At the Opera

I used to be afraid of Opera.

I know that sounds weird. I mean, it’s not like I had nightmares about a heavy-set woman wearing a helmet with Viking horns and yellow braids chasing me down while singing “Flight of the Valkyries” in a piercing soprano (…though now that I put it that way, it does sound kind of horrifying). When I entered my PhD, despite having been a theatre person my entire life, I had never seen an Opera.

It just seemed daunting. There was so much popular entertainment baggage associated with it. So much society told me I should be if I went to an Opera: well bred, musically inclined, interested in melodrama, in possession of a fur coat and those tiny steam-punk binoculars… What happened if I found it boring? Or worse, what happened if I laughed at the ridiculousness of some big tragic moment put to song in a way that seemed in keeping with the genre tropes that my admittedly narrow-framed world view understood to be a part of the Operatic aesthetic?

Cut to one day in my first-year research methodologies course, the Professor going on some tangent about various “alternative” theatrical forms. He wound up in an Opera rut and paused when he realized that he was looking at a roomful of blank-blinking faces. “Who here has been to the Opera?” He asked.

Not a single one of us raised our hands.

He freaked out a little bit (not in a scary way, but definitely in a way which made an impression). I mean, he was kind of right. A roomful of various theatre professionals now entering their second-ish career in training to become theatrical experts and not a one of us had attended live Opera. There was something shameful about that; he knew it, and I think in our hearts we knew it. I vowed in that moment that I would make it my business to see an Opera as soon as I could.

I didn’t have to wait long. A couple months later, I was presented with tickets to La Traviata as an afternoon outing with a friend. We went. I swallowed my anxiety about what to wear, how much to read the subtitles and how much to look at the actors, and if I would have a good time, and let the music wash over me.

It was a great evening. AND I got to feel morally superior to boot since it was the same day as the Superbowl that year (…I mean really, I took in a great cultural moment and supported the arts while the rest of America grunted at their television sets…). Two years later, I review Opera on a regular basis and I’m working hard to introduce the art form into the lives of those around me.

It can be tough to work up the nerve to have a new experience. But especially when that new experience involves supporting the arts, it’s important to buck up and give it a try. Here in Boston we have all kinds of opportunities to see Opera: Boston Lyric Opera, Boston Opera Collaborative, Boston Metro Opera, and Geurilla Opera (to name a few professional companies). There’s also more “home-grown” student organizations such as the MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players, performances by New England Conservatory’s Opera Students, and performances by Opera students at the Boston Conservatory. Take a risk, take a chance; you might just (like me) discover something new and wonderful out there in the world.

The Parking Lot Rule

As you can imagine, I see a lot of theatre.

As a reviewer, PhD Candidate, fight director, and general denizen of the theatre community here in Boston, it’s important that I remain active and supportive on the theatre scene. It’s also important that I stay professional whenever I’m out at the theatre. For those who have read my reviews, you will know that I see theatre that’s good, theatre that’s not so good, and pretty much everything in between. While the casual observer perhaps isn’t concerned about being overheard at intermission yapping with their neighbor about this actor or that directing choice, I very much am. When I’m at the theatre, I represent several different brands that have backed me and my professional thespian skills: Tufts University, New England Theatre Geek, and my own brand as an FD (to name a few). The last thing I want to do is compromise any of these brands by letting a half-thought sentiment be overheard by the wrong person. Theatre is art. Art is personal. We theatre people take our theatre-babies very seriously.

....this is a photo of the time that I managed to improvise a song in rhyme while playing the ukelele for no reason other than I sure had things to say about the experience in the parking lot (good things.  All good things).

….this is a photo of the time that I managed to improvise a song in rhyme while playing the ukelele for no reason other than I sure had things to say about the experience in the parking lot (good things. All good things).

So I have developed a solution to the inevitable theatrical eavesdropping which might potentially get me in trouble. I call it “The Parking Lot Rule”.

This is a rule that I impart to all of my theatrical companions as they enter the theatre with me. It’s actually very simple: no matter how bad a play is, we don’t talk about it until we hit the parking lot of the building. While inside the theatre, we can praise the show’s good parts, but criticism waits until we are outside.

This accomplishes several things:

1) It curtails the issues I discuss above.

