The Perks of Double Casting With Young Performers
Alongside teaching voice, I have the privilege of directing community theatre productions for elementary, middle, and high school students at The Misfit Artist Company. One of my favorite things about directing young people is giving ample opportunities for students to shine and showcase their talents. One way we do that at The Misfit Artist Company is through double-casting.
What is Double-Casting?
Double-casting is when two actors share the same role. For example, if you were doing The Sound of Music, you would have two Marias. One Maria would perform on Thursday and Friday, one would perform on Saturday and Sunday. When they are not performing their “main role,” they are often in the ensemble supporting the leading characters.
Why I Double-Cast
1. Double-casting gives more opportunities to shine.
At the end of the day, I am running a community theatre. And any way I can give more actors an opportunity to grow, I will do it. Double-casting literally doubles the odds of getting a lead role.
2. Double-casting eliminates the second show slump.
Most errors on stage happen the second night. That’s because after the nerves of opening night have subsided, many actors become overly confident. And overly confident actors make mistakes. When you double cast, you have two opening nights. The energy you had on opening continues into the second show. And if you do four shows, this means that the closing night energy covers the final two shows. It truly changes the dynamic of a performance weekend.
3. Double casting supports vocal health and pacing.
Tech week and shows are exhausting and extremely vocally demanding. And for young singers, I’ve found that the stamina required for a 3 hour show isn’t always there. And frankly, it’s not necessarily age-appropriate to expect a child or teen performer to do so. Sure, they may be able to sing Eliza Doolittle or Regina George for 5 tech days and 4 performances… but should they? To quote Dr. Ian Malcom of Jurassic Park, sometimes young actors and even their directors are “so preoccupied with whether they [can], they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
I can’t assume that every actor in my community theatre has a voice teacher in their corner that is cheering on healthy vocal technique. I also can’t assume that what I hear is safe singing. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. And I would rather a student have nights off or nights where they can rest or sing quietly in the ensemble than risk vocal damage or fatigue.
4. Double-casting opens the door to multiple interpretations.
When two different actors play a role, my biggest push is for those actors to interpret the role on their terms. In fact, in solo numbers I block close to nothing for this reason. I don’t want my blocking to impede on the student’s journey with their character. Because of this, sometimes I have two completely different solo numbers depending on who is performing. Seeing multiple interpretations of the same role not only benefits the actors playing that role, but the rest of the cast. They see the limitless possibilities that could be when you are given a character.
My favorite example of this was when I directed Les Miserables. We had two totally different young men playing Marius. One actor was a contemporary, almost rock belter. And when he sang “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” he chose blocking that was big and dramatic.
There was anger in his sound and his grandiose movements. He ended his performance by falling to his knees. It was extremely impactful. The other actor was a light lyric tenor with a beautiful Reeve Carney-like sound. He chose to focus his interpretation on the fear, suppressed pain, and PTSD that Marius may have experienced. He stayed small and introverted, almost as if afraid to acknowledge the pain in spite of its manifestation, made apparent through a cane he held during the number. His facial expressions were the focus until the very end, where he made the decision to stand. His posture was shaking, communicating the physical pain resulting from battle. It was equally impactful in a totally different way. Both actors made me cry. Both took the audience and me on an emotional journey. Both nailed their performances. This was only possible with double-casting.
5. Double-casting prevents crises.
Sometimes, actors get sick. Sometimes, a family emergency prevents them from performing. With double-casting, you always have a backup.
Sure, you can accomplish the same thing with understudies. However, understudies are not going to be as invested without the guarantee of performing. You’re simply going to have a better plan B when you have two capable actors in the same role.
6. Double-casting teaches young actors how to navigate comparison.
One of the biggest reasons many directors shy away from double-casting is the fear that actors will compare themselves to one another. The other reason many directors avoid double-casting is because you always run the risk of one actor being significantly better than the other. These are reasonable concerns. I’m going to start by stating the obvious, you can’t eliminate comparison. They’re already doing it. You don’t think every girl that wasn’t cast as Jo in your production Little Women isn’t thinking about how they would perform the role differently, or even better?
Comparison is the M.O. of theatre kids..
“Sarah Brightman was good for the 80’s, but Sierra Boggess is the Christine of a generation.”
"I think Renee Rapp's Regina George is better than Taylor Louderman."
“Beanie’s understudy is actually better than her at Fanny Brice."
"I have a better head voice than her, I should've gotten the lead."
Through comparison kids learn an important lesson: It doesn't change the outcome. Artistic differences and opinions are valid, but it doesn't change the fact that regardless of whether you like a performance or casting choice, it is the reality. And you grow from recognizing that your taste is uniquely your own, and your director's choice is uniquely their own as well.
Comparison is also the M.O. of the business. You can’t change it. And possibly, some of your young performers are going to choose to pursue theatre professionally. They will share roles with not only leads, but multiple swings and understudies. It is great to learn early that your interpretation may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it's yours. And every rendition of a role is valid and connects with someone. Rather than focusing on who is “better,” we can teach actors to focus on how to become the best version of their interpretation.
Though rare, there can be times where one actor is significantly stronger than another, especially when working with elementary-aged students. What a great opportunity for that weaker performer to grow and learn from someone stronger! At the end of the day, not every performer needs to be Broadway-level to grow and benefit from playing a leading role. Anyone working with young people in theatre is in the business of making more empathic and well-rounded human beings, and sometimes that comes from giving someone new a chance.
For the record, I can’t even count on my hand the amount of times one actor was noticeably better than their double castmate.
7. Double-casting makes me a better director and educator.
When you double-cast, you are creating a different culture. You are saying that two people are worthy of playing a role. You are also teaching kids how to navigate comparison, how to share, how to remain humble, and how to work off of a variety of actors.
I always mix up my casts during rehearsals. Since you never know whether someone from one cast could get sick or miss a performance, I like to have scene partners work opposite both actors in a given role. Sometimes, the approach of one actor on a scene is completely different from another. I remember doing Sound of Music and watching two extremely unique Elsas deliver their lines. One was more snobbish and reserved, one was more bold and confident. Our Captain Von Trapp (for this particular role we only had one Captain, it’s hard to find boys in theatre) had to think of how to react differently based on how the lines were delivered. And this made him a stronger captain.
Not for Everyone
Double-casting is not for everyone. It requires more work in every facet of the production. It requires double the costumes if your leads are different sizes. It requires careful observation of acting and blocking choices for two different interpretations of solos. And first and foremost, it requires directing that sets a tone of support for all actors, regardless of who is “better.” It puts comparison, pride, and chemistry all on the line in order to produce living and breathing art that evolves with the actors and the dynamic on any given performance.
Never the less, if you’ve never done it before, I recommend putting your skepticism aside and trying it!