Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Curse of Competition

I’ve done it before – and no doubt I'll do it again, but I don’t like it, I really don't like it.

The first time I did it I got quietly drunk during the proceedings and offered very little substance to an event that was breath-taking in its banality and shallowness. I didn't even get paid; no hang on, now I think about it, as well as drinking copious amounts of free cheap red boxed wine I probably did get paid, although I very much doubt that I could have counted the contents of the envelope handed to me at the end of the evening. I do remember that the event went on and on for hours on a draft-swept stage that got less chilly as the level of the boxed vino diminished.

The first time I did it was for a Beauty Pageant. I did it because I was asked  - and that fulfilled my flagging ego; and I did it because I thought I could get close to lots of young, scantily clad, luscious female  bodies – and that would go some way towards vicariously fulfilling my male lascivious desires. In both respects the event was a huge and shallow personal success, but at an intellectual level it was mind numbing stuff. It degraded into an occasion where I found myself wondering how an earth I could extricate myself without causing even more offense than my increasingly unrestrained and incoherent behaviour was causing.

I’ve been a “talent” judge several times since – these times at drama festivals or competitions where groups of nervous amateur actors have been cajoled into setting themselves against groups of over enthusiastic amateur actors oozing ill deserved hubris.

This is a genuine, happy and very talented drama group
who achieved some excellent theatre - Swaziland Performing
Arts Troupe. A privileged to be involved with them. 
I have sat with my bemused fellow judges after being assailed, battered, whipped and bored witless by “performances” that should have never left the dressing room. Performances that would have benefitted from at least a modicum of direction, or were so poorly rehearsed that one got the impression that the performers were surprised that they were where they where – if indeed they were there . . . ., and wondered what we were doing there. Just occasionally I have also sat with my fellow judges, speechless and with that chilly, frizzy, exciting shiver of a frisson of a feeling down the spine that follows a performance of such unexpected quality that you almost forget to applaud and then do so with such vigour that it hurts. My various fellow judges and I have trudged through our pro-forma tick-sheets and manipulated our mechanistic scoring to support our subjective views about this piece, or that piece.

This is the hard bit. You apply science by marking diction, characterisation, staging, storyline, adherence to time constraints (if you’re lucky enough and there are any) and so on. Then you collectively pore over the results and make a joint decision about which piece you actually liked, or felt comfortable with, or felt challenged by; depending of course upon your mood. The judge who has had a bitch of a day will settle more comfortably for a light piece, but the judge who has had a successful and reflective day may be happier perhaps with a more challenging piece.

Story telling workshop with the extraordinary Gcina Mhlope 
Many pieces that I have sat in uncomfortable judgement of have been developed for an open-air setting; perhaps at a rural tinkundla centre (local administration offices) or in a school classroom that has been cleared of chairs and desks. In either case there are no “wings” or thrust apron stage. The audience is seated on beaten earth or a cold concrete floor, not on upholstered tiered seating. There are no opening curtains or dimming house lights to signify the start of a performance; this is conventionally done by song (invariably in a doleful minor key). Audiences in the rural setting will drift towards and away from the periphery of the playing arena without the incessant creaking and banging of a theatre entrance door (or worse – doors!). Pieces developed in and for a rural context do not travel well to the relative sophistication of a conventional theatre.

There is also the issue of subject matter. So many local drama pieces are focused on themes dictated by whatever aid agency is currently doling out money for community educational activities. This is a guaranteed damper on artistic expression if you are constrained to dramatising the effects of HIV AIDS or violence against women to fulfil the desires of an external funding agency. This is worthy of further discussion!

I am really not sure what the point of it all is. There may be a cash prize for the “winner” and the inevitable blousy certificate declaring in florid lettering the name of the competition and the placing; first, or second or third; but no one will take any notice of this certificate because it has no meaning whatsoever in the context in which groups are performing.

The problem is that through exposure to facile TV programs like the criminally ineptly named “America’s got Talent”, “The X Factor” and so on, groups and performers who should be encouraged and nurtured by being given a free, safe and open platforms to perform on are being inveigled into competitive performance. This is not only stupid and crass, but is entirely counter productive.

The extraordinary cast and crew of the "Island".
Unsurprisingly the cast are the two guys in front!
I have had the good fortune to have directed performances of home grown theatre. The rewards for the participants and audience (and me) far, far outweighed any dubious accolades that participation in any competition would have. I have also had the opportunity to be involved with a schools drama festival that has allowed the opportunity for students to participate in elements of performance and expression that they would not normally be exposed to and in which there is no hint of competition.

Two young men receiving on the job training on how not
to over-act by the master of physical theatre - Ellis Pearson

The aim and provenance of so much performance artistry lies in circumstances that are from a far higher plane than competition. Emotions are to be tapped and stories are to be told. Personalities can be developed, fears and anxieties should be released, and imaginations encouraged to fly.

That is what performance should be about and that is why I feel uncomfortable when I fall into my own ego trap and occasionally agree to sit in judgement.

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