2) It forces you to think about criticism before spouting it in the heat of the moment. Theatre is visceral; humanity has known that since the Greeks; often times it can provoke a visceral reaction which bypasses your critical thinky muscles. To put something down in a harsh way without first examining your criticism is not fair to the artwork, and the parking lot rule helps you take a moment to step back and figure out why it is that you feel a certain way about something before you hurt anyone’s feelings.

3) It lets the play settle in before you make a snap judgment. Sometimes, you really need to see a piece in its entirety before you can determine your feelings on it; the parking lot rule gives you a bit of breathing room in which to make up your mind before you begin to discuss your thoughts. It also allows the “small stuff” to fall away. Sometimes things will catch your eye in the moment which, in the long run, mean nothing; the parking lot rule allows those details to fall into perspective before you render judgment.

4) It allows the theatre to remain a “sacred” space. Acting comes with a lot of woo, and much of it I don’t (personally) subscribe to; but I do believe this: the theatre space is a temple. When a company is performing in a given place, that’s their home for the duration of their run (sometimes longer depending upon circumstances of the play). You wouldn’t criticize somebody’s cooking while sitting on their couch; you shouldn’t criticize somebody’s acting while sitting in their theatre. The parking lot rule allots a certain amount of respect to the art which I believe is necessary for healthy audience/performer interaction.

Whether you’re an experienced theatre-goer or just getting to know the theatre, I highly recommend that you give the parking lot rule a shot. In my opinion, it’s the first step towards learning to think critically about theatre. It has certainly served me well over the years, and I hope that it does the same for you!

Media Socially

As you have probably noticed by now, I like social media. I feel that it has a great power to connect and reveal, as well as make the too-distant world a smaller and more interesting place.

Since I have the vast fortune of being in a position that allows me to craft and mold young, impressionable minds, I utilize this belief within my classroom. One of my favorite assignments in my acting class (and, based on previous experience, one of my students’ favorite assignment as well) is a character analysis assignment I give them focused upon social media. And because I think social media makes the world a better place, I’m going to take the time to share this with you so that you can be jealous that your acting teacher never assigned it, or (perhaps) use it for your acting classes (…if you do, please credit me).

I execute this assignment after I have already had the students choose monologues and read their plays. After a few more traditional character development exercises, I give them a chance to sit for ten minutes in class and create a social media feed from the perspective of their character depicting the events of their play. They are free to use any social media they prefer (twitter, instagram, facebook, etc.), and they are encouraged to develop this in as much detail as possible using the strengths of that platform (personal details via facebook, creating twitter handles, hashtags, etc.). Importantly: they are not required to actually develop the feed, just create some notes about it. This assignment can be done on a piece of paper, or on a computer. I have students sit with their notebooks and draw pictures, I have others who actually generate a twitter handle on the fly and form a feed that way.

Then, I give them a take-home portion. For five points of extra credit on their midterm, they are given the option to participate in this assignment:

Midterm Extra Credit Assignment: Social Media 

We can learn a great deal from what a person choses to share about himself via a public forum; especially when that person is experiencing a life-changing event.

Create a twitter account for your character. The handle should be either akin to the character’s name, or something the character himself would use. Set up an appropriate profile picture, header picture, and header text. Now use that account to tweet in the persona of your character.

You must update the feed several times a week over the course of the next few weeks; at least five tweets a week, but more is encouraged; until your final midterm monologue presentation. Updates should be in character and reference events in the play, other characters in the play, etc. You may comment upon actual goings-on in the real-world news if you feel that it is/would be valid and important to your character.

The richer your feed, the more points you will be awarded. To enrich your feed, include: links, retweets, pictures, hash tags, begin to follow people, etc.

For a few example feeds see: @HomerJSimpson (Homer Simpson, The Simpsons), @Broslife (Barney Stinson, How I Met your Mother), @KurtHummelGLEE (Kurt Hummel, Glee).

If you choose to participate in this assignment you must: Follow me on twitter from your new account (@drosvally). Once I follow you back, you will be able to send me a DM from the twitter handle with your (real) name and a note that you will be participating in this assignment. To send a DM, go to your page (twitter.com/[yourhandle]) and click on the envelope icon underneath your header picture. Click “new message”.

