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All the state’s a stage – The 2019 Maine Drama Festival

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Stages all over the state are being prepped for the largest scholastic drama weekend of the year.

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

Memories of the hardwood might 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 next 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.

The regionals of the 2019 MPA One-Act Play Festival are set to play out over nine different stages this weekend. Some 80 different high schools sent 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 a number of 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: Bonny Eagle High School; Brewer High School; Caribou High School; Lawrence High School; MDI High School; Medomak Valley High School; Mount Blue High School; Skowhegan High School; and Thornton Academy. 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 competition, to be held March 22 & 23. The Class A state competition will be held at Camden Hills Regional High School; the Class B event will take place at Ellsworth High School.

In the past, I have been fortunate 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. Worse luck for me, because as a lover of the arts in general and the theater in particular, there is nothing quite as inspiring as watching young people come into their own and embrace the power of the stage.

And it isn’t just the students. There are scores of invested and inspirational teachers and administrators guiding these teens on their respective journeys. These are educators who carry a deep and abiding passion for what they do, helping to expose 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 with grace and gumption.

As part of the coverage of this event, I reached out to a number of nearby high school drama directors who have one-acts in competition this year. Each of them – Deb Hammond of Bangor High, Rich Kimball of Brewer High, Jasmine Ireland of Ellsworth High and Katie Toole of Hermon High – shared some of their feelings about their current one-act, their histories with the Maine Drama Festival and what the festival means to the hundreds of students that participate every year.

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TME: How long have you been directing one-acts for this event?

Deb Hammond: I have been doing this for eight years.

Rich Kimball: This is my 20th year of directing one-acts and my 25th year of doing drama in Brewer. We do a lot of shows but the one-acts are always the highlight of my year.

Jasmine Ireland: I have been directing one acts for EHS since 2007. Whoa.

Katie Toole: This will be my fifth year.

The Maine Edge: Tell me about the show that you’re doing for this year’s competition.

Toole: This year we’ll be showing scenes from “Epic Proportions,” a full-length farce by Larry Cohen and David Crane (one of the creators of “Friends”). We often choose a one-act play script that can be performed in its entirety, but this year we received permission from the publisher to perform portions of a longer play we liked. It is about what would happen if DeMille’s biblical epic films had been stymied by profound ineptitude. Really, it is about a pair of brothers who stumble into the world of film acting as “extras.”

Kimball: We’re doing a show called “Of Widows and Vegetables” by Michael Scanlan. It’s a commedia dell’arte piece, which is a very stylized form of theatre. There are stock characters that have become a standard part of modern comedy. For instance, the character Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons” is a direct descendant of commedia’s Pantalone. It’s a fun piece with lots of physicality but also very challenging for high school actors as they try and play these broad types and incorporate the traditional movements and styles.

Ireland: This year, we will be producing The Little Prince, which I have adapted myself from the Antoine de St. Exupery book.

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

Kimball: I usually start looking at show possibilities in the fall, when I know what we have for talent. I try to pick something that will work with the people we have and best showcase their abilities. It’s like being a coach...you can’t run the same system year after year regardless of personnel. You have to be flexible and willing to play to your strengths. We auditioned in early December and began rehearsals shortly after that. Like every other director, we’re constantly working around schedule conflicts because the students who do drama tend to be involved in everything---music, athletics, student council, jobs---this year our students have done a lot of work on their own, in researching the style, watching some videos, and they all learned their lines very early in the process, which makes directing that much easier.

Toole: I peruse scripts throughout the year, based on recommendations by colleagues or an interesting synopsis I might read. I have my theatre classes sometimes read options together as a class. I have discussed with the students many times that I like to find texts that will challenge them and build new skills they might not get other opportunities to work on. There are not the same pressures to use titles that are recognizable to an audience as there might be if we needed to fill our seats to raise funds, so anything goes: classical, modern, theatre for young audiences. We’ve done Shakespeare, we’ve put our actors in deep space, and last year we even went metaphysical with Thornton Wilder. The students appreciate being given something they can sink their teeth into. Returning One Act students told the new ones this year, “we get to do characterization exercises and we roll around on the floor a lot. You’ll love it.” 

In the fall I decide on a text with my principal based on anticipated resources. It’s also important that the text meets community standards and represents the school well. We typically schedule our auditions for December or early January as we work on our musical through November. Then we’ll rehearse between 3-5 times a week, mostly on weekdays, for 2-3 hours at a time. At the beginning we take time to analyze the script and do exercises to build esprit de corps. Often I’ll invite a guest speaker or do an activity related to the setting of the script for more background. In later weeks we work on precision, because with a show that has a strict time limit, the potential for error and injury really has to be minimized by having a safe show that runs like clockwork. Heaped on all of that is all the work that needs to be done to go from a bare stage to a production that will transport an audience: building and finding costumes, sourcing props, creating the set. When the school is empty over February vacation, it’s a valuable time to get things done (this year we totaled close to 20 hours between rehearsal and stagecraft). Much of the cast and crew put in time outside of rehearsal to help with that process.

