Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Better than the Super Bowl

Last weekend, I was in a New Jersey at an intense competition featuring dynamic, highly-trained participants focused on a goal line.

No, it was not the Super Bowl. It was better (and since this is being written just after the game, that statement is certain).

I was a judge at the Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey's high school theater acting competition and awards, held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Logo of the Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey
As it turned out, I experienced high school theater and college theater in one day, but more on that in a bit.

It was my second experience with STANJ, the first being the subject of this blog post last year. This year, in the preliminary round, I judged "scenes," play excerpts of no more than 15 minutes that required at least three actors.

My top two were a trio who performed a scene from Playwriting 101:The Rooftop Lesson by Rich Orloff and a group who did a scene from Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Steve Martin's delightful musing on the development of the 20th century through imagined conversations between Picasso and Einstein at the Parisian bistro Lapin Agile.

In Playwriting, a controlling instructor lectures on the craft of playwriting, using two live examples: a would-be jumper on a ledge and a would-be Good Samaritan trying to save him. The teacher (a woman, in this cast) uses a clicker to freeze the action and the two guys must obey - until they don't. 

I was impressed by the trio's good, fast comic timing, excellent vocal delivery and sharp differentiation of character. 

The competition was an acting competition (we were not to judge other elements) and the Playwriting group certainly did very well with just a box to represent the ledge. The Picasso group, on the other hand, decided to create theatre, bringing several boxes to put together for a bar, chairs, bar glasses, costumes and sound effects on a laptop.

Their intensity -- particularly the main characters -- and obvious research into the text really shone through, along with their creation of the world of Paris in 1904.

In the final round, I was one of the judges with the improvisational pairs, where two actors picked a situation from an envelope we judges had, then had five minutes to set up and perform an improvised scene. 

My top picks were two boy-girl couples, one of whom created a post-coitus scene so smooth it seemed like a written play and another who invested a scene between a parachute jumping instructor and a student with great comic tension.

Excited participants watching the awards ceremony, with the golden hardware at center right.
The awards ceremony at the end of the day had enough energy to lift the roof as the teenagers cheered, whistled and hollered as their schoolmates were called. My Playwriting duo won the top prize in their section and the Picasso group placed sixth! As I was chatting with a teacher, I learned that the Picasso group were inner-city kids who had as much in common with a Parisian bistro as I have with a police station. The transformative power of theater had gotten hold of them and worked its magic.

The college performance later that night took place at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Vow, subtitled An Evening of New Musical "Shorts," was an intriguing project that brought together the college's musical theatre students with composers and lyricists in an evening of stories taken from the weddings/announcements section of the New York Times.

The program also noted that the students had had a hand in developing the characters and several of the students received additional solo songs from the Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, a two-year-old project that connects writers (there are 160 in the directory now)  with teachers and students interested in new work.

At the opening of Vow, this journalist particularly loved the opening song about the New York Times, feeling it caught the intrepid spirit of newspaper reporting, and the rich comic story of a hard-news reporter assigned to the "Vows" section that prints anecdotes about how couples met and fell in love.

The cast of Vow - some looking for love at the protest.
Throughout the 90-minute show, opposite-sex and same-sex couples meet, fall in love or like, even on the front lines of the "Occupy" movement, even when tragedy strikes.

At the piano, musical director David Sisco provided expert accompaniment for the ensemble songs of Russell Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, Will Reynolds, and Clay Zambo.

Solo songs from the "directory" were written by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, Kenneth Kacmar and Joe Miloscia, James D. Sasser, Katya Stanislavskaya, and John Bucchino.

It might have been a little hard to follow the "vows" theme through the mix of solos and ensemble numbers, but the very fine cast and the show as a whole was beautifully directed with a strong and confident hand by Laura Josepher

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