Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Theater Lives in the Young

It is (very) early spring and the time of the year when fortunate youth in many high schools are investing their energies in competitive theater. As in many states, the Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild encourages and supports theater with its annual round of competitions. I have been fortunate to have judged festival presentations for many years, and truly have been astonished at many, many of those forty-minute productions.

I'm aware that there is tremendous investment that these students and their teachers carry in creating and presenting their work. As judges, we are kept well away from all that, but see only the final invested expression of all their anguish of creation.

It's no walk-in-the park for judges. We see eight or so, 45-minute productions in a day, and we take every spare minute to try our best to say useful and helpful and encouraging - but artistically and intellectually honest - things about each of the eight or so works we see before us in the long day. We look like 1940s reporters dashing back to our computers (now) to write lots of profound things, rank performers, catch a bathroom break, and be back in our seat with a clear head in twenty minutes. We spend the lunch hour desperately trying to catch up, refining our observations and trying gently to frame some advice. In the 1980s we wrote in longhand with one or two carbons. The writing room held three really intensely focused judges, often around the same table. Electric typewriters were made available in the late 1990s and some judges brought their own portables, but many judges continued to longhand the responses. Today we have a computer station and a prescribed template to fill in our thoughts. It's faster and more efficient, with a chance to write more. Our assignment also is more refined with expectations for observations on particular points.

Only after the awards ceremony are the judges available to directors when they pick up the written critiques for their school. But there's not much basis for conversation. It's been a long day for everybody.

The circumstances of the festival are very measured and obsessively observed. There are strict rules about time limits and run length, and the strike and setup times in the swing between performances. All of the students remain captive for the day and must be counted in the school's section of the theater before each of the performances and activities.

The organization requires that new and past judges attend a development workshop each February. Part social and part useful, the meeting is to review the rules and changes, discuss goals, share approaches and receive a pep talk. While I found it annoying to give up an additional Saturday (for which we were paid), I had to admit their value.

I have been fortunate to judge the festival in all its three rounds of elimination. My preference has been for the initial round, when I feel that my comments will be most considered, both by those who move on and by those who don't. At the intermediate level, only the winner moves on, and the rest have heard all they care to. Both are one-Saturday commitments. The final state round is a four-day affair, held in Hancock Hall in Boston, and judges are sequestered incommunicado in a Boston hotel for three nights, ushered everywhere by handlers. Throughout the festival at all levels there is real investment in keeping the judges away from all participants until the awards are given at the end of the day.

All of the performances I saw at state level were interesting, challenging, first-rate works of theater. The critique there is much different. Since all of the performances are excellent, the response is not about the principles, but more about imagination and commitment to sophisticated choices, deftness in the refinement and execution, and ability to astonish. And ultimately, why this one is better than that.

It's been a real pleasure for me over the years to see and critique these festivals. I've seen much theater that is exciting, imaginative, and very adept. But most importantly, in every case I've seen young people really invested in craft and collaboration, creating something artful together.

February, 2014

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