Ireland: To be honest, the process is a little different every year. I’ve had seasons when I knew what I wanted to do years ahead of time and started in September, and then instances like last year when we started rehearsing one show, got the rights pulled and had to start over again in January!

One thing that IS consistent, is that my script selection is always based on two things: that I am passionate about the story and that it will showcase the core group of actors that I know I will have. We typically begin rehearsals right after Christmas vacation.

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

Kimball: It’s a great bonding experience for the students (and the adults) and it’s so much fun to be in a festival setting with other young people who are talented and passionate about what they do.

What could be improved? I wish the focus could be more on the acting. Some schools have the budget and the personnel to create amazing and highly-professional sets and intricate lighting plots while other schools rehearse in gyms, cafeterias, and classrooms. An adult can design and build a beautiful set and lighting plan which certainly add to the overall impact of the production as it’s being performed. The acting is, once the show starts, in the hands of the students. To me, that should be what is being judged. At the same time, there are some very talented theatre students and I wouldn’t want to shortchange their efforts. It just becomes hard to determine what was done by students and what was done by adults.

Hammond: I love the fact that students get a chance to see other schools that share a love for theatre. I think the biggest downside is that it’s a competition instead of just being a celebration of theatre. Because this is a competition, I think it forces the process, so there seems to be less exploration. I like that the kids get feedback, and that they get to ask the judges questions. Last year, the students weren’t given the time to ask questions and that really bothered me. I’m glad they brought that aspect back.

Toole: I love the “festival” aspect. If you can forget for a moment that only one school from each class is allowed to advance to the next level, it is the most valuable instructional opportunity in theatre we have every year. I don’t have to prod students to analyze or to compare and contrast: they do it automatically because all they want to do is talk about what they saw. We see a vast variety of productions in the span of two days, each with different approaches, and each one of them teaches us something about performing or stagecraft or dramatic literature we didn’t know before. The students love meeting “theatre kids” from other schools too, and they openly admire the accomplishments of their peers. And as I said before, there is not a part of the production that the students don’t participate in - it is ultimately run by them (no adults can help during the performance itself), they learn a lot of new skills, and they have a strong sense of ownership over the product. 

Because of all this, it can be a little difficult to balance festival vs. competition. There are times I wish that festival could just be an exhibition of everyone’s work with award-free feedback. But the competitive aspect is very motivating, so I wouldn’t want to lose that. 

I do wish that the general population knew more about the festival and made time to attend - there’s always a lot to see and appreciate because the shows are very polished. Skip the binge-watching because it will be there when you get back - you can “binge-watch” 8 or 9 plays in one weekend instead!

Ireland: I LOVE being able to get to see a weekend of theatre with my students. There are so many great teaching moments! It’s also nice to be able to spend some time with colleagues at this event. There are very few of us Theatre Educators in the state, so I think we often feel isolated (i.e. I don’t really get to have department meetings ;) 

What do I think should improve? I do think that some of the rules are a bit stringent. That said, our program has been known to push the envelope, and has several rules in its honor (laugh). It is unfortunate that there are so many opportunities for complete disqualification.

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

Ireland: YES! My creative team are genius! They have engineered all sorts of amazing things over the years. I think my favorite will always be the pool we created for Metamorphoses. We needed to fill a pool with over 125 gallons of water in five minutes. Joe Lewis, our scenic designer managed to make a rig that filled with gravity. I downlight came up on the pool, and boom - the audience got to watch it fill. It was truly an incredible moment. Beyond that, our tech crew has its own set of rehearsals every year in order to choreograph and practice the set up and tear down.

Hammond: Yes, sometimes you have to get creative. We have two giant trees this year so making sure we can transport them, get them into the host site’s facility AND make sure they’re light enough so children can handle them … has been a challenge. I haven’t had a technical director, for the most part, in the past, but I have one now and she has been absolutely amazing.

Kimball: We tend to keep our sets fairly simple, so we’ve never really been up against the time limit on that, but we’ve got right to the edge several times with the 40-minute limit of the show.

Several years, we’ve built in and rehearsed escape plans. One, during “The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare,” saw the stage manager run on with seconds to go, declare she had just about enough of the show, and call for a blackout, right before we went over the limit. The ultimate escape is to give our lighting operator the power to go to blackout on their own, if we’re getting close. Fortunately, we’ve only had to do that once or twice in 20 years.

