People often ask me why I am an advocate for high school competitive drama and my answer is always the same: Nobody questions competitive sports, so why is the theatre any different? Obviously theatre is far more subjective than the number of touchdowns in football or goals in soccer; however, it's the spirit of competition that thrills me. Drama festivals help frazzled teachers keep their actors and stage crew committed to the play. Of course every production has its star who would gladly attend rehearsal in the middle of an earthquake, but far more often teachers face the dilemma of keeping students who are still on the fence about drama from straying to less creative endeavours.
This past weekend I attended the Saskatchewan Drama Association's Region 1 drama festival in Carlyle, Saskatchewan. I am happy to say the competitive spirit is alive and well! Over the weekend I was treated to 5 productions and all of them had their strengths. This particular festival holds a special place in my heart, because from grade 7 until I graduated, I was involved as a participant. In those 6 years, I was either involved as an actor, director or playwright, and while I was mostly stimulated by the work, I must confess that a part of me always really, really, really wanted to win. Well, this weekend I came across dozens of students (and teachers, too, I might add) with that same drive. TO WIN!
The first play of the weekend was a play of mine, Laughing Stock. I had never seen this particular play in the company of a live audience, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to drive down and see Carlyle High School's production. Carlyle has been a strong supporter of my work, having produced 2 others before this, so I always try to reciprocate that support whenever possible. I have to say that I absolutely adored their production! From top to bottom, they nailed it. As a writer, it's always gratifying when students are patient with my material and allow it to be funny, rather than force it to be funny by assaulting the audience at every turn. And the directors were simply amazing, staging the play with terrific levels and strong technical choices. If you have not read the play, it features well over 40 different characters, disappearing and reappearing in a variety of costumes. One teacher said I should be shot for writing so many costume changes and another said the title should be switched to "Costume Hell." But Carlyle really pulled it off and the production was a visual stunner. Also, the performances from the entire cast were spot on. I particularly enjoyed the comic stylings of Rachel Corrigan and Bjorn Rekken in a wide variety of roles, but everyone was great and had a moment to shine. It was my honour to meet the students afterwards and congratulate them for making the play funnier than I ever imagined in my wildest dreams.
The second play was Rest in Peace by Pat Cook, presented by Oxbow Prairie Heights School. Oxbow is my hometown, so I always cross my fingers they do a nice job. Oddly enough, I played the lead in this play back when I was 16, so it was interesting to me that very few of the lines were familiar. I guess my brain had to do some spring cleaning to let in more data, but I enjoyed the production regardless.
Third on the bill was Genre by Wade Bradford, presented by Lampman High School. Lampman won this festival last year with another Bradford play, Conflict. I think Conflict is one of the best one act plays ever written, so this one had an enormous set of shoes to fill. I really enjoyed this play, although not quite as much its companion piece. However, the play is brand spanking new, so I'm sure by the time it goes into print, it will be just as polished as Bradford's rapidly growing roster of wonderful comedies. I'm always excited to see what he has in store.
Next up was Mmmbeth by Allison Williams, presented by McNaughton High in Moosomin. I had read this play previously, but this is the first time I had ever seen it staged. The costumes and set were beautifully designed, and I really enjoyed the 3 witches who narrated the unfortunate events that transpired. Also of note, my cousin Kendra was an actor in this production. After years of working backstage, it was awesome to see her up on stage with such gusto!
The last play was a second entry from Lampman, The Celebrity by Paul D. Patton. Student director Taylor Fornwald went all out with this 10 minute play, and her creativity burst right off the stage and into the audience. Visually stunning, gloriously paced and energetically staged, this play had me in stitches from start to finish. I actually quite enjoy the 10 minute format. For a student director especially, I believe it offers a challenge to grab the audience's attention immediately and hold it. This one succeeded on both counts.
If you hadn't already noticed, all 5 plays were comedies. Usually 1 or 2 are dramatic pieces, but not as many serious one acts are written these days. One could dust off and old relic, but I find more and more that teachers are clamouring for new plays that speak to modern audiences. And thank heavens for that or I would have no career. I enjoy both genres, but as a comedic writer, it thrills me to see comedy becoming a more valid choice as a competition piece. Back when I was in high school, it was normally the serious plays that took home the most hardware.
Needless to say I was thrilled when Laughing Stock was chosen as Best Overall Production! Runner-Up to Best Overall was awarded to Genre, and over two dozen other awards were spread around to the immense amount of teenage talent involved in all 5 plays. The most endearing moment of the entire festival was when Rachel Corrigan was awarded the Mary Ellen Burgess Award for acting excellence. This is the top acting trophy of the festival, and one that I won for two consecutive years many moons ago. Well, it touched me dearly when Rachel ran up to me, all smiles, and said, "I won the award with YOUR name on it!" It's hard to believe it's been 14 years since I held that very plaque, but it felt somehow full circle to pass the torch on via one of my plays.
So the weekend was a huge success and inspired the first creative domino to fall so far this year. One by one, the wacky ideas from my brain will collide with one another until there are hopefully a stack of new plays ready to take their place in the spotlight. Whether or not they are any good is yet to be determined, but it's the hope of something good that keeps me going. And the desire to win.