Looking back on Lizabeth’s School of Ballet Arizona days, I recall that many of the young students she trained alongside of aspired to perform the role of “Clara” in “The Nutcracker.” For some, being cast in anything short of a lead part was tremendously disappointing. For a few, it felt like abject failure.
I was always amazed by the dance students who decided to turn down roles other than those they’d been hoping to perform. I was a “dance mom” at the School of Ballet Arizona for nearly a dedade, and spent many a holiday season volunteering with young dancers at Symphony Hall — so I speak from experience on this one.
Dancers who performed the roles like angel, toy soldier or Mother Ginger’s child had every bit as much fun backstage as those who performed the role of “Clara” or the “Prince.” They had lots of time with friends, the experience of waiting in the wings for their turn to dance and the thrill of performing for a packed house.
Lizabeth never expressed disappointment that she wasn’t cast as “Clara” — I think because I’ve long sent the message that every role counts. Parents who taught their children that “Clara” was the singular role to aspire to ended up with teary-eyed ballerinas who sometimes turned down other roles for which they were wonderfully suited.
I’m not against setting high goals and expectations, but I’m not sure stage parents do justice to their children when they set them up for failure by insisting that only lead roles really matter. Or by spending lots of time trying to drive or second guess casting decisions.
I always taught Lizabeth that directors cast based on the best fit. I love lots of shoes at the mall, but I can’t wear them all. A shoe can be perfectly beautiful and special, but still not come home with me. If I need a high heel, a kitten heel simply won’t do — though frankly, I’m a bigger fan of flip flops and flats.
Not being chosen for a particular role does not mean you aren’t good enough. It does not mean that a director does not like you. It just means you’re not the best fit for the part — sometimes literally, when pre-existing costumes have to be factored into the decision making process.
I spoke recently with three young actors from Fountain Hills Community Theater, and asked their thoughts on the benefit of playing ensemble roles. Andrey Lull noted that there are some shows in which the ensemble is quite significant, singing or dancing for most of the production.
Picture “West Side Story” with only Tony and Maria, but no “Sharks” or “Jets.” Or productions of “South Pacific” and “Mamma Mia!” devoid of dancing and singing sailors. Even Joseph in his technicolor dreamcoat isn’t all that compelling without all those folks who back him up.
Ryan Smith shared that being an ensemble member is a great way to get your bearing on stage, and to improve skills — like staying focused — that are essential for playing the lead. And Natalie Kilker said something I’ve heard Lizabeth say on other occasions. That ensemble members sometimes have the most fun because they have varied dance and musical numbers, and often get to portray more than one character in a single show.
Lizabeth and I are big believers in standing for all cast members if we feel a show has earned a standing ovation. Why would I wait for “Annie” before standing to applaud if the whole show was magic? It’s rare, I think, that a lead performer is singularly grand separate and apart from the other actors sharing the stage. Never mind that I could watch Andrew Rannells of “The Book of Mormon” sing “I Believe” over and over again on an otherwise empty stage and leave feeling perfectly satisfied.
Acting companies are teams. They’re families. Everyone in your family matters, and so does everyone who makes a show happen — including every single cast, creative and technical team member. To teach your child anything less is to set her up for disappointment — and to deprive her of the many joys ensemble work often brings.
Note: Click here for audition details for Ib Andersen’s “The Nutcracker” being performed by Ballet Arizona at Symphony Hall Dec. 9-24, 2011
Coming up: Celebrating the 50th annual Utah Shakespeare Festival