I may have glimpsed the next Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks today, transporting the audience from a borrowed classroom into the emotional depths of a character. I may have seen the work of the next technical theatre genius whose skill will win an Oscar or a Tony Award. And I did all this by attending the District Drama Competition held November 21 at Sandpoint High School.
In this all-state event, students with talent, tenacity, courage and creativity perform in multiple acting categories including pantomime and musical theatre, and present projects for Tech Theatre in make-up, costume, set design and props.
When I arrive, the auditorium is churning with nervous participants and humming with energy. Tables and chairs are piled with costumes and props. Gina Hall, in her third year as a judge of the presentations, is my tour guide. Skimming by us with a cheerful greeting is the event organizer Jeannette Hunter, the Sandpoint High School drama teacher whom Hall describes as, “Awesome!” in her ability to coordinate such a massive endeavor.
A large roomful of judges listens to instructions with a gravity normally reserved for juries being addressed before they sequester themselves and arrive at a verdict. They are parents and community members, many with theatrical backgrounds, who volunteer their time for this event. Each one is tasked with completing an evaluation ballot for each performance. The judges take their job as seriously as if lives depended on it, because in a way, they do. The performances are ranked as to the top three within every round, and rated as superior, excellent, average or (rarely) not prepared. Judges are encouraged to write constructive critiques as well as compliments because, when these influential forms are given to the students, they take them in hand and take them to heart.
The performances are extraordinary to observe. The students rise above their youthful personas and become disciplined, organized participants aware of every rule and point of order. Their presentations are stringently governed by rules that control timing, specify the elements of the scene right down to the number of chairs that may be used by the actors, and protect impartiality through a participant numbering system minus school and student names. Utterly businesslike, they identify their scene and promptly arrange the skeletal “set” of chairs and perhaps a prop or two. Then they step right into their scene at full emotional pitch. The transition is radical and demonstrates endless rehearsal and hard, hard work. When it concludes, the judge may thank them but must remain unreadably neutral. The students replace the chairs, gather their props and resume their seats.
This District Drama Competition is the second in a three-part process of local, district and state competitions. Winners will travel by bus to Idaho Falls this year and participate in a two-day process of performing their piece five times in front of nine different judges. “That is draining, especially if you have a serious emotional piece,” empathizes Hall.
In the first round, the students perform their piece three times in front of three different judges. The top 16 in each category go into the semi-finals. The suspense builds as these first round winners perform their piece for three judges at once, judges who may not confer with each other but must decide independently. The top eight move on to the finals, again performing their piece before three judges simultaneously. “When I watched the finals last year in musical theatre, it was a coin toss as to who would win, it was all so fabulous,” Hall recalls. And it was a great moment when her son’s musical ensemble entry of West Side Story’s “Officer Krupke” came in third for the entire state.
The competition is part of the Idaho High School Sports and Activities Association. Just as sports instill character strengths, speech and drama and debate are life-building activities, as well. Hall has a towering respect for how hard the students work. “I see this competition as a life skill benefit,” explains Hall. The time invested in preparing to present a scene in front of poker-faced judges is time well-invested toward public speaking prowess and persuasive presentations. “The fact that sometimes one judge will rate them high and another perhaps won’t, or maybe one year they go to state and another year they don’t, will prepare them for the ups and downs of life,” she said.
Life, indeed, is not always one spectacular vertical trajectory into the dizzying heights of success. If District Drama Competition participants one day face a temporary downturn in their projected progress, they won’t even blink.
And the results are (drum roll, please): Sandpoint High School took third in the district! (Places are determined by the number of first, second and third place finishers in each category.) There will be 21 students heading to state this year, several of them double-entered. Gina’s son, Bob, took second for his original serious piece that he wrote and performed, and she is “… so very proud of him!”