Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Texas Thespian Conference

We had a great trip to Corpus Christi for the Texas Thespian Conference last week, leaving early Thursday morning and returning late Saturday night. Holly, Marie and Roy took 26 of their kids to the conference and invited me along (to drive a van for one thing -- but also because they're the best of friends).

As i said we had a great time -- but i can double that for "me". It was a blast, and i got to see our kids excel, some great performances by other kids, including some knock-down plays (which i'll talk about later), and got to meet and interact with some just plain wonderful people. Of course there were some of those "little" things -- but they didn't happen to us, and just make for some great stories to tell later.

I won't remember right off all the kids who went, but i'm going to start listing them here, and will add to the list as i remember -- 26 is a lot of names. Lillian Beaudoin, Meggie Nidever, Whitney Wilson, Patrick Wade, Irec Hargrove, Garrett Whitten, Summer White, Shana Baldwin, Kevin Fowler, Kaleb Dworsky, Rachel Wood, Mindy Cox, Amanda Givens, Chelsea Wirth, Cadi Hawkins, Dustin Ficker, Suzanne Attridge, Vladimir Merritt, Erika Melendez, Allyson Widener, Jeff Widener, Annalisa Belec, Lindsey Morris, Mari Aleman, Erica Goodman and Hilary Bunker.

Whitney and Cadi performed What is this Feeling from Wicked for their Duet Musical Performance competition. In the first round i thought they were excellent with their main competition coming from Tyler Sheaf and Lindsay Prouse (doing Suddenly Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors), Heather Hunt and Drew Newby (Marry the Man Today from Guys and Dolls) and Megan Connally and Marylin Nahas doing a piece from Mame. Another couple who did a song from Into the Woods was also excellent, but those first four are the ones that advanced from the group. That also made them national qualifiers. Whitney and Cadi were also national qualifiers in 2004.

In the finals round, to pick a first place and a rep from the group for the all-convention showcase, i thought those same four were the best of the ones i saw (Connally and Nahas changed their song to Marry the Man Today for the second round). And i thought Whitney and Cadi were exceptional. But the showcase winner was a couple that i did not get to see compete, though the other sponsors were not impressed. Their showcase was very nice however.

In our other competitions probably the best performance was in solo musical performance by Shana Baldwin. She did not place in the end, but Roy thought she was fantastic. I know that one of the great highlights of the week for me was just watching her after she came out of the competition, she was simply beside herself about how well she thought she'd done. It's been a long, long time since i've seen a kid glow like that. She will advance next year.

I also attended the solo musical performance finals and saw a number of exceptional performances -- notably Logan Pringle, a blues-belter from Abilene High School who sang a song from The Last Five Years, Kelly Little who sang a piece from Beauty and the Beast, and Scott Lupton from Katy Taylor who also did a number from The Last Five Years. I nominated Scott and Logan for the World Scholar-Athlete Games. I would have with Kelly, but i didn't catch her school and she left before i could talk to her (so if anyone knows her . . .) .

I was able to attend a few workshops -- you have to make constant choices between seeing plays going on, and a wide range of workshop topics. The best were choreography workshops by Monroe Moore, a guy who, according to his bio, is accumulating kudos and dance companies faster than Osama changes cellphones. I attended his first session thinking it was going to be a technical workshop. Instead he simply lined up forty kids and started teaching moves. In an hour's time he had those kids, many of whom had obviously never danced at all, doing a complete minute and a half hip-hop/jazz routine, and doing it tightly. I took Holly and Marie to one of his later sessions and we watched the same magic happen. I know that i'll be looking for choreographers once Perfection gets off the ground and he'll be at the top of my list along with Kim Willett.

That's also how i found Joel Burkholder, a talented and extremely hard-working kid from Spring Woods High School (and living on the same street where we used to live when my brothers were going to school there). I nominated him for the World Scholar-Athlete Games as well.

I also attended a Swing Dance workshop and a Stage Combat with Broadswords workshop and gained from both.

Of course one of the most intriguing parts of any gathering like this is the opportunity to see plays. You get to see completely new works, and perhaps as importantly, you get to see new stagings, new variations, new blocking, and new talents. All of those things happened for me last week.

Let me work my way up so to speak.

Let's start with a new play What I Did on My Spring Break. This was the winner of a student playwright/new play production award. It was written by Meriwether Snipes of Taylor HS. Essentially what happens is a family on spring break gets stuck at an odd hour in New Orleans and has to find dinner and survive the streetlife. Now because some of the commentary in the script is a bit snarky, they felt obliged before the show to state that it was written before the hurricane and that no ill will was intended.

