Competition Piece

In high school, I participated in a large-scale competitive festival of performances by high school drama clubs. This was not the beginning of my interest in theatre-making but it was a turning point for me. The production process was so intense that it was not until I had graduated college and moved to Poland to work with a professional experimental ensemble that I found something to match it.

My high school, Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, was a participant in the Massachusetts High School Drama Guild Festival, which we simply called “Festival.” I remember the competition rules exactly: Each high school sent a forty-minute production to compete. Five minutes were allowed for set-up and for strike. These time limits were strictly enforced and exceeding them meant disqualification. I remember practicing one year, over and over, to ensure the set-up of a fairly massive stage design in under five minutes. Putting up the set was as precisely choreographed as the show itself.

Comic and Tragic Masks: The MHSDG Logo

There were three rounds of competition in Massachusetts. The preliminary round took place among schools in neighboring towns. From each of these sets of eight productions, three were sent on to semi-finals, which could be anywhere in the state. The final round took place at the Dorothy Quincy Suite in downtown Boston, with fifteen schools performing. Of these, two schools would be selected state winners and would travel to the New England Drama Festival, which brought together the winners from the all the regional states.

I remember the year we won. We took a bus up to Vermont (or was it New Hampshire?) and stayed all in a hotel. Coming from an urban public school, this was an incredible experience for us. Also, keep in mind that this would be the fourth round of performance for that particular production, an adaptation of Ionesco’s Jeux de Massacre (The Killing Game) directed by our extraordinary teacher, Gerry Speca. The show had already been performed at prelims, semis, and finals, winning every time. Each round was separated by some weeks, during which we could rehearse and revise the show. This stretched the process out to several months. How often does this kind of “workshopping” occur at the high school level?

There is plenty of information online about this extraordinary Festival. There is even a comedy by John Wells called Competition Piece that was sometimes performed in the festival itself as the ultimate “in” joke. For a great sense of what festival was like, watch the trailer to my friend Jim Isler’s documentary about Maine’s version of Festival.

Still from FESTIVAL, a documentary by Jim and Tom Isler

I was thinking about Festival recently because, two weeks ago, I proposed to my Introduction to Theatre class at the College of Staten Island that we structure the day as a competition. We had been reading Peter Brook’s chapter on “rough theater” and I wanted to make some by temporarily emphasizing quantity over quality, speed over subtlety, and commitment over long-term planning.

The class went extraordinarily well. It may have been one of the best teaching days I’ve ever had. I could tell this long before the students almost unanimously affirmed how great it had been for them. I could tell by the way they took up the challenge, huddling together in their competitive groups, planning their scenes. There were nine rounds of performances. Each student directed one scene. Each scene was in response to a theme, such as “love” or “tragedy” or “the ocean.” They had exactly five minutes to rehearse before each performance.

The day went so well that I began to think: What would it look like to structure an entire semester of Introduction to Theatre around these kinds of competitions? What if I gave up my personal interest in holy theater, political theater, tragic theater, radical experimental theater, and allowed roughness to reign? What if I gave them what they wanted? Would things fall apart? Would the competitive edge become too sharp, and feelings get hurt? Already in one day I was uncomfortable with the trash-talking that sprang up, although it seemed friendly enough and as far as I could tell no one’s feelings were hurt. But I wonder if this was possible because we were already two months into the semester and the students were already friends. If I started with this on day one, would they be as considerate to each other?

“Conference of the Birds,” by Farid ud-Din Attar (1177)

I’m interested in this idea. I feel a loathing for the reduction of performance to measurable judgment, as in the culture of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. But this wasn’t my experience of Festival, after all. I never felt our work was viewed in a shallow way, even when we didn’t win. My freshman year, our production of Peter Brook’s adaptation of Conference of the Birds only made it to semi-finals. I was disappointed, but it didn’t matter. That production remains with me as one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in theatre. The beginning of something that is still ongoing.

I remember a conversation that I had during my senior year of high school, with our wonderful technical director. He had mentioned the idea that our school might stop participating in Festival, precisely because they were concerned about the competitive feelings it provoked. I was upset: How could we not do Festival? Didn’t he understand that the competition was what fueled our dedication and what made the work so good? No, he said. What made the work so good was the strict rules we had to follow. The time limit of forty minutes allowed much greater precision than our other main stage productions, which could last for two hours or even longer. In addition, there was the process, as described above: multiple rounds, with time in between to rehearse and revise. This is what gave Festival it’s magic, not the competition itself.

