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.
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.
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?
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?
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?