Since the midterm is coming up quick, the window for this assignment is small. If you intend to participate, you must declare that to me AND begin tweeting by WHATEVER DATE.

I, once again, can’t wait to see what my students come up with. I’m sure it will be both amusing and amazing.

Bent

Last night, I finally had a chance to drop by and see the critically acclaimed production that I worked on with Zeitgeist stage. Bent is a show about what happens to humanity when humanity is killed. On a literal level, it’s about gay men during the holocaust.

It was a tough show to work on. We did one very long fight call to get through the myriad of violence which the actors had to portray onstage (several beatings, several murders of various types, lots of body-dragging, you get the idea). After rehearsal, I came home a bit of a wreck and in need of some emotional after-care. I was pretty sure that I was going to hate the show (in a way that only excellent theatre about provocative issues can make you hate it).

I was mostly correct. While sitting in the audience last night, I got to witness human reactions to the visceral physical and psychological trauma being depicted onstage. Many folks left at intermission because they simply couldn’t bear to see anymore. I felt bad for them, but understood; it’s difficult to get through a show like this. It’s not pleasant to watch, it’s not pleasant to experience, but these are the kinds of atrocities that we, as a society, need to be reminded of in order to grow as human beings. There was, clearly, no end but one for the show’s protagonist and I could understand the need to leave the theatre before that end occurred.

Needless to say, the performances and direction are top-notch. Zeitgeist is a company that’s supremely aware of the old Shakespearean axiom that you need to make an audience love your characters before they die horribly. Moments of levity were interspersed with the horrors we witnessed in order to allow space for air. In terms of dramatic structure, this kind of relief makes the tortures that much more painful (and that much more real). Humor allows us to connect with characters as people and so is an extremely effective device in high tragedy (and I have no other words for what this play is really about).

The actors are all incredibly strong. The couple next to me was pretty seriously pondering the prospect of attacking the Nazi guards as they walked through the aisle on vigilant watch. In a show like this, it can often be more difficult to portray the antagonist than the protagonist. While the audience is already inclined to be sympathetic towards those who are being oppressed, embodying a personification of true evil in this modern world can be extremely taxing to the soul.

You don’t have a lot of time left to catch Bent (they’ll be at the Boston Center for the Arts through October 11th…. That’s next week, folks!). I highly recommend a trip over; and not just because I worked on the show.

Busy Busy Busy

Man oh man the semester is in full swing and it’s going to be a long and complicated one!

I’m able to now officially announce that I’ll be teaching stage combat at Apollinaire this fall with their actor training program.  We’ll start with a six week unarmed fundamentals class, then move into a six week class on swashbuckling.  If you’re looking to pick a fight with me, coming to my class is a great way to do it.  I’ll be excited to teach this as, let’s face it, fighting with others is my favorite means of paying my rent.

I also recently put together a bit of violence for Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Bent.  If you’re at all interested in hard-hitting theatre performed by extremely talented actors, you should check this one out.  The performance, from what little I saw at the edges of my fight call, is going to be intense.  These guys are the real deal and, as usual, Zeitgeist is producing theatre that speaks to the darkness of man.  Prepare for some emotional after-care after this one; whether that means beer or chocolate, you’re going to need it.

In addition to my two department-sponsored classes (one as an instructor, one as a TA), I’m also teaching another OSHER class this fall.  We’re reading Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice.  I love teaching adult students and find it incredibly fulfilling to spend a couple hours a week discussing Shakespeare with the brilliant folks who come through OSHER.  And, really, what teacher wouldn’t want to be given a classroom full of people who took their class by choice, for self enrichment purposes only, and who are doing it for the pleasure of doing it?  Oh… and I don’t have to grade them.  That also helps to make this class one of the more enjoyable things I do with my precious time.

Have I mentioned recently that I love teaching?

Someone remind me of this around finals when I’m going nuts trying to make sure that everything gest graded in time.

Finding Neverland

The other night I had the rare opportunity of seeing a show without the added pressure of reviewing it. While I absolutely love reviewing, I’ve been doing so much of it these days that it’s almost inconceivable to go to enjoy a piece simply as an audience member, so when I get to it’s definitely a treat.

