FAIRFIELD – The 76th annual New England Drama Festival, a noncompetitive event held in Fairfield for three days last week, gave local drama students and teachers a chance to see styles and performances by hundreds of high school students from outside Maine.
The festival featured 12 one-act plays, the top two from each New England state. It was held at the $5.4 million Williamson Auditorium at Lawrence High School, a state-of-the-art performance facility that seats 860.
The impact on the local economy was obvious – every nearby motel and hotel was booked weeks in advance for the event – and Maine students who attended the festival said it gave them a unique opportunity to see sophisticated theater.
Bucksport High School’s improvisational drama group, led by Catherine Russell, attended all the performances and held a special improvisational workshop during the festival. They were the only Maine drama team represented except for the performers from Lawrence High School and Falmouth High School.
“The first thing we noticed was that the groups were more smooth and more cohesive,” said senior Travis Ford of Bucksport.
But it was the content that blew the students away.
“In the Maine regional competitions, there were 62 ‘deaths’ [on stage],” said Russell. But the weekend festival featured plays in which the content steered away from tragedies and contained provocative and cutting-edge topics and themes.
She said most plays produced by Maine drama teams “are parochial and provincial, because that is what the Maine audience’s tastes are. When you deal with subjects the kids are interested in – sex, growing up, being an adult – Maine audiences tend to get nervous.”
Russell said the subjects of the plays performed by schools outside of Maine “are more sophisticated, percolating.”
Student Chris Miner, also from Bucksport, said he also saw a tremendous difference in the improvisational workshops his team hosted. “Maine is locked into an obnoxious style of comedy. We saw some very sophisticated work. These casts wanted the audience to look beyond the surface. It’s brutally obvious from what we’ve seen here that these high schools are stepping up.”
The topics covered in the 12 plays included greed, the power of love, growing up, choices, school life, the story of mankind, Shakespeare and a fairy tale.
But Jeffrey Watts, drama instructor at Lawrence, said that even though the content of the performances was more sophisticated, Maine students learned that they could compete. “They have been looking at these shows and feeling that they rank right up there,” he said.
Russell said she was impressed that her drama students gave up part of their spring vacation – one student even cut short his trip to Florida – to participate in the event.
She also was impressed by the behavior of the 550 participating high school students. “Here you have 500 teenagers in a dark room and they are amazing, quietly, respectfully watching the performance. At the [Maine state competition] it looked like a sporting event. People were whooping, pumping their arms and doing the wave. You certainly don’t behave like that in a real theater.”
Watts said that when a Connecticut school was unable to host the festival, he got the call in January. “We had three months to prepare when it usually takes a year,” he said.
But on Saturday afternoon as the final performance was under way, Watts was beaming. “Everything has gone beautifully,” he said. “These are great schools, top drama schools. And because it is a noncompetitive showcase, it is a much more relaxed atmosphere.”
A man with plenty of experience in stage and theater up and down the East Coast, Watts has been drama instructor at Lawrence for four years. “We’ve gone to the regional competitions every year and the states for the last two,” he said.
His secret to building such a strong drama program, said Watts, is a matter of building professionalism. “I have very high expectations of these kids.”
Watts said every student who attended the festival was required to sit in on each show and then hold student forums on the performances. “This way there is some feedback,” he said. Members of the New England Drama Council also provide commendations, which Watts described as “critiques without any nasty stuff.”
On Saturday afternoon, students were hugging each other, sharing e-mail addresses and promising to keep in contact. “The friendships made here will often last years,” Watts said.
The participating schools were: Lawrence, performing Watts’ own play “Tattercoats”; Falmouth High School; Goffstown Area High School, Goffstown, N.H.; Salem High School, Salem, N.H.; St. Johns Preparatory School, Danvers, Mass.; Joseph Case High School, Swansea, Mass.; Milton High School, Milton, Vt.; Greenwich High School, Greenwich, Conn.; St. Johnsbury Academy, St. Johnsbury, Vt.; Woodland High School, Beacon Falls, Conn.; St. Raphael Academy, Pawtucket, R.I.; and Coventry High School, Coventry, R.I.