How Many Absences are Too Many?

This is the age-old question, right up there with what is the meaning of life, and where do we go when we die?

Believe me when I say there is no easy answer to this question. And we get it all the time (or some variation of it).

The topic of absences hits me from both directions, with participants inquiring about the feasibility of their own number of absences (or pointing out the extent of others’ absences) as well as creative team members noting absences as one of their top challenges in leading a program.

I often say, as long as we accomplish our goals it can take any number of journeys to get there. But the topic of absences is the rare thing that really bumps up against this personal philosophy of mine.

One of our core beliefs is that we want to remove as many barriers as possible that could prevent someone from doing a show. Some examples of this are:

  • Providing tuition relief to remove the barrier of cost
  • Not requiring auditions to remove the barrier of experience (or lack thereof)
  • Casting non-traditionally to remove the barrier of type-casting
  • Using accessible spaces to remove the barrier of physical challenges
  • Revamping our registration process to remove the barrier of first come, first served

And when it comes to the very common barrier of busy schedules, we have a flexible absence policy. And I stand by that. If you have a work trip, a wedding, a religious holiday, or any other known conflict, just let us know. And we also know things pop up, so if you have to work late, or your plumbing explodes, or your babysitter cancels, just let us know! And without exception, if you aren’t feeling well – stay home and just let us know!

But as I also want to advocate for our creative team members, here is a sense of what the impact is on the rehearsal room when you’re not there.

  • You don’t get to learn what’s being taught. There isn’t an immediate impact here, but the impact could happen when you return if you haven’t reviewed the materials provided on the drive in order to catch up. We very much try to schedule around disclosed absences, so people don’t have to miss learning something they are featured in, but with 80 people it’s impossible to accommodate all schedules, especially when there are many many conflicts
  • People don’t get the benefit of your presence. And yes I do mean your sparkling personality and charming wit, but I also mean people do not get to play around with you as you develop characters together. It can also be challenging for participants to internalize their blocking if there are people missing in their scene. Some folx are experiential learners that way, and your absence makes it more challenging. And don’t sell yourself short, there is probably someone who follows you when learning choreo or harmonies, even if you think you’re only ok
  • You miss important community building. Whether it’s intentional time carved out in rehearsal or the kind of bonding that happens over the shared experience of learning new material, it can be hard to get to know your cast if you’re not there
  • If you miss tech, that could slow down the process. Remember, tech is not for you, but the team very much needs you there to accomplish their goals
  • If you miss a show, even the simplest solution of having your cast twin fill in doesn’t account for any subtle blocking differences or the widely different takes you might have on the character that your cast mates won’t be accustomed to

I don’t want this additional context to preclude you from being absent, whether known or unexpectedly, for whatever reason your life doles out to you. But I do want you to take this info and consider it on two particular occasions:

  1. When considering whether to register into a show.
  2. When you are on the fence about attending rehearsal. And maybe the reason for this indecision looks something like: “we’re only doing ensemble stuff today,” or “I feel meh about it because I really haven’t gotten to know anyone,” or “it’s easy enough for me to learn from tracks, I don’t need to go.”

Some odds and ends:

  • Not feeling well can include emotional and mental health. If you are positive that going to rehearsal will not help you, then please do what you need to do! If you are unsure, going to rehearsal has been known to do wonderful things for people’s spirits, but it’s up to you
  • A lot of disclosed absences could potentially affect your casting. It might not immediately rule you out for a part (unless you want it to), but with 80 people, every feature might get narrowed down to 4 or 5 people, and having an exorbitant number of absences could be a reason your post-it is moved off the board
  • Yes we provide a lot of material on the drive, but not every bit of minutiae or direction or explanation of the scene or song context gets written down. There’s always a bit of absorbing of information that can’t be documented
  • Transparency goes a long way here. Wondering where you are and if you’re coming back has taken up a lot of headspace in the past. Tell us a little bit about what might get in your way throughout the season, and it will give the creative team a lot of peace of mind. This includes being late!
  • People’s memories are long. If you have been absent or late a lot without letting anyone know and without learning material on your own, people remember
  • Creative teams have the authority to remove participants from a scene, a number or even the entire show if their presence creates a safety risk due to lack of preparedness