Who’s Judging The Judges?

December has certainly been an interesting month in Ilana-land. Though I’ve yet to firmly answer the broader question of “what I’m doing with my life” since moving back from Maryland, at least in terms of that horrible capitalistic necessity of employment, things in that realm do seem as they might be moving in quite an interesting direction, and I’m surprised but satisfied with how busy I’ve managed to keep myself in-between. In fact, between job applications, It’s A Wonderful Life and other New City Players miscellanea, and the rush of theatre openings that saturated the first half of the month, I feel as if it’s only been in conjunction with the holiday that I’ve been able to take a few days off-from-it-all to breathe!!

As it turns out, this final month of the year has also been one in which I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone in a variety of ways, including in my critical endeavors here at SFTM. Though, as I’ve mentioned before, I usually try to be as positive as possible when appraising local productions, I found myself departing from my usual attitude of amiability to write a rare work of criticism that was noticeably more, well, critical. 

Like I’ve also mentioned, accepting myself as having the authority necessary to deliver negative judgements has probably been what I’ve found the most challenging part of reviewing theatre, which probably comes down to a mixture of youthful inexperience, impostor syndrome, and the fact that I just like to be nice!

But as our lord and savior Stephen Sondheim once professed, what is “nice” and what is “good” are not always in perfect synchrony. And if I didn’t think that being more truthful than “nice” regarding my reaction to a certain production was serving the greater good, I honestly don’t think I would have done it. 

Sure, I’ll admit that there might have been a degree to which I took out my frustrations on a particularly flagrant offender instead of offering a more balanced perspective on the season as a whole, or a degree to which I was insensitive to how difficult it is for theaters to satisfy an established audience base and stay financially afloat. Maybe there was even a shading of sour grapes somewhere in the mix, and yet, when it comes down to it, I still don’t feel as if there’s a singular clause I would take back. 

Perhaps because the opinions I expressed had more to do with my philosophy of theatre as a whole than with any technical element I may have lacked expertise in, I felt confident enough to fight this particular battle; and thus as if it was only my duty to articulate my position as clearly as I knew how. 

Though I still don’t know what, if any, sway my opinion holds, I also knew I didn’t want to neglect the power of whatever platform I do have to nod along with the emperor’s new clothes. And given that most of the friends I have in the industry seem to get where I was coming from (and that I haven’t yet been canceled or stabbed with pitchforks) I also have no reason to believe that I got much wrong

In any case, the many plays I reviewed weren’t the only plays I found myself “judging” this particular December; I also found myself one of the judges enlisted to assess the work of a group of high school playwrights for District Thirteen’s International Thespian Society (ITS) competition. 

As I arrived on the crowded campus to perform these duties on one recent Saturday, I found myself awash in the satisfying glow of things having come full-circle. After all, my experiences competing as a playwright for my own district way-back-when were not only some of the fondest memories I have from my otherwise regrettable adolescence but something that irrevocably shaped the course of my life henceforth!

This is because the first play I ever wrote on my own was one that I wrote specifically for the competition—which I only decided to enter because my theatre teachers had decided that competing at ITS was one of the ways students could become eligible to go on a department trip to New York City later that year. 

Naturally, I was desperate to secure a seat on that plane. However, the slots to compete in the performance categories were highly competitive at my arts high school, and the other technical categories seemed to require more background knowledge and prior experience than I had. But any damn fool could throw together some dumb play, right? 

Theoretically, yes, but the task was harder than I anticipated! Though idea after idea danced through my head, I was too overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities to commit to one, remaining paralyzed until the night before scripts were due. But as I got closer and closer to the wire and the deadline-drenaline set in, I finally accepted my clichéd fate: I would just have to write a play about how hard it was to write a play!

The result, entitled Playwriting: A Play, seems to have been lost to time, though from what I recall I hardly suspect it was one of my better efforts. And yet, for reasons I can’t now fathom, the judges still decided to award me a “Superior”—the highest rating on the contest’s scale. 

Emboldened by this success, I returned the following year with a slightly more mature effort, a similarly meta-fictional piece about my nonexistent love life called Certainly Not About Him. This time, I ended up walking away with the coveted “Critic’s Choice,” which marked my entry as the best-in-category of the entire district. 

The fact that I’d had been motivated to write a cohesive script I could send as a sample and begun to see myself as a potential playwright due to these chance experiments also played a part in my decision to apply to several playwriting-focused programs for college, one of the most prestigious of which—NYU Tisch—I would go on to be accepted to and attend. 

Sure, I would then go on to drop out after three semesters and finish my undergraduate degree at FAU, but the spark of passion for theatre-related writing incited by this early encouragement has also never been fully extinguished. And all of this, in turn, has made me particularly aware of just how formative arts education can be, as well as of how important kind-but-constructive feedback can be to budding young minds. 

But was I really up to the task of providing such feedback? Though I’d been a playwriting judge the previous year as well, that had been during pandemic times, so I’d only been asked to submit responses through a virtual form rather than to participate in an in-person panel as I would be required to this year. Judging plays from afar was one thingbut, like, actually talking to people? 

Whatever feelings of inadequacy were my usual lifeblood were probably amplified by the fact that I was clearly the youngest and least experienced member of my panel, to the extent that the older two judges I was paired with at first mistook me for a stray student rather than a fellow “expert.” 

Thus, for at least the first three or four competitors that came up, I left all the talking to these real experts as I surreptitiously filled in my scoresheets. Despite the fact that I’d read every play on the day’s roster at least once and taken a few notes on each, I suddenly found myself as paralyzed as I’d once been battling a blank page. 

Of course, it also didn’t take long for the absurdity of this situation to sink in. While many of the teenagers were visibly nervous, it was I, the alleged “authority figure,” who was shrinking back in what felt like the greatest terror of them all. But, as it dawned on me that nothing catastrophic would happen if I did remain silent, the shroud of panic slowly began to lift. So, I began to add my voice to the conversation, to seemingly enriching effect. 

After all, what was the danger, exactly? That anyone would argue with me? It’s not as if it had ever occurred to me as a student to question the seemingly preordained superiority of those who bestowed Superiors; it’s not as if anyone was going to be judging me. Funnily enough, there seldom seems to be anybody tasked with passing judgment on the judges; and as a critic, I have never once been criticized, at least not where I caught wind. Much as I might yearn for some authority I can look to, perhaps what I really need to learn is a greater trust in my own internal compass; or at least in the judgments of whoever judged me fit to judge!!

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