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How to Direct a High School Play - Auditions

I am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.


Directing a high school play can be a fun, rewarding experience. It can also be very stressful. Over the years, I have discovered that one of the most important steps in the process of directing a play is casting the show well. Choosing a talented, dedicated, enthusiastic group of actors and technicians will make the process much less stressful and much more rewarding. In order to cast a show, you will need to hold auditions.

Before you begin auditions, plan out your season. Decide on the important dates and distribute audition forms. The previous article in this series (How to Direct a High School Play – What to Include in the Audition Form) explains the pre-audition process in detail.

Many directors will run auditions in a traditional manner, asking students to come in with a prepared monologue or scene to perform. Although this method may be a good one for community or professional theater, I find a different approach to work in the high school setting.

Work from Large to Small

If you have put the word out, you may have a large group of students auditioning for your production. When thirty or fifty students show up on the first day of auditions, you will want them all to feel like they have been able to show you who they are and what they can do. You don’t want them to hang around feeling bored with nothing to do. That will lead to possible behavior issues and a loss of enthusiasm across the group. For those reasons, I always start with the large group and work towards small group auditions.

Auditions on the middle and high school level should be fun, unintimidating, and accessible for all interested students. For that reason, I start auditions by playing large group theater games. When I am casting a show, I look at students to assess their vocal skills, movement, and creativity. I want to see who stands out as a leader. I also want to see how students interact with one another in the group. The following theater games are good ways to assess these skills while allowing all students to participate.


The Human Knot

For this game, students will start by standing in a circle. Students will put their hands into the circle and take the hand of two others in the group. One person will be chosen as the loose end and will only take one hand. I ask students to work together to unravel the knot they have created. They cannot let go of anyone’s hand in the process. I often will ask them to do this exercise without talking, which forces them to communicate in other ways. With a very large group, I will break the group into two or three smaller groups. In that situation, it is fun to have each human knot group race to be the first group to unravel. This exercise shows me how students work together, who the leaders are, and how creative they can be in their non-verbal communication.

"From Here to There"

Put students in several lines on one side of the room or stage. Instruct them to go from “here” (where they are currently standing) to “there” (the opposite side of the room or stage) doing a series of silly commands. The first person in each line will start after they hear the command. When they get about halfway to their destination, the next person in the line can begin. This process continues until all students have crossed the space and formed new lines. Repeat the process with different commands until you are ready for the next game. Here are some examples:

“Go from here to there…”

· Like you are late for a very important appointment.

· Like it has just suddenly started to pour and rain heavily.

· Like you are in a dark, scary forest in the middle of the night by yourself.

· Like you have to PEE really, really, really bad.

· Like you are a kangaroo (or a ferocious house cat, or a three-legged dog, or a hatching chick…)

· Like you are 85 years old.

I often will choose characteristics that match the characters in the upcoming production. This activity allows me to see the student’s ability to be creative. They should be encouraged to use their voice and body in creative ways to match the commanded action. Therefore, you can assess their ability to move and use their voice. You will see who is original and who just follows what others are doing.

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"Milling and Seething"

This game is similar to “From Here to There.” Instead of having students move in lines from one side of the stage to the other, you ask the group to “mill and seethe” through the space. This means that students move about the space, always finding their way through the center. They should be instructed to avoid moving in a circle, like they are on a track. The movement should be random. Like “From Here to There” you can instruct students to move and create different characters and scenarios. One of the advantages of this game is that you can direct students to interact with one another. For example:

“Mill and Seethe as if everyone you come in contact with is your mortal enemy.”

“Move about and greet people as if you have just run into a long, lost best friend.”

“Greet each other with solid eye contact and a firm handshake.”

Again, you will see the student’s creativity, ability to move, and use their voice. You will also see how students interact with one another through this activity.


Line Lay Ups

This is an energetic, fast moving game that will allow you to access voice and voice projection. For this game, put students in two lines. Pull out two volunteers to hand out or verbally give out lines. I often will choose lines from the upcoming show. I do this activity in our Performing Arts Center. We have 4 aisles, two that run along the wall and two that run on either side of the center seats. I have each line start at the top of a center aisle. They run down to the front, turn, say their line with creativity, passion and volume, and then run up the wall aisle to the back of the line. This game should move quickly. Students don’t need to wait for the person from the other line to finish. Two people saying a line at one time will add to the energy in the room. I love doing this exercise with middle school students who often have a lot of energy to expend and who often need practice projecting their voices without shouting or screaming.

There are many, many more theater games to play with large groups. Stay tuned, as I plan to write more on this topic soon.

Narrow It Down

After observing students in the large group exercises, you will want to see students in small groups. The key to the small group exercises is to keep them short and to see students in different roles and combinations. These small group exercises can take a day or two of auditions, depending on how many students you have and how well you know them. It is important to see students in the roles they wish to audition for and the roles you are considering for them. Don’t “show your hand” by asking one student to read the same role over and over. Mix things up.

For the small group exercises, I will choose several one page excerpts from the upcoming show. I try to choose excerpts that have two, three or four actors in the scene. Sometimes, I use poetry for the small group auditions. I will find a fun poem and assign it to a group of three or four students. I will ask them to interpret the poem through a performance. They can break up the lines however they choose. They need to add movement and tell the story of the poem. Whether you choose to assign a scene or a poem, the small group exercises will allow you to see the ability and creativity of each individual student.


Call Backs

Depending on the size of the auditioning group, I hold auditions over the course of two or three days. Students are invited to attend all or some of the auditions. Students who want to work behind the scenes are also invited to join in the games and activities. It is important to see how they work with others as well, even if they don’t want to be onstage. After the initial auditions, I start the casting of the show. If I feel like I need to see a student again, I will ask them to attend the callback auditions. For callback auditions, only students who are invited are allowed to attend. I communicate to students that the purpose of call backs is for me to see individuals and combinations of students who I didn’t see enough of the first time around. I don’t want students to feel rejected if they aren’t called back.

After auditions are over, the hard job begins. You need to cast the show. Check out the next article in this series that will explore all of the factors to consider before you post the cast list.

Written by Donna Hilbrandt.

© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt


Donna Hilbrandt (author) from Upstate New York on June 23, 2012:

Thank you SPK5367! Keeping a fun, welcoming environment is one of the keys to success with high school theater. Stay tuned. I have list of ideas to add to this series. Thanks so much for reading.

SPK5367 from Pennsylvania, USA on June 23, 2012:

I enjoyed this very much. I can see where the kids would get a huge kick out of many of these games. I particularly like the one where they go from here to there "as if..."

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