"Finding Neverland" production Photo by  Evgenia Eliseeva; courtesy of the ART Media Repository

“Finding Neverland” production Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva; courtesy of the ART Media Repository

The A.R.T. has really been on a roll of late. With their many direct-to-Broadway productions over the past couple years, it’s definitely challenged Boston theater makers in terms of what gets put onstage here in the Northeast. The most recent from ART to the great white way is Finding Neverland, a musical adaptation of the Johnny Depp film we all know and love about J.M. Barrie writing childhood classic Peter Pan.

First of all: the show is excellent, the talented performers are spectacular, and it’s going to do really well on Broadway.

But what really struck me the other night was the audience. I see my share of shows at the ART and Oberon, and there’s definitely a huge demographic difference between the main stage and the avant-garde space tucked away in the back end of Harvard Square. But the other night, I saw something truly incredible: children in the audience.

People were taking their kids to see theatre. Whole families had come to see this show. I can’t even begin to tell you how magical that is; and how incredible a success it is to encourage this kind of theater going.

As someone who sees a lot of theater, I can tell you: audiences ain’t getting any younger. The vast majority of houses I wind up sitting in are filled with adults over the age of 40 (the Broadway League declares that the average age of a Broadway theatregoer was 42.5 years in 2012-2013). It’s pretty clear why this is a problem: as the audience grows old enough that they are unable to see theatre, the theatres will empty out. The bottom line is that if we don’t train a new generation of audiences, then we work in an art that is doomed to slowly strangle itself unto death.

Theatre which encourages young audiences to love it is theatre which does vital work in the community. And oh boy did they love it; listening to chatter betwixt parent and child during intermission and as we slowly filtered out of the auditorium, I couldn’t help but find the joy infectious.

So go see Finding Neverland; because it’s a good show, but also because we need to support theatre that supports theatre.

Weekend Adventures

Some weekends, I come back to my desk and feel like I’ve been in a completely different world for a few days. Some weekends, I feel like I’ve never left (…some weekends I don’t actually leave). This weekend was chock full of activities through which I wore a variety of different hats (literally and figuratively), and enjoyed some really awesome theatre!

Friday night, the man and I caught the opening performance of “Trapped in a Room with a Zombie”. This is a site-specific interactive piece in which an audience of twelve is invited into a room and the door is locked behind you. In the room with you is a zombie. All around the room are clues designed to help you open the door (there are five “steps” to the final process, each of which has several clues which must come together for the group

Our group shortly after being zombified

Our group shortly after being zombified

to figure it out). Oh and every five minutes, the zombie’s chain gets a little looser. You have one hour before the zombie rampages and kills you all.

The “show” (for lack of a better term) is a piece which began in Chicago and now has ten locations nationwide. The Boston location just opened and it’s in a warehouse at the industrial end of Chelsea. Just walking into the building is like stepping into a zombie flick!

We had a blast solving the puzzles. I have been sworn to secrecy by the staff of the attraction, so I won’t go into any detail here; but suffice to say that it’s quite challenging. I would highly recommend the experience to anyone with even the slightest interest in zombies, teamwork, problem solving, or fun.

Saturday, I led a swing and foxtrot tutorial for a group of dancers in New Hampshire in preparation for an awesome forties-themed photo shoot that a good friend is coordinating next weekend (don’t worry; there will be plenty of amazing pictures!). The highlight of this event, for me, was having the opportunity to be dancing again.

I worked my way through my Master’s as a ballroom dance instructor (no joke; I’m a woman of wide and sundry talents). Before that, I danced on and off for most of my life. Dance is a thing that I don’t do enough of here in Boston and it was absolutely amazing to spend an afternoon kicking up my heels. I love to teach ballroom to an appreciative audience; and this group was as eager to learn as I could have ever hoped for. Because they were already dancers, they picked up the steps quickly and asked good, productive questions. Also, it made me really think about my basic steps again (a task which I used to do a great deal of but haven’t much anymore since when was the last time I had to break down a foxtrot basic for a group of inquiring minds? Heck, when was the last time I even danced a foxtrot?) What a treat!