The entire play takes place sitting at a table in a New Orleans restaurant. There is a constant dim background soundtrack of people talking and music playing. It is a nice touch. A family, parents, daughter and quite young son, finally get seated after a wait, then wait even longer for service, only to have few choices because it's near midnight. All the dialogue ensues from the humor of the situation, or from the youngster being tutored by his cynical sister in the art of identifying the sexual persuasions of the folks that pass by.

There was obviously a fine talent involved in coming up with the idea and executing the script. If i have a considered opinion it is two-fold: one, that the writer learn about exposition and how to limit it, and second how to create stage action when the scene is limited. The only real action was a waiter (an excellent actor by the way) coming and going with generally bad news.

Now on that second point i am going to possibly cut some slack. My understanding going in was that this was to be a staged reading. If that's what was taking place (sans scripts) then i think they did a fine job of spicing up the staging by adding the table and the traveling waiter.

The next play i saw (and didn't get to finish watching because of a conflict -- everyone present was divided into two groups, i was in the other group -- more explanation later) was Memorial High School's The Diary of Anne Frank. I went because a Vistan, Bryant Roark, was running the lights. I haven't seen him since summer, and i wanted to see his show. I thought they were very, very good. The set was appropriately tight as were the Franks' quarters, and the arrangement was especially conducive to the scenes. And i have to say the lighting was perfect. If i had quibbles, they were: a) some of the business was mimed and some included props, i could not determine a grouping that would justify this; and b) while the acting was excellent, there was a general lack of dynamics between the characters -- we could not tell who loved who, who was afraid of who, and outside an occasionally yelling at, could not tell who was angry with whom. Perhaps they were in the early stages of production on this piece.

Next i would list Steel Magnolias -- this is a favorite piece of mine, for many many reasons. I have seen it done incredibly well, and seen it mangled like a pitbull on a one-legged chicken. This particular staging -- on the main stage by Lumberton High School was not the best i've ever seen, but it was mighty close (and a disclaimer -- i did not see the entire piece, but i can't imagine anything being messed up after what i saw). I really have no specific quarrels with any part of it, except to say that the actors were not uniformly well-versed. Still, i'd wished i'd been able to see the complete show.

WASP (of which the acronym is of the uppity white folk epithet variety) is a play written by Steve Martin and bears a significant amount of the signature non-sequiturs and pungent social commentary you would expect from him. I found it hilarious. Austin McCallum's production was a bit raw, you might even call it sloppy at times, but that added more than detracted. The staging, part in mime, part in slowmo, part just as if it were an ordinary play, and part in surreal silliness, was excellent. It was replete with one-liners that would easily be absorbed into contemporary lingo if the play had more currency. I particularly liked when the boy asked his dad for a bicycle. The dad said that was a luxury and asked if the boy knew what a luxury was. "Of course you don't. A luxury is something you get to specifically annoy everyone else."

My second favorite piece of the week was a mainstage production by Austin High School of The Speed of Darkness by Steve Tesich and directed by Billy and Annie Dragoo. Joe has a nice family with a fantastic view of a mesa. He also has a successful construction business, and is named Man of the Year. But he also was a war hero, and will talk about neither the war nor being a hero, not even to his wife or daughter.

Then Lou, the object of his heroism returns while following the Vietnam War Memorial replica, the Wall, on its tour of the country. And he visits Joe of course, and gradually spills all too much. The results of the conscience cleansing are tragic, and we are left with the daughter's boyfriend to explain, without really explaining, what has transpired.

The play was heart-rending. The actors, each and every one were note-perfect. There was never a moment when the three adults did not seem to be just that -- forty-plus year old survivors of society. It was a stunning tour de force. The set was magnificent, from a backdrop of a cloudy sunsetting sky, to three pillars of worn housewood painted like a flag, to the simple set that featured, more than anything else, a well-stocked bar.

I have only one quibble -- the script. The script itself did not live up to the performances. In a bit of oddity, the program tells of how everyone involved with the production was so taken by and sold on the script, yet the following page tells of how it was a huge Broadway flop for Tesich.

