Five minutes is either a lot of time, or not very much time at all. This is one of the first things high school students learn when they compete in the annual Maine Drama Festival.
Every school has five minutes — 300 seconds — to get every technical detail in place onstage before the actors begin to perform their one-act play. Lights need to be cued, set pieces need to be in their correct places, props need to be set just so, and everyone has to be offstage after those five minutes are up. The same thing happens in reverse with the set strike after the play is over. It can be nerve-wracking, but mostly it’s incredibly fun — and that’s a good description of the festival overall.
“That moment that the lights go up and the adrenaline hits you, and you get that ‘Wow, it’s really happening’ feeling is the most amazing feeling ever,” said Tina Payson, a senior at Rockland High School, who is in her school’s one-act this year. “The audience is really quiet. You know you have to get it all right. It’s so exciting. It’s the best.”
The One Acts, as the Maine Drama Festival is usually shortened to, is a statewide festival held each March, with 2011 marking its 80th year. This year, more than 2,000 students from 77 schools will stage and perform a 40-minute-or-under one-act play at one of nine regional festivals on March 11 and 12. At each regional festival, held at various Maine high schools, winners from Class A (large and established programs) and Class B (small and new programs) will advance to two statewide festivals, held March 25 and 26, in Camden and Rockland. The winners at the state festivals then go on to the New England Drama Festival on April 15-17.
The importance of the One Acts to those students each year can’t be overstated. It’s a competition. It’s a chance to meet new people. It’s a chance for students to get out of their element and see what other schools are doing. It builds confidence. It builds friendship and trust. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a chance to perform — and outside of students’ own communities.
“You feel a lot of pressure when you get there, because you’ve been working on it for a while,” said Chris Brownell, a junior at Central High School in Corinth, also a performer this year. “But that just goes away right away. Everyone is so supportive. Everyone is so positive. You never feel like you’re being judged. And then you’re just really psyched to get onstage.”
Every school is different, whether it’s in terms of size, budget, resources or theatrical philosophy. But one thing remains the same:
“Although it’s definitely a competition and at times there can be plenty of drama, a sense of camaraderie prevails that has the students genuinely supporting each other,” said Rick Ash, one of the coordinators of the festival and also the drama teacher at Camden Hills Regional High School. “There is nothing quite like the Drama Festival. Theater is alive and well in Maine.”
Central High School, Corinth: “The Insidious and Absolutely Terrifying Truth About Cat Hair”
Perhaps playing a cat hair wasn’t the role some first-year One Act participants at Central High School were expecting, but it ended up being just right. The 32 kids involved in Central’s play, “The Insidious and Absolutely Terrifying Truth About Cat Hair,” by Bradley Walton, play the sentient hairs found on a young woman’s two pets. They also play a vacuum cleaner, a granola bar, a lint brush and other usually inanimate objects.
“It’s really wacky and unexpected,” said Katrina Lessard, a junior, who plays one of the cats. “It reflects our sense of humor. We have so many strong personalities in the cast. We want to have fun with the show and with each other.”
The absurd humor and physicality of the show lend themselves to the quirks of Central’s drama club, led by guidance secretary Beth Goodwin. Goodwin spearheaded the creation of the drama club in 2003, starting with just 15 students. Now club membership is up to 60.
“This is the really fun part of my job,” said Goodwin. “I have a very vivid, active imagination, so this helps that. It lets me be creative. And once I’ve gotten a student to participate in one show, I know I’ve got them. They’re in.”
It’s a low-budget production, with few set pieces and simple costumes. During rehearsals, students fill the cafeteria, using all corners of the long, narrow room; when you don’t have a stage to rehearse on, anything can be a stage. The technical aspect of Central’s show is downplayed in favor of creative movement and good comedic timing.
The level of technical prowess in the One Acts in general has skyrocketed in the past few years. A slight disparity exists between schools with the resources to have digital projectors, high-tech lighting software and advanced audio systems and schools that don’t have those resources. That’s where things like acting quality and ensemble performances become most vital.
