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Teens take to the boards for the 2020 Maine Drama Festival

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Memories of the hardwood still echo following the recent high school basketball tournaments – memories of hard-fought, hard-won games. But it’s a different sort of scholastic competition playing out this weekend in venues across the state - a competition whose players are just as devoted and just as passionate as any who took to the floor at the Cross Insurance Center, the Augusta Civic Center or the Cumberland County Civic Center.

Stages all over the state being prepared for the largest scholastic drama weekend of the year - the Maine Drama Festival.

The Maine Drama Festival has been a going concern for nearly a century, giving high school students an opportunity to take to the stage and encounter like-minded peers in a competitive, yet supportive environment. Under the auspices of the Maine Principals Association, schools from across Maine come together to present theatrical works they have produced.

The regionals of the 2020 MPA One-Act Play Festival are set to play out over nine different stages this weekend. On March 6 and 7, some 80 different high schools will send their thespians out to tread the boards, playing their hearts out and offering a pure love for and devotion to the power of the theater.

As with any competition, there are rules and regulations that must be followed, though the biggest of all is the time limit - each school has a set amount of time available. The show itself is allotted 40 minutes; if a school exceeds that time by even a second, they are disqualified. In addition, the schools are allowed five minutes in which to erect their set before the curtain goes up and five minutes to tear down after the curtain falls. Again, if either limit is exceeded, the result is disqualification.

This year’s nine host schools are: Camden Hills Regional High School; Lawrence High School; Mount Blue High School; Mount Desert Island High School; Scarborough High School; Skowhegan High School; Stearns High School; Windham High School; and Yarmouth High School. There are two tiers for participating schools – one for larger and/or more well-established programs and another for newer and/or smaller programs. The pieces in each tier deemed best by the judges for each region will then go on to the state competitions, to be held March 20 and 21.

I’ve been lucky enough to serve as a judge for these competitions several times both at the regional and the state level, though not for a few years. And that’s a shame, because as a lover of the arts in general and the theater in particular, there is nothing quite like watching young people come into their own and embrace the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd.

It’s not just the students, either. There are so many invested and inspirational teachers and administrators guiding these teens on their respective journeys. Educators who carry a deep and abiding passion for what they do, exposing these students to theatrical magic. It is an undertaking that is sometimes difficult and often stressful, and yet they carry on, leading these erstwhile thespians forward.

One such educators is Rich Kimball, a teacher at Brewer High School, who has been part of the one-act experience for years. He was kind enough to answer a few questions.

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Tell me a little about the show that you’re doing for this year’s competition.

We're doing some short plays by Christopher Durang, billed as “Durang/Durang” As you might expect, they're very broad comedies with some over-the-top characters, that give high school actors a chance to really have fun and develop their comedy chops.

Describe the process for putting together a show – script selection, auditions, rehearsals, etc. How does it work for you? And what’s the general timeline?

I usually narrow the field to a few choices and do readings with anyone students who are interested. I welcome their input, even though I have the ultimate veto power.

Our auditions tend to be fairly low-key, because I know most of the students, so the one-act tryouts tend to be a search for the best people for specific roles and an opportunity for any new actors to show me they can project, play a character and have some measure of stage presence.

We start rehearsing just before the winter break and go 2-3 days a week for the early part of January, work four days a week until February vacation and every day after that. Most of our cast members also are involved in winter sports and activities like band, Key Club, Student Council … we have to do a lot of juggling. It's not unusual to get to the last week or so without ever having the full cast there. Not ideal, but I'm not going to be the one to tell a student that my activity is the most important. Many of them realize on their own that it's not great to be doing multiple activities at the same time, and I've had a number of students who eventually choose to focus on one extracurricular commitment at a time.

What are some things that you love about this competition? What are some things that you wish could be improved?

I love seeing plays from other schools and I really love the bonding that comes from being on the road as a group and being immersed in theater for a couple of days. And I enjoy the competitive aspect. Most of time, school plays are seen by family and friends who tell students how awesome and amazing they are. That's not a bad thing, but I do like the idea that once a year, we get to be judged by theater professionals with no allegiance to our school or our students.

My ongoing gripe about the festival is the level of work that's done by adults in terms of the technical aspects of the production. I'd prefer that we were judged solely on the efforts of our students, but it would be naive to assume that judges aren’t impacted by the razzle-dazzle and the expertise of adult, often professional designers.

There are some considerable logistical hurdles to be cleared – time limits for set-up and tear-down and a hard cap on show length. Any creative ways in which you have tackled these obstacles, either for this show or a previous one?

After 20 years of doing this, I remain convinced you have to keep things fairly simple, especially if you're on the road. Stages, light boards and sound systems are all different, so we tend to focus on the acting and try not to create problems that can derail your efforts. As for the time limit, we've come close a few times to going over and facing disqualification, but we always have a couple of escape plans if we're pushing the envelope. This year, we're well under the 40-minute limit, and my stress level has dropped accordingly.

How does the competitive aspect of the event influence the way you and your students view the work itself? What do you consider the most valuable/important takeaways for the students?

I may have answered that earlier. I would add that our goal is not to win; you never know what will happen when other people interpret your work. Our goal is for each student to perform to the best of their ability, whether they have a lead role, one line, are doing lights or sound, or serving as stage manager. If we can walk away at the end of the weekend knowing we did our absolute best, anything the judges have to say is just icing on the cake.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 March 2020 07:49

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