My wife reminded me last night that it’s been a week since I blogged. Indeed it has, though for good reasons; I’ve been up against some deadlines on other projects. But I’m back today, and glad to be.
Yesterday, I went to Herriman High School to judge the Region Four One-act play competition. I was one of three judges, deciding which shows and which actors would advance to the state competition. It was a fun day. ‘One-act’ suggests a short play, forty minutes (or so) in length, but some of the plays we saw were cuttings from much longer plays; what my wife calls ‘the Cliff Notes version.’ So one high school did Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Not just forty five minutes of the play, but the whole play condensed to forty five minutes.
When I saw that I was going to be seeing a high school production of The Crucible, my first reaction was ‘someone shoot me in the head right now.’ This is not because I dislike Miller’s great play. I love The Crucible, and grew to love it even more after playing Giles Corey (“More weight!”) in a good production. But it’s a grown-up play, a play about politics and adultery and fanaticism and the way people lie to hide their own weaknesses. And the characters are all, well, grown-ups. Would high school kids be able to convey all that? I needn’t have worried; the kids did it beautifully. Some projection problems (some of the kids’ voices weren’t strong enough to handle a big space), but strong emotional content, and an intelligently conceived production.
We were asked to rate the shows Superior, Exceptional, Good and Fine, with a strong suggestion from the Region supervisors that it would be seriously uncool of us to give any show a Fine. They needn’t have worried; I gave six of the seven shows Superior ratings, softy that I am. And yet, my two fellow judges were equally prodigal; the shows really were that good.
Some of the show choices were interesting. One high school did a terrific job with Christopher Durang’s Wanda’s Visit. Durang’s a wonderful comic playwright, who builds his plays around cartoon monsters–Sister Mary Ignatius in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All to You, the Doctor in Beyond Therapy, the parents in Baby with the Bathwater. Mostly he writes them for performance by his Yale BFF, Sigourney Weaver. Anyway, Wanda’s Visit is outrageous; a nice WASP couple, Jim and Marsha, is visited by the husband’s former girlfriend, who is, as I say, monstrous, a completely horrible human being. Much of the comedy comes from Marsha, the wife, trying to stay polite while this awful woman destroys her home. The girl who played Marsha was tremendous, absolutely great; disciplined, focused, and very very funny. And the girl who played Wanda was terrific too. I liked the show very much, while also aware that actors at this level don’t yet have the experience to capture every nuance of this kind of savage comedy.
An even stranger choice was the high school who performed David Henry Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice. It’s a Japanese ghost story, about a mysterious woman who runs what appears to be an inn, but an inn from which visitors never ever escape. Turns out, she’s a witch, a lonely-but-deadly seductress. It’s a quiet play, with many short scenes, just two actors, very rooted in Japanese culture. The girl who played the witch was wonderful, elderly and hobbling in the earlier scenes, and then growing increasingly youthful and dangerous as the play progressed. It was a trifle slow-paced, and I could sense a little high school restlessness in the audience as it progressed. But I thought it was splendid. Such a risky choice–what you’re risking is boredom–and such beautifully subtle work from the kids.
We were supposed to choose a single winner, and my fellow judges and I were torn between two plays that were actually very similar. Several high schools chose to do big cast, monologue heavy shows, like Jack Hilton Cunningham’s Women and War. It’s just a series of monologues about the experiences of American women in wars fought from WWI to Afghanistan. I get why it would be a popular choice–lots of parts for girls, and a chance to do good ensemble work. It was interesting to me, though, how a show like Women and War could still have a single outstanding performance. Everyone was good, but one girl, playing a veteran of Afghanistan, was really sensational–matter-of-fact, non-melodramatic, completely grounded and emotionally devastating.
Another somewhat similar show (large cast, monologue-heavy, good parts for lots of kids), was Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the murder trial and community impact of Matthew Shepherd’s brutal death. It was beautifully directed, nicely acted, and I found it very moving; we eventually gave it first place in our rankings. Utah is a very conservative state, and I was delighted to see a high school willing to tackle that difficult a play, dealing with such sensitive subject matter. Well done.
Overall, though, the entire experience was, well, uplifting. We hear a lot about a current ‘crisis in education.’ About the challenges facing today’s youth. About how tough life can be for this generation of teenagers. And yet, all across America, kids are being taught by dedicated teachers. All across America, kids are trying out for the school play, and making friends the best possible way, by working hard together on a project all of you care about and consider important. And teachers put in long long hours in rehearsals, building sets, coaching kids.
And of course, it’s not just high school theatre that’s wonderful and character building and educational and immensely important and valuable. Kids are playing high school sports, tennis and volleyball and basketball and yes, even football, and good men and women are coaching and refereeing and administering, and other kids are joining the chess club or the math club or working on the school paper or raising cattle in 4H or working with Scouts or Explorers. And kids are learning and growing and caring about good causes.
High school can be full of wonder and joy. It can also be horrible. But good people, caring grown-ups are busy at work every day, badly underpaid and under-appreciated, to help as many kids as possible to have great experiences, and minimize the bad ones.
My high school drama teacher changed my life. Mary Forester, her name was, and she absolutely altered the course of my life. I am who I am today, in very large measure, because she gave her life to building a great high school drama program. So yesterday, in the tiniest possible way, I tried to give back just a little to that larger cause.
American education does face serious challenges. But what I saw yesterday was something wonderful–a company of caring adults leading terrific kids to perform, to do something really hard really well. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted. But I’m not sure when I’ve felt better.