On Sunday, we caught Seven Stages Shakespeare Company in the encore production of their ShakesBEERience series. The ShakesBEERience performances are truly a joy: semi-rehearsed staged readings of plays which take place in taverns, breweries, and restaurants all around Portsmouth New Hampshire. These performances are free and audiences are invited to come for as much (or as little) as they like. This weekend, Seven

Artsy rendition of my drink plus playbill

Artsy rendition of my drink plus playbill

Stages performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Gas Light in Portsmouth. What was really great about this show was that it was the direct result of a collaborative effort between several different Portsmouth-based artistic groups. The Dorks in Dungeons (a role playing game inspired improvisation troupe) performed as the Rude Mechanicals. The Neoteric Dance Collective was on hand to play the fairies. There was magic, there was music, and there was so much beer.

What I really love about the ShakesBEERience effort is that it keeps Shakespeare extremely accessible. Free performances happening in low-pressure environments with a come-as-you-are attitude encourage new audiences to consider Shakespeare an experience within their reach, and even an experience that could be enjoyable. If you want to talk about new audience curation, these guys have that in the bag. Their work is community-oriented and reaches out to bring the outside in. I would highly recommend catching one of their shows (they’ve got two coming up this summer; Taming of the Shrew and Comedy of Errors).

So now I’m back at my desk, preparing to dive in to the next steps of my current project (read: dissertation). Maybe not as tried and true as foxtrots or Midsummers in bars, but definitely at least as exciting.

So… how was your weekend?

Sweet Sweet Parsing

So have you guys seen the article about Parsing is Such Sweet Sorrow that’s been going around lately?

It was brought to my attention by a mentor of mine and I have a few colorful things to say about the project.

Let me start here: Yes!  Computers are useful!  And yes!  Digital humanities has some really exciting applications, even in the field of theatre!  You might think that this is a really simple thing to say/discover, but please let me take a moment to tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in on where I’ve heard theatre scholars of varying levels say either directly or indirectly “the digital humanities have no holding on my field.”  WRONG.  Computers are great at certain things that can make all of our lives easier.  They’re awesome at searching things, they’re fantastic at pattern recognition, they can find and share information across the world faster than you can say “speed of light” (…unless you’re on dial-up for some god forsaken reason in which case I’m so very sorry for you).

So well and truly: I think that Emma Pierson, the researcher who put together this project, is onto something really important: using computers with theatre!

That said, the findings aren’t anything new.  Heck, I could have told you exactly what she told you with her fancy charts and graphs without even boning up on my Romeo and Juliet (…though I will admit, my ability to quote Shakespeare from memory has been referenced in casual conversation as “inhuman” and “more than any healthy human being should really know”).

I took issue with a few metrics used in this study.  First and foremost, the length of the plays weren’t taken into consideration.  Placing Romeo and Juliet (a play of  24,535 words) on the same graph as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (16,511 words) without re-jiggering some appropriate metrics creates a skewed representation of the data (the average length of a play for Shakespeare, by the by, is 22,595 words which is the approximate length of Richard II… give or take a couple hundred words).  So while this data isn’t technically wrong, creating comparisons between these plays without figuring percentages of lines rather than number of lines creates a false sense of what’s actually going on here.  We can’t compare if there’s no real basis for comparison, and unfortunately Pierson has presented data that lives in its own world.  She’s just put those worlds side by side on the same axis and color-coded it to make it look cohesive.  It’s really not.

Pierson begins to unpack this data and postulates that the plays with the most connected lovers are also those with strong women.  I’m not certain we can really draw that conclusion from the limited sample size utilized in this study.  There are a few very notable strong women who are completely left out: Rosalind, Julia, Imogen, and Helen come to mind immediately.  What happens if we add the Princess of France and Rosaline from Love’s Labour’s Lost to this mix?  I think that will pretty well throw a monkey wrench in the entire operation considering the lovers in LLL hardly ever interact.  Or how about Isabella from Measure for Measure?  Can we even call her a “lover”?  She’s certainly a strong female Shakespearean lead… and she definitely ends up married at the end of her play… so what do we make of her?

I’m a huge fan of crafting visualizations like this to create conclusive and interactive data about things which were previously opinion based and, subsequently, inconclusive.  My large issue with the “Parsing” project is that it has so many holes.  Certainly it begins some new brainwaves, which is always good, but I’d love to see this information a bit more thoroughly teased out.  Honestly, I’d love to have the opportunity to get my hands dirty with it.  What could we find out from a study like this if we didn’t cherry-pick our plays?  I’m not sure, but I’d really like to find out.

