Sidereal ramblings

Saturday, January 27, 2007

My problems with one act judging

I have some problems with the way one act plays are judged, in general, and also with the specific judging I experienced/witnessed today. We performed our one act play today along with five other plays in our subsection contest. We placed third; the top two schools advance to the section contest next Saturday. After watching all six plays, and being as objective as humanly possible in my situation, I thought we should have placed first, or maybe second. (Do I always think we're the best? No. Last year we ranked a deserved fourth out of five. And the fifth place play was really bad, or we could've been last.) Of the three judges, one ranked us second and wrote some very good comments, both positive and constructive criticism -- i.e., ways we could improve. Another judge, who happens to be a good friend of mine, ranked us third. The last judge ranked us fifth. One of the plays she ranked above us (third place, actually) was truly awful. After watching it, I was 100% sure they wouldn't be in contention. It was an interesting idea and script, but poorly acted by three-fifths of the cast, and the blocking was horrible -- characters wandering aimlessly, and occasionally standing in front of others who were speaking. The other two judges ranked that particular play fifth. The play that came in second place today had a script that covered a lot of the same types of issues our play did, but I felt our script was much stronger. The actors in their play also didn't do as good a job of characterization as ours did. (Maybe that's subjective.) However, there were at least two places in the play where characters very obviously flubbed their lines. Also, the play ended rather abruptly. I know the director was concerned about not going over time and being disqualified, but when the lights came up at the end, the actors on stage looked out in the audience at their director (and a couple others started to enter the stage), and she told them to strike their set. It was very obvious that this wasn't the ending that they had planned for their production, and it seemed to leave some of the characters/storyline hanging. The winning play today -- and every judge ranked them higher than us -- was a crowd-pleasing comedy, and for the most part, pretty well done. I had some issues with some of the blocking, but the cast for the most part performed well. However, the second character to enter (everyone stayed on stage once they entered until the end of the play), when there were only two people on staged, botched a line. He didn't just flub it, he stumbled over the words (obviously having forgotten what he was supposed to say), then said, "Oh, shoot. Um..." and started the line over. And they got first place? Really? Characterization, anyone?

On a more general level, I really don't like the current evaluation form. Years ago, there was a pretty decent form that had about eight or nine different categories for judges to comment on. These ranged from blocking to vocalization, from characterization to costumes/make-up. It was an adequate system. The judges could comment on each area, without giving any kind of score to any particular one. This form was scrapped in favor of a blank sheet, which asked the judges simply to comment on various aspects of the production. Last year, a new rubric was added to that form, containing boxes for "characterization," "vocal quality," "technical aspects," and "overall effectiveness." Not as complete or as good as the old form, and the judges are then instructed to make written comments to "support" those ratings. It's not a good system, and I'm not sure why the old one was ever scrapped.

Part of the problem is that we (as directors/coaches and the cast and crew) don't get to see any of the judges' comments on the other plays. This may be inappropriate, but it might give us a better idea of why we were given a certain ranking in comparison to other plays. The judge who ranked us fifth today wrote a full page, front and back, of comments, but nothing on it gave any indication for the ranking we got. Most of the comments were positive or fairly general. I should get some kind of idea from the comments why she didn't think we were as good as other plays of the day.

A big problem I have with the idea of judging is that it is completely subjective. I don't have any ideas for improving that, but I think a more detailed form would at least give us an idea of the reasons for the judge's subjective opinion. As an example of the subjectivity, there were a couple of comments/suggestions from the judges on today's critiques. One of these dealt with pacing and one dealt with a particular costuming issue. (These two were from two separate judges.) It's not like I'm slapping my forehead, saying, "Oh, yeah, why didn't I think of that?" These were issues that I, my student director, and my cast had considered quite seriously, but we consciously decided to take a different approach than the one this particular judge would have liked. Anything that can be done about that? I doubt it. Maybe I'm just venting now.

But...I'm frustrated and disappointed that we received the ranking we did today. My kids worked extremely hard on this production (not to suggest that the other schools didn't) -- as the judge who ranked us highest wrote, "it's obvious you put many hours work into this" -- and they deserved better. I'm personally discouraged. In my eight years of directing high school one acts, this was the best show I ever put together (and a lot of that credit goes to my cast). Four of the previous seven years, "my" show made it to sections. We should be there this year, but we're not.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A weird phone call

A cousin of mine died this weekend. She had cancer, and although she was my first cousin, she had turned 80 last year. What really struck me as odd was that her daughter-in-law called me this morning to let me know because she was unable to reach my parents, who are in Minneapolis at the hospital with my brother. I called my mom and dad tonight at their motel to give them the news. It just seemed really odd to me that I'd be in the position to make that phone call, to be the one to tell them about a relative's death (she was my dad's niece, although a few months older than my dad), rather than the other way around. I don't know if it's ironic, but it seemed weird.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What page am I on?

Interesting discussion I had with some kids today: I was looking at a book that one of them had on her desk with a small corner ripped from a notebook page used as a bookmark. I was commenting on that when the girl sitting next to her (who I know reads a lot and is a smart kid) said she never uses a bookmark. "How do you know what page you're on?" I asked her. She gave me a kind of quizzical look, shrugged, and said, "I don't know" as if she'd never considered the idea before.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Here's a new math equation I learned yesterday: eight inches of fluffy, light snow (as opposed to heavy, wet snow) = one hour of shoveling time. I'm tired.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Coldest Winter

Winter, it seems, has finally arrived in Minnesota. When was the last time it actually got below zero? We've been spoiled. Many of my kids in the one act play were complaining how cold it was at practice on Friday night. I didn't think it was that bad. I was reminded of all those stories adults used to tell when we were kids. You know the ones: how they had to walk five miles to school through a raging blizzard, uphill both ways. Here's a true winter story, as I remember it.

During my freshman year in college, winter of 1978, it stayed really cold. (It might have been the year following, my sophomore year, 1979, but I don't think so.) We were on the quarter system at the University of Minnesota back then, and our winter quarter started right after New Year's -- January 2 or 3 -- and ran for ten weeks, which would have been through early March. That quarter, the temperature never rose above freezing; the high temperature for every one of those days stayed below 32 degrees. I remember trudging across a snow-laden campus, leaning into bitter winds. And we never complained; it built character. Okay, we complained, but it was cold for a long, long time, nothing like the current winter.

Kids these days.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

What's a guy got to do to get a drink named after him anyway?

I learned a week or two ago on Jeopardy that an "Arnold Palmer" is a mixture of iced tea and lemonade. This is something that I've been enjoying for some time, and didn't know that it was an "actual drink" named for someone. It's pretty good; mix it about half and half. It's especially good with that raspberry iced tea you see now and then, and you gotta use real lemonade, not that phony pink lemonade stuff.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Best of 2006 - Comics

Sure, 2006 ended a couple of days ago. But, better late than never -- or maybe not -- here's my list of my favorite comic book titles of the year.

Best ongoing comic title: Runaways. Runners-up: Manhunter, Daredevil, Fables, Y: The Last Man.

Best mini-series: Infinite Crisis. Runners-up: Martian Manhunter, Eternals, Civil War: Frontline.

(I'm not sure if DC's 52 qualifies as ongoing or mini-series -- 52 weekly issues; what do you think? -- but it would make runner-up status in either group.)

Best new title: Justice League of America. Runner-up: The Boys.