Do we need more theater competitions for kids?

When I was a pre-teen, I was a student at Fred Villari’s Studios of Self Defense (or kar-a-tey, as we used to say), and made it all the way up to my purple belt, before I . . . well . . . got more interested in the theater.  Earning “belts” was great, but you know what was even better?  Every six months or so there was a tournament.  Yep, straight out of Karate Kid Parts I – III, at the end of every semester we trucked our gi-wearing butts to a convention center and battle other Fred Villari students from across the state for . . . yep . . . a genuine fake gold trophy.  Awww yeah.

The tournaments were pretty cool actually.  As you have probably already guessed, I didn’t take home any of those genuine fake gold trophies, but I did win a couple of rounds.  But participating in the tournaments made me practice more and introduced me to new people, and in general it got me more excited to be studying kar-a-tey.

When I was thinking back on my days in the dojo, I started to think that one of the ways we might rev up the engines of young people in the theater is to have more local, state and national theater competitions.  We do have The Jimmy Awards now, and there has always been the Irene Ryan Awards, but when I think back to growing up and how it seemed like every other week the girls in my class had dance competitions, it feels like maybe we could use more theater competitions.

Should every community theater around the country have monologue comps, and scene comps, or American Idol type sing-offs for young people?  (Actually, since most competitions have registration fees, this might be a way for some struggling non-profit theaters to earn a few bucks to help fund their productions).   Should the big professional regional theaters out there sponsor contests for high school students to earn scholarships to college?

Even when the gold trophies are genuine fakes they still could mean a lot to a young actor’s resume and to their confidence, and therefore their future.

I held off on writing this blog for a while, actually, because there is an unfortunate flip side to competitions like the ones my young dancer friends were exposed to, or the many mini-beauty pageants that sometimes make us want to throw up.  Not everyone wins.  And even “free market” me thought to myself, “Do we really need to expose our kids to more competition?  Can’t they just enjoy things without having to win?”

It’s a big debate, of course, and one that only parents can finally decide . . . hopefully along with their kids.

But I did hear a great argument for these kind of comps this past weekend at a screening for a brand new (and brilliant) documentary about The Youth America Grand Prix (the largest competition for ballet students in the world) called First Position.  At a post-show talkback, first time (!) director Bess Kargman said that without the Grand Prix or similar competitions, some of the dancers profiled in the film would never have gotten the opportunities that were afforded to them.  Competitions changed their lives.  (You should see the movie, by the way – it really is fantastic.)

What do you think?  Since it is proven that engagement in the arts as a child helps develop an audience for the future, do the pros outweigh the cons?  Should we have more comps?


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  • Doug says:

    As someone who has had his career greatly influenced from winning a theatre competition (KCACTF-Directing), and having observed those I competed against, I see far more positives than negatives for competition in the theatre. As professionals, directors for instance often compete in pitching their vision for a theatre’s upcoming production, and the winner gets to direct. With competition comes motivation, and motivation combined with passion, talent and a little bit of luck is what creates some of the best work in any discipline. Those who lose a competition either become disinterested, realizing this field is not for them, or work twice as hard to redeem themselves. Either way, the competition brought them to the crossroads, and they’ll have to choose the path they go down.

    And what better a way to get young folks excited about theatre?

  • Amy Leigh says:

    I often get asked by community groups ‘What is the best way to keep local youths involved in our establishment?’ I’ve stolen the idea before, so feel free to steal it from me – get a group of kids to write, direct and perform pieces about whatever that group’s mission statement is. The kids just want to make sure that their voices and opinions get heard and it gives them a free platform to express themselves. If it’s something they do and enjoy and feel that someone cares, they’ll keep at it. A lot of places are wary of giving a group of 13-21 year olds that much freedom but it helps develop so many things – leadership, teamwork, dedication and about all, confidence.

    If you want to keep someone involved, give them something to feel passionate about. Then, you’ve got ’em hooked.

  • cee says:

    Isn’t facing auditions competition enough? It breaks my heart to see theater training for young people go the way of ice-skating, gymnastics,and now ballet? One, if not the most important value taught in the theater is the art of collaboration, which is necessary to form any sort of community. Theater performers become indispensible to one another as they rehearse and bring to the stage a magical alchemy that is part them, but most importantly a vision greater than what each of them brings into the room. When competition becomes the standard by which one progresses in the field, it can bring out the worst in children, in parents and cannot help but influence the work on stage. I would much prefer to see theater distinguish itself by not falling into this ever-present competition mentality. The theater has so much more to offer our young people by teaching them how to work together.

    • Although I see your point I have to add that there are also a slew of reasons why competitions are positive. The saying “healthy competition” goes a long way. For my school, we compete all the time, win or lose, we’ve gained stage experience, friendships, experienced victories as well as defeats and most importantly, we’ve taught them that all performing art is subjective. Winnning is a bonus and never expected but appreciated and respected when it happens.