At the end of the day, this is the important take-away: computers are only bound by our puny human brains.  Imagination is what will be the limiting variable in any study; even ones which utilize advanced technology to create neat little bar graphs.

Not-so-Springlike, Not-so-Breaklike

Hello everyone!

I’m back from “Spring Break”.  I put this phrase in quotation marks because it was neither Spring, nor a Break.  I did make a trip up to Quebec with my best beloved just to get away from town for a while.  Think about that: Canada.  In March.  It was very cold.

It was, however, absolutely beautiful.  We got to see the Hôtel de Glace (the only ice hotel built in North America by the way; it’s built and re-built every year in January and only open for a few months.  They build it differently every year so each experience is one-of-a-kind.  Yes you can actually stay the night; no we didn’t; and after being there for a few hours I’m extremely happy with that decision since brrr it was COLD).  The rivers

View from the old city walls

View from the old city walls

were almost completely frozen over, if not solid enough to spot trucks driving over them.  We got to see the ice flows (just beautiful) and the sugar loaf at Montmercy falls.  All in all, being in the old city was like being in Europe; complete with getting to practice my French skills (…there’s nothing like the opportune moment to realize that you don’t remember the word for “check” as in “may we have the check, please?”… it’s “chèque” by the way… ain’t that embarrassing?)  This mini-vacation definitely wasn’t a “spring-like” pursuit; but the added bonus is that it was SO BLOODY COLD that when we returned, even the Massachusetts I-won’t-ever-give-up winter felt warm by comparison.  Temperatures have decided to plummet today and we’re expecting more snow on Wednesday.  Because New England is a vicious, vindictive, vermin.

It also wasn’t much of a break.  Though I did take a long weekend away, when I returned there was a backlog of e-mails, projects, lesson plans, and various things which required my attention.  I spent the tail half of the week scrambling to get back on top of things before classes started again (today).  I also managed to book two more classes to teach this semester on top of my current coarse load (my OSHER class, of course, and I’m also going to be teaching stage combat workshops for the kids over at Charlestown Working Theatre… this is extremely exciting because what could be more fun than spending a few hours every week teaching kids to safely beat each other up?  Oh, by the way, I get paid to do this.  This is my job.  Go ahead and be envious, I’ll understand).

Additionally, I’ve got two more FD gigs lined up (the main stage at Tufts has asked me back for their third and final production this year – OR directed by Sheriden Thomas, and I will also be working with Zeitgeist Stage Company on their up-and-coming show Good Television).

So, really, I’m hitting the ground running here.

As an aside: I recently received an e-mail from a reader asking about the proper pronunciation of the word “dramaturge”.  Here’s the e-mail:

Please help us Dani. Brother and I want to know the correct and widely accepted pronunciation of the word dramaturg? Is it with a soft g as in the French interpretation typically spelled with an e at the end or is it with a hard g as one would assume having come from the Greek root? Thank you for your time and assistance in clearing this up for us. We will submit to your opinion.

Never fear, dear reader; since this is one that I deal with on a daily basis, let’s have a chat about it now.

Since I don't have a picture of me duking it out with someone in a sumo suit, you'll have to settle for a shot of the "Frozen"-themed room at the Ice Hotel

Since I don’t have a picture of me duking it out with someone in a sumo suit, you’ll have to settle for a shot of the “Frozen”-themed room at the Ice Hotel

As you note in your e-mail, “Dramaturge” is from the French work “Dramaturge” and, before that, the Greek word “Dramaturgos” (“Drama” meaning exactly what you would expect it to, and the suffix “-ergos” meaning “worker”).

Also as you seem to be experiencing, there’s actually a great deal of dissention about the pronunciation of this word.  Since it’s from French, you would expect it to be pronounced with the soft “g” (the terminal “e” also indicates this pronunciation), but some scholars prefer to spell it “Dramaturg” and pronounce it in the German way using a hard “g”.  This quirk is in honor of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, author of the Hamburg Dramaturgy (a compilation of essays written by Lessing over the course of his career first as the lead critic of the national theatre in Hamburg then as various other theatre-type-things over the course of the eighteenth century) who is often considered the father of modern dramaturgy.

