Are High School Theatre Competitions Actually Hurting High Schools?

Untitled+collage+(1)+(1).jpg

While many high school students are taking finals and getting ready for the summer, many of their thespian classmates are getting ready for the most important time of the year, high school theatre competitions. 

Over the years many of these awards have provided more than just bragging rights for area schools. They have provided scholarships and resume highlights for these students. The schools themselves also benefit from having tangible achievements that come in handy when budget season comes around. 

But with any competition, whether it's on the field or on the stage, there are negative elements that can create toxic environments and poor choices by those involved. It also can reveal an uneven playing field where the richer schools benefit while the lower budget ones are ignored. 

I spoke to several teachers, students, and parents from areas all over the country about both the positive and negative side of high school theatre competitions.

"I'm picking shows based on what might win an award, not what's best for my students."

I spoke to a drama teacher at a school who competes in the Dazzle Awards in the Cleveland, OH areas. The teacher, who we'll refer to as Mrs. Jones, told me that the Dazzle Awards have forced her to rethink the types of shows she wants to do because of what will be more attractive to award adjudicators. 

"I would love to do something a little darker or avant-garde with my students," she said. "But I know if that if I did that, they would be ignored by the adjudicators."

Mrs. Jones told me that instead, she feels forced to choose well-known favorites or shows with a rich award history. This way the material can help drive award votes. 

The other issue is that with awards such as the Dazzle Awards, Mrs. Jones is required to provide complimentary tickets to adjudicators and a guest.

"Four adjudicators will come to a performance and I have to provide eight complimentary tickets. That's asking a lot because then that's a family of four or four friends or extended family that can't come see the show. That's also ticket revenue that we aren't earning either."

Another issue is that many of these competitions are strictly for musical theatre, so this results in schools deciding not to do plays or pull resources from plays and put them into musicals. One teacher I spoke with told me his production budget for plays is a tiny fraction compared to what goes into the musicals. 

"I just feel terrible for the drama kids, because they don't get nearly the amount of attention they should."

"Our low budgets work against us when it comes to these awards."

While the Dazzle Awards have categories for schools with smaller budgets, many others do not. This can create issues where schools literally can't afford to keep up with the big budgets of other towns when it comes to set and costumes, and it can cost them award recognition. 

I spoke to one teacher who works in the Lehigh Valley area of PA where the historic "Freddy Awards" take place. These awards were the subject of the documentary, "Most Valuable Player." 

The teacher, who we'll refer to as Mr. Richards, tells me that adjudicators for the "Freddys" don't take budget size into consideration when it comes to design categories. "Spectacle seems to be valued over other elements of a production so schools that are able to afford professional quality productions fare better in major categories over schools that have fewer resources," he said. 

Mr. Richards also explained that the other issue with the Freddys is that the rules aren't clearly defined, "so it's hard to figure out what they are evaluating the work based on". To his point, we looked at the Freddys website and they don't provide information about their judging process as opposed to the Blumey Awards which provide a detailed explanation of theirs. 

"I just avoid Twitter during this time of year."

I spoke to a student, who we'll refer to as Hannah, who lives in CT whose school participates in the Halo Awards. She told me that in the weeks leading up to the awards ceremony, she stays away from social media because she doesn't want to see the amount of taunting and bullying between performers from different schools. 

"There's playful trash-talking and there's straight up hate. What makes it worse is that I see even parents getting into it with each other over these awards," she told me. "It makes me sad because this is a time when we should be celebrating the arts, not taunting each other over it. Theatre is already cutthroat enough."

I spoke to a mother from Long Island whose son is at a school that is up for the area's "Teeny Awards". "Lisa", as we'll refer her as, tells me that he son dreads the nominations because he knows the social media activity it will bring. 

"He's a strong kid, but these awards get into his head and it takes the joy out of being in the show, to begin with. He'll be devastated if he's not nominated despite being cast as the lead in a high school musical, which usually everyone is thrilled to be. These awards have made it impossible to be proud of being cast in these shows."

"My budgets will rise or fall depending on these awards. Which is just ludicrous."

When it comes to high school sports, championships are tangible achievements which can justify budget dollars to sustain that level of success. With these awards, many school boards use them as a barometer on how strong a theatre program actually is, which can result in increases and decreases in annual budgets. 

Mrs. Jones told me that her budget usually directly results from how well they fare at the Dazzle Awards. 

"One year, because we won a couple of awards, I was allowed to spend more. We were shut out for a couple of years and those same spending requests were denied. This is despite having sold out runs and over 50 students participating in an after-school activity." 

Mrs. Jones recalls being told by a Board of Ed member that her lack of Dazzle Awards one year directly impacted her funding. 

"They told me that they couldn't tell how strong or well rounded the theatre program was, despite me telling them that the Dazzle Awards don't indicate that at all. But a trophy's a trophy I guess."

"You'd be surprised to see what people will do to win."

Just like in sports, cheaters or performance enhancers aren't welcome. The same could be said for high school theatre competitions but you'd be surprised to see what schools and parents will do to come out ahead for theatre awards. 

When it comes to certain awards, especially in design/tech categories, the rules are a bit loose when it comes to how "original" the design was. So what ends up happening are schools renting sets and costumes from area shops or even regional or touring productions. One teacher told me that she saw the exact same set used for a production of "Cinderella" at both a local regional house and a high school which went on to be nominated for their scenic designs. 

Mrs. Jones told me about a young student whose parents pulled him out of a prestigious prep school in favor of a public school because they had a stronger chance of getting him nominated for Dazzle Awards.

Hannah told me that many of the same actors get cast in lead roles over and over again because of the awards. "I know not everyone gets to play lead roles, but it would be nice to know that I had a chance and see some new faces. Otherwise, what are we learning here?"

Because many of these schools want to make sure their best performers are in the lead roles to get the rest of the production noticed, there are a lot of casting issues that arise, especially when it comes to whitewashing. Every teacher I talked to mentioned how productions of "In The Heights", "West Side Story", "Miss Saigon" and “Avenue Q” have been constantly cast with white performers in roles of color, just so adjudicators would be swayed to vote for their show. One student named "Ana" told me that when her school did West Side Story, she was hoping to be cast as Maria or Anita because she was one of the few Latina actresses there. However, when the cast list was posted, both roles were cast with white actresses because the director thought they would have a better chance of being nominated, despite neither role being written for a white actress to play them. 

In the eyes of this writer, that's a major problem. 

Despite these issues, I don't expect high school theatre competitions to end anytime soon and I also don't expect them to change their ways. In their eyes, they provide a spotlight for high school theatre performers and designers that can help lead to college opportunities and also inspire participation in the arts. However, while their intentions might be good, it's obvious that they can create unneeded pressure and toxic environments in an after-school activity meant to be fun.