I think it was weak in two spots. Once early in the first scene it quickly devolves into exposition to avoid bringing us, living and breathing, into the play -- it keeps us at a distance far too long. And then in the final climactic scene Joe, finally baring all about his "heroism" -- resorts to overly dramatic exposition and again we are shoved away from actually being in that living room experiencing all that turmoil. The high drama would have worked if he was reliving rather than telling. It's an odd way to begin and end. But it's the fault of the script not the kids. If that was the playwright's intent, then it was a bad choice. One would hope that someone who has tasted Broadway would learn that it's better to leave some things in the closet than to tell too much.

Finally i was bowled over by Never the Sinner. This was a mainstage production by Denton Ryan High School. This take on the Leopold and Loeb murder scheme of 1924 Chicago was written by John Logan. The kids were directed by Jeanene Abney, Karen Gossett and Scott Thompson. Had i not been doing the security thing i would have gone to see the second production. It was simply amazing. The actors first and foremost were just fabulous -- each and every one. The blocking was outrageously creative and perfectly effective. Overall the set was a marvel. I cannot say enough about this production.

Problems -- only two small ones. The lighting plot was confusing. The speakers were often in odd shadows or darkness, lights preceded or followed action in strange ways. Now i can't tell you if there were genuine lighting problems going on, or if this was designed this way. What i can tell you is that it was very distracting -- and that's the very last thing a lighting plot should be. It's okay to be a little creative, but not to wreck the scene.

The second thing, and i consider this quite trivial, but important: there was a shelf system at the front right of the set that held some items that were important to the development of character. It's obvious that it needed to be present. However a couple of times a character sat on the ramp behind it and was largely obscured while talking -- from my vantage point i had to search to figure out where the dialogue was coming from and i think that was not the intent.

Otherwise though, this was a simply magnificent piece.

I worked security for an hour on Friday and a couple of hours on Saturday. That's part of the duties of a chaperone. On Friday, virtually nothing happened on my watch, but Saturday was different. First a school sponsor approached me because, while waiting for the mainstage show to start in the big Selena Auditorium, a student from another school, sitting a few rows behind her, had blurted out an offensively racist statement. She wanted me to handle it since she was too upset to do so. I found the young man, and his sponsors and we retired to a backstage office and had a bit of a talk. Naturally his explanation differed from hers, but it was clear he knew he'd been ugly and that she'd been offended. He seemed like a nice kid, and i left it to him and his teachers to find a proper way to make amends.

The conference was pretty strictly run -- occasionally too strictly in my opinion. Then again if you have good kids there's little to worry with. None of our kids did anything untoward. But those that made serious errors in judgment ended up in Thespian Jail. While i was guarding backstage doors, the jailed were allowed to come through for the purpose of using a restroom. They weren't shackled but you'd think they had been. It was four girls -- they'd been caught at four a.m. with a boy in their hotel room. Um-mm.

Later a security guard came by with a name tag to ask if we'd seen anyone without one, or knew who the young man was. We didn't. Each attendee has a name tag and it's mandatory to wear it. You get fined if you don't. Well, the story on this particular nametag is that the kid was streaking in the hotel with only his nametag on. Apparently it came off and now he was in a heap o'trouble. We figured it was more likely a prank -- some kid gets stripped and then shoved out of his room and locked out. I don't think that story would have impressed the conference nazis though.

One of the interesting things about the conference was that everyone was divided into two groups -- blue and gold. Each group had a different program with a different schedule. The odd part is that it wasn't just the scheduling that was different, but the choices were different as well, so that some workshops and plays were only offered to gold and others to blue. Of course everyone was occasionally miffed at not getting to see something they wanted to, but since some of those same folks were guarding the doors it was relatively easy to do what you wanted to -- and if i may say so it would have been ludicrous not to be able to do so since i never saw a workshop, play, or event that was full to overflowing. Overall there were so many choices that everyone was pretty scattered out. I think the division may have been a bit of an overreaction.

Sponsors were given three-copy tickets to hand out to kids who broke the rules. This i thought was a bit excessive. Now some of the things you could be ticketed for -- alcohol and drugs -- at least made sense. But getting a ticket for an "unauthorized gathering" was both trivial and vague -- it smacked of teachers being allowed to penalize groups they didn't like, rather than applying a firm rule for everyone. Anyway, i had a good time writing out fake tickets to both kids and sponsors for random acts of randomness. And i heard no complaints about kids being ticketed -- i suspect the judiciousness and caring endemic to theatre and its teachers prevented many tickets from even being written (exept mine of course).

I suspect i will be back to this post to add some events and stories as i remember them, find the programs, or find the notes i wrote here and there. I'd especially like to honor the actors in the various plays that i thought were really good.