Toole: I’ve been fortunate to work with students and technical directors who have done very clever problem-solving. For “Arabian Nights,” we had a massive gazebo that could fold up into this relatively small pile of hinged 2x4s - but was a gorgeous set piece with flowing curtains when it was set up. For “Kaleidoscope,” we wanted to have a surprising transition from the interior of a space shuttle to the expanse of space after an explosion, and this all had to be represented on stage. Seven very courageous young women all sat scrunched up under the set hidden from the audience for the first portion of the show and then lifted pieces of the set away in the dark when the explosion happened under blacklight. Our student light and sound technicians have a great track record of creating commendable atmosphere with those elements when the set itself is limited. With so many scenes in our current show, we had to consider a set that could appear very flexible and appropriate for many different locations, and I think we’ve achieved that, even with all the components being somewhat simple.

Nothing is more satisfying than when you run your load-in a couple of times and discover that yes, you can in fact get the whole show set up in less than five minutes. But before that, it’s pretty hair-raising. Loading-out tends to go a little more quickly, but you don’t want anyone to get hurt or anything to get left behind. 

TME: 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 in a competition like this one?

Toole: I think the pressures you’ve already asked about might be the biggest influences. There is considerably more concern about whether or not we will satisfy all of the rules to avoid disqualification than there is about how we will stack up against other shows, partly because we don’t know what the other schools will bring until we see them. Even with the standardization that a competition requires, the Drama Festival entries are so different from one another, it’s a little like comparing apples and oranges. And it’s rare in the “real world” that anyone is performing a play to compete rather than just to entertain and move an audience. So I emphasize with the students that you have to create a performance that makes you proud, because even if all of the schools in our class got perfect scores, only one can go on to the state level of competition; but all will have an opportunity to make an impact on the audience Festival weekend.

Of course, that means that one of the most valuable takeaways I believe the students can learn is to take feedback graciously, and another is to behave graciously: to care about the space we are guests in, and to leave a positive impression with the hosts and other guests. In any theatre production there are also scads of other virtues to be learned, including discipline, patience, humility, resilience, and teamwork. These are all amplified in the competition atmosphere. Just as athletic competitions involve talent and practicing specific skills, they also involve developing those critical character traits, and that’s true in theatre as well.

Kimball: Any time you’re judging art, it’s a very nebulous thing. At the same time, our students understand and enjoy that aspect. Most of us are competitive by nature. What I try to stress every year is that we’re not competing with other schools, we’re competing with ourselves. Who knows what three judges will like? We’ve had years where we thought we killed it but the judges, or even one judge, simply didn’t agree. Other times I’ve felt we were solid but unspectacular and we won. The bottom line for us is, let’s make sure we leave it all on the stage. Make this the best performance of this show we could possibly give, support each other, and entertain the audience. If we accomplish that, everything else is gravy.

Ireland: To be honest, I don’t know that I think the competitive nature impacts the way we approach the work. That said, the one-act process itself is a chance to focus on a straight play (rather than all the songs and dances) with a smaller cast. This allows us time to do some really advanced acting and characterization work. In terms takeaways, there are SO many, but I think students learning to critically analyze theatrical work and become discerning audience members is crucial. I also always let them know that we aren’t really there to win, I just want them to do their best work. That’s what I’m looking for from them, just the best work THEY can do. As long as they have done that, I’m happy. 

TME: Those who have played host to these events – thoughts on that side of things?

Hammond: I didn’t mind hosting regionals … although I had a new pair of sneakers and by the end of the festival, one of them had blown out. 

Ireland: We are actually hosting States this year!

Kimball: This is only our second time hosting. It requires a bit of negotiation with the cast because they love going on the road, staying in a motel, and all of the bonding, stories, and memories that come with that. But this also gives us a chance to show off our facility and have the relative comfort of performing on your own stage.

As for being the host, my OCD is a huge help! The key to this is organization and communication. I’ve also got great people helping out like our technology teachers Andrew Maxsimic and Ginger Stoneton, who are putting together programs and name tags; Colette Sabbagh, who is organizing our volunteers; Brady Harris, Jeff Farrell and John Philbrook, who take care of all the technical aspects; and Terry and Glen Holyoke, who are serving as liaisons between the MPA and the school; and our students who are all doing additional duties to prepare for the weekend.

And some final thoughts from two of our interviewees:

Kimball: We put a lot of focus on high school athletics, but these students work every bit as hard, display just as much teamwork, and do things that many of their peers would never have the courage to do. It’s no exaggeration to say I’m inspired by them every year and I really believe we see the best of Maine’s young people in this festival season.

Toole: Thanks for throwing a little light on a very cool thing that doesn’t get a lot of press.

(P.S. – It’s “Theatre In Our Schools Month” per the Educational Theatre Association, a happy accident. It is a great time to celebrate scholastic theatre, competitive or otherwise.)

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