“I think if it was some other kind of activity, not theater, maybe we’d feel like we were different, if we were up against a big school with all kinds of money and whatever,” said K.C. Hepler, a junior who plays one of the three narrators in “Cat Hair.” “But [in the One Acts], it doesn’t matter as much. We’re all there for the same reason. It’s like a level playing field.”
Central’s drama club abounds in enthusiasm and devotion to theater, both as an art and as a positive force in young people’s lives. It’s a small school in a rural area, which brings with it its own set of challenges, but Goodwin knows that drama can be a key influence in her students’ lives.
“If I see a kid that I know would benefit from being in drama, I try to bring them in. And it does, sometimes,” said Goodwin. “I think sometimes they are channeling stuff that might not have been good in their lives, and when they get that out through being onstage and working with people, it starts to turn them around. I’ve seen grades rebound. I’ve seen them focus.”
“I know I’m way less shy than I used to be,” said Victoria Pendleton, a junior. “Drama brought me out of my shell. It definitely has helped me grow as a person.”
Rockland High School: “Sideways Stories from Wayside School”
It’s not that Rockland High School’s drama program is competitive. They just really love what they do. Most of the students showed up to a One Acts rehearsal during February vacation. That’s dedication.
Drama coach Alison Machaiek, who also directs theater summer camp at the Heartwood Regional Theater Company in Damariscotta, keeps a watchful eye on her students. They crack jokes and run around the auditorium until Machaiek says it’s time to snap to.
“These guys love to joke around and they do have a lot of fun, but when it’s time to work, they work,” said Machaiek. “We try to be as professional as we can.”
Rockland this year will perform “Sideways Stories from Wayside School,” an adaptation of Louis Sachar’s series of young adult books about a 30-story-tall school populated with lots of strange, entertaining teachers and students. Rockland is known for its emphasis on technical details, and the set for “Sideways Stories”, designed by longtime community collaborator Dave Johanson, is equal parts TV game show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and a Day-Glo middle school.
Rockland has won at the regional level 14 times out of the past 15 years. It has won at the state class B level four times in those 15 years. It’s clear that they take the One Acts very, very seriously. Ask the students if they want to go on to do community theater, or to study theater at the college level, and a number of hands shoot up.
“When you compete, you want to get everything perfect, not just for yourself, but for the audience,” said Conor Pfister, a cast member and a junior at Rockland. “It’s a lot more intense than sports, in some ways, because there’ll always be another basketball game — but you only get one show. It has to be right the first time.”
Sports and drama coexists happily at Rockland; in fact, a number of the actors in “Sideways” just finished up the basketball season. Still others are soccer players and run track. Time management is a necessary skill for these teenagers.
“I don’t think there’s any line drawn between sports and drama and all the other things people do,” said Pfister. “We all make a point of wearing our letterman jackets to the festival, just to show that we do both.”
The pre-festival performance of the play is well-attended, and there’s high community attendance at the festival itself — which Rockland has hosted a number of times, including the Class B state festival this year.
Like any other school, however, the set, costumes and lighting take a back seat to the friendship and camaraderie that develops during rehearsal. When you’re spending several hours together after school each day, a bond develops very quickly.
“Me and the guys all hug it out, when we’re getting all emotional near the end,” said Pfister. “We are not ashamed to hug it out.”
Brewer High School: “Durang, Durang”
The 2011 One Acts will be the last year Brewer High School performs their show in the old Brewer Middle School auditorium. Next year, they’ll be performing in the state-of-the-art auditorium at the brand-new Brewer Elementary-Middle School, which will open this fall.
Rehearsals for this year’s One Act, a collection of four short plays by playwright Christopher Durang titled “Durang, Durang,” are moving along swimmingly, albeit with a sense of fond farewell to the space that has housed Brewer drama for more than 10 years.
Drama coach Rich Kimball leads a group of actors and techies, many of whom have worked with him all four years of high school. Some of his former students have gone on to work with him post-high school, such as Jamie Bartol, a Brewer High School alum currently studying acting at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City.
Kimball’s laid-back attitude creates an atmosphere of camaraderie among his students — to whom he presents with theatrical opportunities that are often contemporary and challenging, as with the Durang plays they’re performing for the One Acts this year.
