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.