Going Big: The Pros and Cons of Large Casts and Highly Technical Shows

Recently, I was at a preview performance of Peter Pan at Carleton University.  A play like Peter Pan is certainly an ambitious choice for a university theatre company. It has several very technical elements: sword fights, a giant crocodile, a fairy, and flying actors. The cast is also huge. Generally, previews are not reviewed and I will honour tradition and not review this show;however, I think a general discussion of the pros and cons of community theatre staging these large technical shows might be interesting/useful.

Let’s deal with the cast size first. There are certainly advantages to having a large cast. The first being a guaranteed large audience (friends and family of the cast). Large casts also allow more people to be involved in the show. I think, for a university theatre company, there is something nice about a show that gives a large group of people the opportunity to share the experience of putting on a play.

The downside of large casts is that it is very difficult for a director to give each actor sufficient attention. There simply is not enough time. Often (but not necessarily) the performances will suffer as there are not enough talented actors to play every character.  Also, a large cast will also most likely involve more costuming, props etc., which can put more pressure on the stage managers keeping track of it all and the costume/set designers etc. who have to produce everything (probably on a shoe string budget).

The second issue is the highly technical aspect of these large productions. On the positive side, it is great to take on something challenging that will require a lot of creativity on the part of the production team. Fight choreography, elaborate sets, and complicated lighting design can be a lot of fun. There are many in the theatre community who live for these kinds of technical challenges. Everyone has to start somewhere, and university theatre can be a great place for people with an interest in the technical side to have an opportunity to get some experience.

That being said, the more technical elements there are in a show, the greater the risk that there will not be sufficient time to pull everything off. One or two technical elements carried off well will, ultimately, have a greater impact on the audience than a show with a lot of technical elements that are not completely successful.

So here’s a few questions for you: Should community/student theatre companies attempt large highly technical productions? If so, what are some strategies to mitigate the obstacles? Care to mention any other positive/negative aspects that I’ve missed here? or share stories of successful, or unsuccessful, community theatre productions with large casts and a lot of technical elements.


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2 responses to “Going Big: The Pros and Cons of Large Casts and Highly Technical Shows

  1. nadinethornhill

    When I was university, the Drama department produced 4 shows a year. Three of the four productions were modest – comtemporary pieces with modest cast/technical requirements. But the November production was always balls-out: epic Shakespeare or a musical

    The grand hurrah served several purposes. As you mentioned, it was an opportunity for those of us in the program to apply our developing skills, acquired in combat, voice and movement courses. In was mandatory that all sophmore students do a year of concentration in technical theatre. For me, that November show was my only opportunity (thus far) to work on a large technical crew.

    Theatre is necessarily collaborative. My involvement in big production drove that point home. Not even the stars are stars when you’ve got two dozen cast and twice as many crew, all with a job to get done.

    Big shows taught me some much-need humility as an actor. Sometimes, acting is about being the centre of the on-stage universe. And sometimes, I need to shut the fuck up and do as I’m asked, because the crew have 300 cues to set.

    I love the exuberance and pageantry of big productions. I cop to my bias, but it seemed to be infectious. Our late fall shows were consistently successful in terms of ticket sales and audience response. It was fun, exciting way to play. Perhaps that was contagious. Hopefully enough to offset the inevitable problems you’ve correctly identified in your post.

    • Thanks for sharing Nadine. Big productions can certainly be both fun and humbling. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to strike some middle ground between “balls out epics” and small modest productions. Then again, this might be the only opportunity for a university actor etc. to try something like a musical or Shakespearean tragedy. I guess that kind of experimentation has merit in itself.

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