Over the past several years, I have been privileged to adjudicate at various levels of the Vermont high school drama festival circuit. Each adjudicator generally has their own set of criteria for what makes a winning show. These often have to do with the acting talent, sophistication of the material, and overall tightness of the production. While each of these contributes my adjudication decisions, I do not necessarily consider them to define a winning show. I use two specific criteria as my tie-breakers – the students’ commitment to the material, and the reaction of the audience.
There are some productions that are clearly head and shoulders above the rest. A special combination of the right material, right director, and right actors makes these shows shine. It is easy to place these performances at the top of my scoring card. The hard decisions come at the next level of competition – those shows that include some of the elements of a great show, but don’t put them all together in a clearly winning performance. They may have great acting, but poor material; they may have great direction, but poor technical execution. When several shows at one festival are in this middle range, it can be difficult to decide how to rank them. At this point, I do my best to base my decisions on the work done by the kids, rather than the work done by the adults that surround them.
For instance, in a tie-breaking situation, it is my preference to let go of my judgments about acting talent because this is something the actors have very little control over. Some students have natural talent, others don’t. While a great director can coax better performances out of both ends of the spectrum, students who are not blessed with a great director don’t have that luxury. Same with sophistication of the material – in most cases, it is the adults running the drama program that choose the material to be performed. If the students do not have a hand in choosing their material, I don’t believe they should be judged on that basis. Similarly, it is the adult director that generally dictates the overall tightness of the production, and I don’t believe that the students should receive an up-or-down vote based on something they have no control over.
Instead, I choose to base my decision to two elements. They are no less subjective than the other possibilities, however I believe that they separate the work of the students from the work of the adults.
- Commitment to the material – Each student displays in their performance a certain level of commitment to the material. This will be evident regardless of the individual student’s level of talent, competence of their direction, or the sophistication of the material. When they are committed, there is a spark and a follow-through that stands out above everything else. I believe that this is one element that each and every student has complete control over, and so I use it as a key determinant in my adjudication decisions.
- Audience reaction – At every level of theatre, a performance is ultimately about providing the audience with an experience that moves them. A show that is perfect technically but doesn’t speak to the heart of the audience is not a successful show; a performance that is lacking in technical expertise but connects with the audience has achieved its goal. In a tie-breaking situation, I always look to audience reaction to aid my decision – was the audience appropriately involved? In a comedy, that means there was genuine laughter in the right spots. In a heartfelt drama, that might mean that the audience was so quiet that even the coughing stopped. Audience reaction will vary with every show, but it is always obvious when an audience is completely enraptured. What makes this such a powerful element for me is that the audience is only seeing what is happening on stage in that moment. It is, in my experience, the element that is most divorced from the work of the adults that surround the performance.
I enjoy adjudicating high school drama festivals because I get to watch teenagers being lit up by theatre and the arts. I remember how important those high school productions were to me, and I know what formative experiences they can be. It is an honor and a privilege to participate and celebrate high school theatre.