I, personally, tend to pronounce it the German way (though it depends on what day you catch me and if I’ve been translating Molière recently).  Unfortunately, I have to tell you that both you and your brother are correct; if you walked up to a group of Dramaturges (with a few Dramaturgs mixed in) and each of you took a turn saying it in your own way, you’d both be accepted amongst the group and invited to join the communal festivities beside the fire noting the disparagements between bad Hamlet quartos while being offered egregious amounts of wine to drink.  I should add the caveat that, in the plural, it’s more elegant to use the hard “g” and so that generally is what happens (though, really, when do you run into a group of wild Dramaturgs?  The only time we band together is at conferences, and then usually it’s so we can acquire food without being thrown into nearby dumpsters by the local sports teams who smell our nerdom from a block away and have trouble repressing high school instincts once those pheromones are in the air).

I hope this is helpful even though it’s not conclusive.  If you’d like a better way to settle this between you two, I often find that these sorts of arguments, where neither party is correct nor wrong, are best solved using inflatable sumo suits and copious application of ridiculous sound effects.  After all, it’s very hard to argue victory when you’ve been tackled to the ground and piled on top of.  If you do decide to fight for glory and honor this way, please send a picture.  Nothing would make my day more delightful than a (safe) knockdown, drag-out fight to the finish over quirks of the English (….French…. German… Greek….) language.

Judgment Day

Over the weekend, I had the good fortune to act as a judge for the Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild’s Massachusetts High School Drama Festival.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I will not be discussing any details of the judging process, or provide any justification for the decisions that were made.  I will not, actually, even discuss the decisions that were made.  What I will talk about is the overall experience.

Every year, high schools all over the state prepare 40-minute one-act pieces to showcase at Festival.  These pieces can be anything from adaptations of old stand-bys, to original pieces, to cut versions of classics.  The students are then invited to perform their pieces at preliminary festival rounds.  Each preliminary round includes eight performances over the course of one grueling day.  Three of these performances will move up to semi-finals.

So essentially, if you choose to stay for the entire day, you get the opportunity to see eight shows performed by exuberant, energetic, youthful performers who are just so excited for the opportunity to perform in front of their peers.

I can’t even begin to say how refreshing and rejuvenating the experience of watching this was.  Professional theatre can make you jaded and it can make you jaded quickly.  While there are certainly wonderful, magical things about the theatre (which, of course, is why we all choose to stay in it), the underbelly is its own ugly, irredeemable beast.  At its worst, theatre can be a conglomeration of horrible things: the politics, the narcissism, the nepotism; it can get to be a lot sometimes.  Additionally, the constant struggle for work is just that… a constant struggle.  As with many things, if you find yourself in a jungle of the bads without experiencing the fresh breath of the goods, you can begin to see a very grotesque and ugly mask.

You can often forget why it was that you got into this in the first place.

If you’re ever feeling that way, I highly recommend that you figure out how to get yourself to see one of these kinds of festivals.    The energy that tingles through the air is absolutely titillating.  The obvious effort that goes into each and every project is simply touching.

But if you really want to see something, stick around for the awards ceremony.  In addition to awarding three shows placement in the semi-finals, awards are also given out for “all-star” performances.  These awards can be for anything that a student put forth to add to the production: costuming, lighting, set design, acting, directing, etc.  The students who are recognized in this way are so excited and grateful to be presented with an honor before their peers.  The ceremony entails tears, cheers, and (most notably) no jeers.  While exuberance for a winner definitely comes most noticeably from the winner’s own school, the rest of the auditorium joins in congratulatory applause rather than any kind of derision.  Sportsmanship was an incredible portion of the day.  While I’m still on the fence about the benefit of “friendly competition” to the arts, I can most certainly say that this event encourages good social habits for an artist to have: a sense of accomplishment with one’s own work, and a sense of awe and inspiration from the work of one’s peers.

I can also say that I believe, with some surety, that lives were changed this weekend.  It may seem silly to say that, but assurances from co-judges, teachers, directors, and the ambient adults in the room that this event meant “so very much” to the kids were absolutely confirmed by the number of teary-eyes award recipients whose hands I shook.

While it was a long day (fifteen hours on-site, not including the time it took me to drive to/from the host school), it was absolutely a worthwhile one.  I am so very happy to have been a part of it, and I well and truly can’t wait to see what happens next year.