    • I am 100% for competitions. Yes, they can be bad, but isn’t that the case with everything? Like I said in reply to an earlier post, Our school competes all the time. Our focus as a team and their educators is to the integrity of the finished piece(s) and the journey NOT on winning. That is a bonus so when it does happen, it is greatly appreciated and we are humbled by the glory of it all. Win or lose, the experience, the stage time, the education and team work is priceless for the future growth in any of their artistic endeavors.

  • MissPinkKate says:

    When 6 kids run a race, one will finish first. When 6 kids each do a monologue, who can say who is the “winner”? By what standards are the children being judged? Is the feedback received in those competitions helpful or harmful to young artists? One would hope it’s only the former, but I’ve definitely seen some very bizarre situations created when the “judges” had no clue what they were doing. A girl friend was disqualified from a state competition for performance “Honey Bun” from South Pacific. Reason? The judges thought the song was meant to be sung by a man!

  • Solange De Santis says:

    Canadians have a well-developed system of community theater festivals that end in an awards evening.

    For high school students there is the Sears Drama Fetival:

  • Meg says:

    Are you familiar with the Cappies program? This is the third year my children’s high school has participated, in the Greater Philadelphia chapter. Each member school (GPC has 35 schools) chooses a team of 6 critics, who attend multiple shows throughout the year at other schools. They write reviews, the best of which are chosen for publication in local newspapers. At the end of the year, the student critics vote on awards which are given at a fabulous gala event! It has been a wonderful experience for the students at our high school. Here’s the website:

  • janiska says:

    Perhaps theatre competitions would involve parents and universities to the degree they are involved in sports which might generate the support necessary to put theatre financially on par with football and other sports and endear it to academia and others.
    But if there are competitions, there must be scoring and because theater doesn’t include a ball with which to prove a score, winners must be judged against a standard of excellence.
    Standards, can possibly be developed for the craft of theater which can be replicated, but that might force a choice between art and craft since works of art are each unique against which standards cannot be set. And art is what gives theatre it’s beauty.
    So because theatre competitions could bring added revenue and academic honor, there is little question as to the practicality of it. But isn’t theatre already competitive enough? And isn’t life already competitive enough? And aren’t kids already facing too much competition?
    Those of us who love theatre love it for its art, its combination of crafts, and its collabortive nature. Perhaps the competiton is best left back stage.

  • I am dead set against competitions – there should be arts education/arts integrated curriculum in the schools-period. Up until about 2009 NYC had project arts in their school budget line and children were exposed to working teaching artists active in their fields and the teaching artists gave the interested children the exposure that was required for them to progress. Project arts is left in the dust but should be a nationwide educational campaign. Before I step off my soap box I have to back pedal a bit and say thanks to the Irene Ryan Scholarship Fund as my cousin, the late character actor Dean Kartalas received this great honor when the Irene Ryan awards were in its infancy- it gave him the courage he needed as an actor with alopecia who refused to wear a wig or as he referred to himself “short, bald and almost cute”. But i remember I was a kid when he recieved that award and the impact it had on him and his self esteem is a memory that will live with me forever. So for that I am grateful. But again it goes back to the fact that the arts were prevalent in the school systems “back then”. okay off the soap box now.

  • David McKibbin says:

    School theatre competitions, while they can be fun to take part in as a student, they can take the joy out of the process, since they are focussing on earning a Superior rating or Critics Choice (in the case of the Thespian Festivals, like the Florida State Thespian Festival in Tampa). These students, their teachers, and their parents, as a result, transform an uplifiting art form into a political agenda. Some of the best arts schools (Interlochen, Idyllwild, Walnut Hill) do not take part in such festivals, or even Cappies, simply because of the politics that happen at the lower level. While these competitions encourage students to understand that there are people who are better or worse than them, they are willing to do anything they can to get to the top. While I support Cappies (being a former critic in South Florida’s chapter), I can see the politics involved between students and faculty alike. Schools are required to serve a dinner to the Cappie critics that come to see the show (for FREE). Schools often have the motivation to believe that something as MEDIOCRE and MINISCULE as a PRESHOW DINNER can determine who wins Best Musical or Best Play. Additionally, if a teacher or parent at one school is well acquainted with a teacher or parent at another, there can be tactics such as the “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” tactic, or the “exclude the unpopular school” tactic in effect.
    This type of mentality makes students and teachers forget about the most important thing about theatre—learning from experience. The more students are willing to learn from their mistakes and successes, they more professional they will be; whether or not they enter the business.
    While such competitions are risky situations for high school students such as myself, I can say that these competitions encourage you to make connections with students who have your interests and talents. These connections are essential when the industry(whether you plan to act, write, direct, cast, or produce), and the friendships you make will last a lifetime (even if you decide to pursue another career).