Steve Hall — if you are out there — am I quoting you correctly? Do you still think this is true? Isn’t there a certain kind of energy that is stirred up by competition itself? If I have my students compete in multiple rounds, with strict time limits and short rehearsal periods, but I don’t name any team the winner, will it work just as well? Isn’t competition part of what fuels the incredible energy not just of American Idol but of baseball, football, and sports in general? And, after all, don’t the oldest plays in the European canon come from nothing less than a dramatic competition — a festival? What then is the relationship between competition, arts, and education?

Comic and Tragic Masks: From Hadrian’s Villa Mosaic

I intend to find out by experiment exactly what works. I know that I want to see that look on their faces when they are completely focused on the work and not thinking about anything else. I know that day was special because we worked on the scenes for over two hours and nobody checked their phones or had to go to the bathroom. Where did that intensity come from? Has anyone experimented with competitive pedagogies in literature or other fields? What kind of effects did you find?


  1. I have to disagree with Steve Hall: competition does bring out the best in people, though of course it also makes them anxious and miserable. Having taught art for nearly 40 years, I am still amazed how students seem to pull their work out of the gutter if they know a “critique” is coming up, i.e. the show of their work to the rest of the group for comment and criticism. Now one could argue that, strictly speaking, this is not competition, since no one wins anything specific, but isn’t public exhibition itself almost a competition, in that one vies for the most favorable comments from one peers and the instructor? To take it one step further, nothing brings out the best in student artists like the threat, or promise, of putting their work up in a truly public space, such as a student gallery at a school. I once had a shiftless group; then I told them I would grade their final projects when they were hung up in the gallery – boy did they snap into action!

  2. Steven Hall says:

    Hi Ben, Yes, I am out here.

    Let’s talk about competition as pedagogy. But first let me comment on what’s been said.

    There is a slight misquote…I do stand firm in that what made the work (for Festival) so good (and it really was some of the best theatre) was the commitment and dedication of the participants and the opportunity to “showcase” the work through several rounds allowing for comment, adjustment, and of course rehearsal. The “rules” (time limits and such), however, are just parameters and I do not believe play into the equation. The competition, aside from functioning as a way to narrow the field down to two representatives to the New England Festival, is really just a “hook”, an initial motivator, and does not produce the magic. The magic comes from so many people concentrated in one place sharing the same passion.

    That being said…a little about “Festival”… it’s important to understand that the New England Festival, the ultimate “goal” of the individual state festivals, is not a competition and that the twelve participating schools (two from each New England state) are not ranked. It is a three-day showcase of passion and ideas. Also, not every New England state has a competition to select its representing schools. Massachusetts, having the most participants (well over one hundred) chooses the competition method though continually looks for alternatives.

    One of the thoughts that the Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild (METG) is concerned with is that the thought of competition overshadowing the process of making art. We, as educators, should all be concerned with this. Art is not a competition. Art is the expression of idea (hopefully in a creative and thoughtful way). Theatre is the communication of idea. For the festival shows we made very sure that our students understood that adjudicators would be commenting on their work, on their ability to execute the work, to communicate. We took great pains to be sure they understood that the comments of these adjudicators (judges) were also their personal opinions and not necessarily a marker against which they could measure the merit of their efforts. Certainly every comment is worth listening to but understanding where that comment is coming from is equally important. It is difficult, if not impossible, not to view art (the whole art) subjectively. Despite the best efforts of the METG, it is very difficult to get the more than 50 judges required for the Massachusetts festival and then to get them to put their personal biases aside and comment only on the merits of the work they see. I don’t know how many times we heard comments from judges about the choice of material as opposed to the student’s execution of that material.

    OK, back to the “hook”… there is something primeval in us that lurks just below the surface, the satisfying sensation of the thought that perhaps one is better than the next. Competition is a public venue of that desire to be recognized as better than a peer. Naturally when we enter a competition we want to do well, we want our efforts to be recognized in a positive way, we want to win. I am not saying there is anything wrong with this. In fact, I suggest that competition is very stimulating assuming that the person (or people) involved wants to do their best. I do think that when we discuss art competition, the competition is only one tool to help bring out the best work a person can do. However, I disagree with Elaine when she says, “competition does bring out the best in people” unless she is willing to include that trite successive statement that it also brings out the worst. It’s not enough to just say it makes them anxious and miserable. The pressures of a competition can lead to truly terrible work, especially in art. What truly makes any art good, in any discipline, is passion. Competition can be a motivator but without other tools it can only fail at producing anything more than judgmental moments.

    As Elaine mentions in her comment, nothing seemed to get her students motivated better than the thought of public exhibition, with or without a critique. In any public display of our work we are putting ourselves out on the line. Does a judgment or critique of that work help the work, hurt the work, or does it even matter? That depends on the motivations for the work, the intentions of the work, and the other tools we have in our pockets. Those of us with passion for the work will always strive to put our best work out there.

    So….competition as pedagogy….that depends…what are you trying to teach?

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