A few decades ago, theatre educators in Texas looked around and said, “Why isn’t theatre more like football?” And thus, the one-act play competition was born. (I may be oversimplifying here.) Many states have followed Texas’ lead and developed one-act tournaments of their own, but the Texas competition remains the granddaddy of them all. Each spring, hundreds of schools from around the state compete in a bloodthirsty tournament of death, in which losers go home crying and winners advance in six rounds of competition that last months. If you keep advancing, you get lots of time off from school, which is a bonus to both students and teachers. Eventually, in the finals, you perform in a theater that seats thousands. It’s crazy.
When I taught middle school, we had our own minor version of this. Our district (typically 6-8 schools) would hire a judge, get together on a Saturday, and have a great, “not overly competitive” day of it. (By “not overly competitive” I mean that we didn’t adhere strictly to the Texas rulebook, which dictates how many uses of a chair you can have, what constitutes a “level”, and disqualifies you if you run one second over the allotted time.)
So here’s what I told my kids: This isn’t a competition. We’re here to have fun. We’re not here to beat anyone else. We’re here to celebrate theater.
What I thought was: DESTROY THEM! THE RIVERS SHALL RUN RED WITH THEIR BLOOD!
You see, I’m something of a competitive jerk.
Now, I figured I had an inherent and unfair advantage over my fellow teachers, which I intended to exploit fully: I wrote the plays I intended to direct. I could look at my actors, write parts specifically for them, and basically manipulate the process in order to make sure my school came out on top.
Here’s the thing, though: Writing plays for a competition I was going to be in, forced me to write better plays.
You know who else forced me to write better plays? Jen. (Not her real name. Okay, fine, it was her real name.) First, let me say that Jen was a much better theatre teacher than I was. It was ridiculous; every year she’d bring a group of thirty ridiculously enthusiastic and happy students, who would then proceed to beat the snot out of everyone else in the theater with the most amazing show anyone had ever seen. She always won. She had costumes, she had sets that looked like they had been built by union workers, and somehow her actors were always incredible. And they were nice, which made it worse.
I wanted to beat Jen. So every year I tried to outdo myself to write a better play that would offset my disadvantages ( my total lack of costumes, set, and after-school rehearsal.)
The first time I beat her was with The Audition. I had an extremely talented group that year (the kind of kids who show up to the first rehearsal with all their lines memorized) so I decided I was going to adapt a musical for the middle school stage. What better choice than A Chorus Line? (Incidentally, this was the show that I told everyone else I was bringing to the festival just to see the looks on their faces.) My kids that year, in addition to being talented, lovely students, were also just as bloodthirsty and competitive as I was.
They were thinking things like: OUR TOUCHING AND BEAUTIFUL PLAY WILL WIPE THE FLOOR WITH YOU AND BREAK YOUR SPIRITS!
Anyway, since The Audition requires no costumes or set and we could sing and dance, we took home top honors that year. I should mention here that no one officially “won,” but believe me, we all knew who “won” every year.
We won again two years later with Oz, when I again followed the formula of slapstick humor + heartbreaking sadness = win.
In any event, the plays I wrote in order to destroy my fellow teachers and send their drama kids home in tears have been some of my best plays. The seven plays I wrote – Miss Polly’s Institute for Criminally Damaged Young Ladies Puts on a Show, Snappy’s Happy Half-Hour, The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon, The Audition, The Greek Mythology Olympiaganza, It’s not you, It’s me, and Oz, have now been produced more than 1,750 times. They’ve won competitions, sure, but more importantly, they’ve been enjoyed by countless audience members, which is actually the point.
And really, theatre isn’t and shouldn’t be football. But sometimes, when you put the word “competition” in front of it, it really does bring out the best in you.
And remember: theatre began as a competition. If the ancient Greeks hadn’t named winners, the world might be an entirely different place.
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/