’s what we’ve always done”. While this can be good for continued community support (if people still know the musical is the second week of November, they’ll start looking for tickets then), you can unintentionally exclude groups from students or make it difficult for students to be involved.
Our fall game still fell within the fall sports season with production in mid-November. However, our spring musical took place at the end of February, which opened a small window between the winter sports season and the spring sports season. Depending on their role, students could sometimes participate in both the drama production and their sports season.
You’ll also want to be aware of how breaks impact your rehearsal schedule. Depending on when we would audition, our spring music rehearsal schedule would span the winter break; however, we never rehearsed during the break as many families had planned to travel during this time. Respecting family time during breaks can go a long way in recruiting and retaining participants!
Another consideration to make is when you rehearse. If you have the option of holding rehearsals from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. rather than right after school, you may be able to include more students who also participate in sports or other clubs.
Focus on more than just launching shows. We recruited so many students from our parent drama club because we engaged in more than just producing shows. Each year, we took the students on four to five field trips to see professional performances. Students who liked and enjoyed the theater would join the club to watch the shows. In doing so, they would be wooed by the camaraderie during the trip and the magic on stage to such an extent that they would begin to delve into how to help out with upcoming shows.
Think of other fun opportunities like bringing in a group of comedians, hosting a performance day of a play an English class is studying, or bringing in a famous or regionally acclaimed entertainer to speak to the student audience. A barrier for some students is simply the fact that they haven’t been exposed to theater or seen it as something they would want to do. Sometimes just showing it to students is all they need to consider getting involved.
Advertise opportunities outside of the show. Students who enjoy performing flock to performing, but students who might have an artistic interest outside of the stage may not always think of seeking out theater. When spreading the word about opportunities, be sure to include other needs like graphic design and writing (for advertising), construction and painting (for set construction), and business (for ticket sales and management of shows).
Prioritizing and bringing in talent outside of simple performance often landed many of our students on the doorstep of the theater, and once they saw the magic on stage, they were hooked! Shows rely on more than just performers, and building your schedule across all areas of production can help the program grow as well.
Invite students individually. I can’t tell you how many students I recruited into my English classes. It’s amazing the difference a personal invitation can make. Theater kids have a certain spark, and if you spot one that hasn’t found the stage yet, talk to them. Personally invite them to be part of the program. Talk about the potential you see. Get them excited. It’s hard to say no to a personal invitation, and chances are they’ve already thought about it. Reaching them out might just be the push they needed to join.
Select shows that appeal to students and large groups. Many factors go into selecting shows for your high school program, but if you’re looking to grow, you might benefit from thinking more critically about the people you select shows for. Selecting popular titles that students are passionate about can be a great way to see your audition count grow. Additionally, selecting a great show with fun ensemble features (think Beauty and the Beast) provides plenty of opportunities, so students might be more inclined to audition if they have the option not to. to be “just another member of the choir”. If you’re looking to increase the number of attendees, you need to make room for them. Therefore, picking a show that gives many attendees a great experience can be a great recruiting tool.
Collaborate with your other art teachers. Your school’s choir director can be a great asset in recruiting students for performances. Whether or not they’re involved in the production, they can help support the show by doing things like teaching a sight-reading lesson with the audition piece or playing a popular song from the show for a score study. Our choir director has even worked with students in her private lesson block to learn audition music before auditions, giving them more confidence and increasing their likelihood of pursuing auditions.
The art teacher can be another great resource for collaboration, especially with set design. By collaborating with our art teachers, we were able to produce beautiful scenographies and even think critically about how to coordinate the gallery’s efforts with the content and schedule of the exhibitions. Not only did this spark some artists’ interest in stage design, but it even opened up an additional extracurricular opportunity for students who hadn’t considered this outlet for their art.
Our overriding recommendation: expose students to theater in every way possible. Often, all students need to do is set foot in the door, and they’re hooked.