You Coulda Been a Contender (Or, The Power of Competition)

A few weeks ago, my students participated in our state theater festival.

The festival planning committee makes sure not to refer to Individual Events (IEs) as a "competition." They are an "adjudication" only -- an opportunity for your students to receive feedback from theater professionals. But let's be honest: our students are all vying for superior scores. And while the adjudicators insist that all of the students could hypothetically receive superiors, you know that all of the scores are relative. They pick out the few "best" examples of student work and then grade everyone else accordingly. So it's definitely not a competition. Except that it's totally a competition.

(Festival opening ceremonies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts)

You want to get a superior score because that's your golden ticket to the national festival. For my middle school students, that means a weekend trip to Sacramento, CA (pending our school coming up with the travel, housing, and registration fees) where they will be able to present their work alongside some of the most talented students from across the country. I've had the privilege of volunteering at the national high school festival for the past two years. The NYC theater community can sometimes be embittered, disillusioned, and (dare I say it) downright catty. You get the feeling at times that no one really wants to be there. Stepping onto the campus of the University of Lincoln-Nebraska, corn stalks and all, you automatically feel rejuvenated. For one week, that city is overflowing with passion for the dramatic arts -- simple and unbridled. It reminds you why you decided to work in this industry in the first place. I'm hoping that my middle school students have a similarly transformative experience at the middle school festival.

My students were the first middle schoolers to ever compete in the technical theater categories. Four of my costume designers were presenting portfolios and renderings based on 30-minute adaptations of Shakespearean plays. They did outstanding work and that was recognized by the adjudicators: two superior scores and two excellent scores. When my first student, Jaylin, finished her presentation, one of the adjudicators asked her where she was going to college.

"I don't know," she laughed. "I'm just getting ready for high school!"

The adjudicator paused for a moment and put down her pen. "What grade are you in?"


The adjudicator turned around to look at me.


(Ready to start our first IE presentation)

"All of my students are," I said, motioning to the four young women clad in their best dress blacks beside me.

"I was impressed before," the adjudicator finally said, jotting down her scores, "but now, I'm REALLY impressed."

Up until that moment, my students had thought of theater as a "throwaway class." Even these four young women, who really enjoyed designing costumes, were perpetually skipping out on our after-school work sessions in favor of sports practices and studying for IAs and hanging out with their friends (which can be oh-so-tempting at the end of the day). They had begrudgingly dragged themselves up the stairs to the fifth floor theater room and then complained ad nauseum about having to be there. They played on their iPhones when they were supposed to be sketching; they never completed any of the homework that was posted on the Google Drive. I literally had to drag these portfolios and renderings out of them (eventually pulling them out of their classes after state testing to get the finished products done). It was a frustrating experience and, walking into our state festival, I swore that I'd never do it again.

But when my students started getting praise heaped on them -- by a Broadway costume designer, nonetheless -- everything changed. On the subway ride back to Brooklyn, all they could talk about was how much they wanted to compete again next year. Even the two young women who had only received excellent scores announced with a steadfast determination how they were going to "get it right" the second time around. On Monday, students at school -- hearing about our costume designers' accomplishments -- asked how they could get involved in the state festival. Interest in the theater department grew and our students, seeing their classmates score round-trip tickets to California, started to dream big for themselves.

I suppose that's the power of competition. Students who have spent their entire lives failing -- scoring low on state tests, ending up in lunch detention day after day, being conscripted into early morning "intervention groups" -- are able, with the right coaching and commitment, to succeed. However, that success doesn't just benefit that one student; it also benefits all of their friends who see someone like them (same socioeconomic status, same ethnic/racial background, some education) achieve, and they start to wonder if they could do the same.

(Learning how to use power tools in the Tech Challenge)

The student that I was proudest of at the state festival wasn't one of my superior scorers. It was a special education student (we'll call her Rachel) who was at the bottom of her English classes. When Rachel had expressed interest in participating in the festival, I had been hesitant. We were competing with Shakespearean scripts, and she was reading many years below grade level. I spent hours helping her work through her script analysis and design choices. But even the day before the festival, she kept forgetting who characters were and mixing up fundamental plot points. When Rachel stood up for her presentation, I was probably more nervous than she was. I was so worried that the adjudicators were going to belittle her for not understanding the script.

I didn't need to worry. Rachel aced the presentation. She explained all of her design choices clearly and supported them with evidence from the text. There was not a single mistake in her analysis of the script, not a single character saddled with a misnomer. The adjudicators presented her with a score of excellent -- the second highest score that you can receive. I think it was probably the first time that she'd felt successful in anything. When she was finished, I excused myself to the bathroom and cried.

I don't believe in competition. I think that it can be detrimental -- especially for middle schoolers who are just beginning to compare themselves to their peer group. I strongly agree with Montessori's philosophy that we need to focus more on intrinsic motivation and collaboration during this time. But there are some upsides to the American Spirit of Competition.

And I think about them every time I see Rachel in the hallways.

Day Six (31 Days of Trip Planning): Had coffee/brunch with the playwright of Collapsing Horse, a puppet theatre based out of Dublin. (I'll write much more about them at a later date. I'm not only absolutely enchanted by the work that they're doing, I'm also in awe of how cohesively they function as a touring ensemble. They've been doing this for years now, and they're only in their early-mid 20s. There's something really special happening with that company.)

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