Carly Page

How to avoid trouble when casting a nativity play

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With nativity plays still going ahead in many schools, teachers won’t be lucky enough to avoid the annual casting minefield – and now research shows that the choices they make can have a lasting impact on children’s self-esteem. Carly Page asks the experts about the best way to achieve a Christmas miracle

How to avoid trouble when casting a nativity play

If you’ve left the Mary costume in the store cupboard and cancelled this year’s order of straw, you may want to think again: despite the coronavirus restrictions, many schools around the UK seem determined to still put on a nativity show this Christmas (be it one that’s beamed to parents via Zoom and recorded within “bubble groups”). As such, you’ll be under some pressure to do the same. 

So those awkward casting decisions that you thought you had avoided? You’re going to have to face them. And I’m afraid I am going to make it even more of a pain: psychologists believe that those decisions may matter much more than you think. 

Let’s be clear: casting a school nativity is not easy. The choices that you make are politically loaded – parents will have set ideas about the identity of your “favourite pupils”, a photographic memory of who was what in every previous year and an innate sense of fairness when it comes to everyone, in the words of hit Broadway show Hamilton, getting “their shot”.

While every teacher has likely built up strategies to cope with all of this, you may be less aware of another complexity: your choices could do untold damage to a child’s self-esteem, and ultimately their academic performance, according to Dr Angel Urbina-Garcia, a psychologist at the University of Hull who specialises in socioemotional development and children’s personality development. 

For starters, making someone perform a role that they’ve said they don’t want – ie, forcing your best reader to be the narrator against their wishes – is a definite no-no, he says. 

“If a child doesn’t want to perform a given role in a play that the school is organising, they cannot be forced to do that, as it will impact their self-esteem,” he says. “[This] is a key element in a child’s development and could impact how they perform in later stages of academic life. If you have a student with high levels of self-esteem, for example, their performance will be high – and the opposite is also true.”

Thankfully, it’s not common for children to be forced to perform a role if they really don’t want it, but psychologists believe it definitely is common that teachers will fall back on unconscious assumptions about pupils when they are casting. For example, the loudest, most confident students will typically be handed the lead roles, while the meeker, less obvious candidates will be given a minor, often non-speaking, part. 

This is a problem, says Urbina-Garcia, because these traits – which are typically influenced by early interactions with a child’s family – should be respected rather than used to unknowingly guide the casting process. If you just go with your gut, the danger, he says, is that shyness is reinforced or loudness encouraged and children will get a fixed idea of what they are “meant” to do.

In essence, once an Angel Gabriel, always an Angel Gabriel; and once a “third tree from the left”, always a “third tree from the left”. 

To avoid unconscious decisions hijacking the casting, Urbina-Garcia advocates a discursive approach to the task: he says children that should be listened to and have a hand in making decisions over the size of their part in the play. 

“You absolutely shouldn’t force a shy kid to be the main part,” he says. “[But] you should give the opportunity for the child to be involved or engaged in any given activity – that’s one of the principles of being respectful. You should listen to the children’s voices, validate their views, and accept their ideas and interests.

“Teachers should allow children to make their own choices, perhaps from a pool of options, rather than imposing a set of tasks they need to perform. By doing that, you will be nurturing a sense of ideas-sharing and an ability to be happy.”

Of course, facilitating all of this mutual casting is tough when the nativity roles are set. But Urbina-Garcia recommends that teachers curate different roles that take into consideration the individual differences of children – and this might mean elevated production roles or new characters. “You can create a diversity of opportunities for children to choose something they feel more in-tune or identified with,” he says.

Yes, this is how we end up with an octopus and Captain America being present at the birth of Jesus. But it will probably make your life easier if you’re open to the idea of them being there. 

Not everyone agrees with Urbina-Garcia on the best ways to allocate parts fairly, of course. For example, some believe the real key to equitable casting is that much-hated brutal sorting hat of the arts: auditions. 

“The best solution is to have a policy of holding an audition for the parts for the school play,” says Deirdre Hayes, a registrant with the Irish Council for Psychotherapy, a systemic family psychotherapist and a lecturer in the psychotherapy department at University College Dublin’s school of medicine.

But won’t that be even more intimidating for shy students who actually do want to give the part a go? Hayes says that if you get the support right, nerves should not be a blocker to the child coming forwards, and that the process is transparently fair from a parent’s point of view. 

“If the shy child has the requisite qualities and is the right player for the part but is nervous, this can be supported,” she says. “Think of an ancient Greek saying, ‘A child’s mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled’ – this process can help children come out of their shells.”

If all of this is making you fear for the standard of the final piece of work, the advice from the psychologists is that you need to suck it up: the quality of the final show is not the main point of the nativity. 

Yes, you may have aspirations of being the next Christopher Nolan, and yes you want to put on a good show, but ultimately the first priority has to be keeping your actors (and your production crew) as happy as possible. 

If that means you end up with the shy pupil freezing on stage and saying none of their lines but being chuffed to bits to be standing there, while the loud pupil spends the entirety of the play mooning the audience from his position as The Star, then so be it. Remember, it’s Christmas: everything is forgiven at Christmas. 

Carly Page is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 13 November 2020 issue under the headline “The nightmare before Christmas: nativity casting”

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