  • Sue says:

    I’m torn on this one. Growing up in Massachusetts, our high school drama teacher would enter a one-act in the “States” — a competition statewide I believe, and it was a thrill to perform as a finalist in Boston. A school would win, not individuals. Wonder if they still have funding for that.
    The Papermill Playhouse, in Millburn NJ, has some sort of high school musical competition every year. Also prestigious.
    But then, my daughter participated in those dreadful dance competitions for much of her childhood. Sassy and sexy usually won, unfortunately. Then she was accepted into the not-for-profit New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble which is about the art of dance, not the commercialism.
    I can see it now…. “High School Musical — The Reality Show”. That could generate some bucks, but do we really want to go there? I dunno, it would be more realistic than Glee and a lot of talent could be discovered…
    Still torn.

  • Sarah says:

    As someone who did Karate as a child, still has 2 of those fake gold trophies and a 3rd place medal, and is currently an NYU grad student working on a master’s in Educational Theatre, I couldn’t agree with this more! When kids are involved in a competition they do what they need to even more so to train then normal. Even if it were just once a year during the summer, it would still boast their confidence, experience, and love for the craft while having fun and enjoying themselves.

  • Debbie Saville says:

    When I was very little; I would sing in front of a mirror with my brush in hand as a microphone; I would create plays as early as 1st grade and create comedy skits for the in-between acts at our school variety shows. I think there is something to be said about a quote I heard once. “When we enter kindergarten we go in with a crayon box full of 64 colors; when we graduate high school we leave with a single blue ballpoint pen in our pocket. I think it is very important that children be allowed to nurture their imagination first before being structured and competative in this form of art. I was always more impressed with the artwork my children brought home, then whether they could recite the alphabet or count to 100 at a very early age. I did competative music also as a child obtaining 1st seat 1st chair from 4th grade thru my senior year. I competed in regional and district bands; however standing in front of a mirror singing with a brush as my microphone is what I remember most and gave me the confidence to become the actress, director, producer, author that I am today. Passion brings about great theater; having a connection between cast members produces shows that capture audiences. I am not certain “competing” for it is the way to go.

  • Mark Burrows says:

    As a kid growing up in Ioway, there was a pretty good statewide association for the theatre geeks:

    As I recall, the conference had a variety of disciplines in which to compete (large group, small group, and even newscasting I think), so a lot of kids could be involved, the stakes were pretty low, and you got to meet other theatre geeks from all over the state. I would imagine that in the age of Facebook there’s even more chance to network — even before the advent of the internet I made friends from all over the state that I would drive hours to see, in shows or not. It was a great time.

  • I started writing songs in summer camp REENA when I was eight for Sing – well I helped the older campers. I then wrote and chaired SING at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. If Sing weren’t a competition I bet the same students would have engaged in it. I wrote with the wonderful girl, Sharon Spector, who in later years because my professional songwriting partner. We won a MAC Award and Country Billboard Honorable mentions and a Daily News Contest. I was always in the shows in school and camp.

    It was nice to win the songwriting awards, but even as a kid, I would have written songs and acted anyway. I Don’t know if it was the contest or the performing that enticed the other kids to join in. I think it was the camaraderie and the actual performing and for the writers it was seeing their work performed.

    I was Exec. Director of a not for profit I founded with my son. We went into NYC Middle and High Schools. Some of the schools were for troubled kids. The kids who joined in got a lot out of it. We didn’t hold competitions. They won by doing it.

    Theater Awards are good PR for shows in that they help sell tickets.

  • Alistair Hunter says:

    Theatre has enough competition in it already. An American Idol show of theatre would give me the creeps. What young and old continue to need is an opportunity to focus on the process itself. I don’t see Critic’s reviews, awards, or prizes doing any good to improve the process. They do more harm than good. There is no such thing as best production, performance, actor, etc. what theatre gives both the artists and audiences involved are moments. And at the end of the day, that’s what art and life itself gives us. No prize or award can compare.

  • ECP says:

    Enough with the competitions and eyes on the prize. Opportunities? Let’s re-establish widespread support for the arts in schools, in communities, etc. first. Give kids the space to write it, film it, paint it, compose it, dance it, design it, speak it, sing it. Win it, not so much.

  • Jon Sarver says:

    I teach in an urban school district in Dallas. This year the Dallas area started the Dallas Summer Musicals High School Musical Theater Awards. It was a beautifully run and thorough process. At the awards show I got to see the level of work and dedication that schools put into their shows. I also saw the incredible diversity of resources – not just money. Wealthier schools have private instructors, a choreographer, and director, vocal coach, costume designers, makeup professionals, etc. and students with years of experience in camps and theater programs. To expect this to be an even race would be unrealistic yet to judge easier for the “poor kids” is equally unfair and insulting. What would be nice is to first keep the competitions that inspire and drive students but find ways of bringing more opportunities that support different needs in communities that don’t meet the “normal” description of involved. Secondly, we need to stay dedicated to offering an abundance of opportunities within the festival and competition world to recognize and support the growth of those who do not officially win. Festivals that offer high quality engaging learning opportunities and professional level experiences will often create a sense of value in the experience that is not wholly tied to the award itself.

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