“Our goal is always, ‘Let’s go and have a really good time,’” said Kimball. “If we can win in the process, great. If not, then we still had fun. Our goal is always to win ensemble. If we do that, then I’ve done my job, and I’m delighted.”
Everybody in drama wants to do the One Acts — you get to live and breathe theater for two full days. Maybe four days, if you go on to states.
“It’s a celebration,” said Kimball. “We spend the weekend, we stay in a hotel, and one thing people don’t always think about is the fact that it’s a total immersion in theater. A lot of these kids will see more theater than they’ve ever seen in their lives in this one weekend.”
“We don’t really get a lot of chances to do stuff out of school, so the One Acts are definitely one of the big highlights of the year,” said Jacob Joy, a junior. “We always get really close when we do the One Acts. These guys are my family. And the new people we meet are family too.”
The judging process that each school goes through is tough, but kind. Judges hail from all walks of theatrical life — from theater professionals and community theater directors and actors, to college professors and journalists. They judge in five categories: body/gesture, voice, character, individual performance and ensemble.
While it can be a scary process, the judges’ critique is a learning experience. And when schools perform most of their plays and musicals the rest of the year in front of an adoring audience composed mostly of friends and family, the unvarnished opinion of an outside entity is welcomed.
“When we’re doing our plays and musicals, [the audience loves] you no matter what you do. They have to love you. They’re totally biased,” said Teal Jackson, a junior at Brewer. “With the One Acts, the judges will tell you the truth. The audience isn’t biased. That’s really nice. It helps a lot.”
Fort Kent: “Boombox”
Doug Clapp, drama coach at Fort Kent Community High School, has been taking students to the One Act festival since 1988 when he was the coach at Wisdom High School in St. Agatha. This year he’s returning with a six-member cast to mount a production of “Boombox,” an original play he penned in 1990 describing the pain caused by teen suicide on its victims and those they leave behind.
Pretty heavy fodder for high school students, but a subject, Clapp said, with which they can be all too familiar.
Clapp said the idea for “Boombox” was born from his own life experiences, including a stint working in a major city’s hospital emergency room.
“This play examines the value of life, looks at death and asks a lot of ‘what if’ questions,” Clapp said, who went on to describe his work as part tragedy, part existential.
Clapp first took the play to the festival in 1991 when he was coaching drama at Wisdom High School and figured the time was right to bring it back with the Fort Kent crew.
“The play works well for our program,” he said. “The program averages between 20 and 30 students [and] “Boombox” has a cast of six plus a crew of about 10.”
“People tend not to think of drama as a competitive activity,” Clapp said. “It’s seen as an alternative to sports [but] we do have a fair amount of competition, and what the state drama festival has done is provide a venue for high school theater students to compete.”
Beyond any prizes or individual recognitions handed down at the competition, Clapp said the most important part of the competitions is the relationships students build.
Fort Kent’s program has a bit of an advantage over other small, rural schools because its students are able to use a neighboring auditorium at the University of Maine at Fort Kent for their recent local production of “Boombox.
For some of the technical crew, Clapp said, state festivals are their first introductions to light boards and sound systems.
“It’s new technology and they adapt,” he said. “As a director you learn to take stories back to students of things that did not work as planned so they can learn from those situations.”
Coming from a smaller school means Clapp has a smaller pool of students for casting.
“A lot of the students who do audition are also in sports or have part-time jobs,” he said. “Scheduling can be exasperating at times.”
Most of Clapp’s regular performers have been with him since they were freshmen and say it’s the excitement of live theater that brings them back year after year.
“We are definitely well-prepared for this year’s festival,” senior Taylor Pelletier said. “We really have a good shot at states,” fellow cast member and senior Rene Deschene, added.
For students like senior Kyle Devoe, the high school theater department made possible some unexpected experiences, even though he said it took a bit of prodding to get him to step through that door.
“Doug [Clapp] hounded me for months to get involved so I finally came to an audition to get him off my back,” Devoe said with a laugh. “I was a junior and now I wish I had done it when I was a freshman.”
Freelance writer Julia Bayly contributed to this report.