What is a drama adjudicator?
When I tell my friends that I’m a drama adjudicator, they nod politely and say “How interesting,” or “How old are the children you’re examining?”
That’s when I realise that most people have little idea what being an adjudicator entails.
Here are some things I am not.
I am not an examiner.
I am not employed by schools or examination boards to assess children’s work.
I am not a member of a panel of adjudicators who express individual opinions on performances, but who have to come to a consensus to decide who wins, as in X-factor or Britain’s Got Talent.
Here is what I am, who employs me and what my role as adjudicator involves.
I work for organisers of competitive drama festivals who arrange a programme of plays put on by amateur drama societies. All festivals are autonomous to a certain extent, even when part of a national competition, so vary in procedures. In some cases, youth groups are in a separate section, but not always. Most festivals run for about a week with three one-act plays a night, or, in the case of a full-length play festival, one play a night.
As the only adjudicator, I sit at a table in the audience, watch the plays, make notes, and, immediately after the last play has finished each evening, I go on stage and talk to the audience about the performances I have just seen. In this way, the adjudicator’s job is different to that of the newspaper critic who has time to reflect before writing his or her article. I have little time to organise my thoughts, which is why I usually remain at the table during the intervals and continue working, thinking and checking my notes.
I aim to give constructive criticism that will encourage and help the teams, praising aspects of the production that have worked well and suggesting ideas for the group to try out in areas where they have not been so successful.
After the final play on the last night of the festival, come the awards. It’s a kind of mini Oscar ceremony. Tension rises as the awards for best set, best costumes, best actor, best actress, best supporting role, best director, adjudicator’s award, runner-up and overall winner of the festival are announced. The awards vary from festival to festival, often depending on who has presented the cup. I like to give nominations in each section, saying what I enjoyed about a particular design or performance, before announcing who has won.
A lot of work has to be done by the adjudicator before the festival begins, including reading the plays, doing any necessary research about the dramatist, the period or subject matter. I prepare my opening comments and make headings so that no topic is forgotten while I am making notes during the performance.
My sections usually include:
Details about the dramatist
The genre and style of the play: farce, comedy, drama, realism, surrealism, documentary, devised piece from improvisation etc.
The challenges the piece presents for director, cast, designer and technicians.
The latter section is important to refer back to when summarising the performance.
Did the production fulfil the challenges presented?
Setting and Props
Is the setting appropriate for the period, genre and style of the play?
Is the furniture placed in a way that is theatrically viable?
If not how could the positioning be improved?
Are the props in keeping with the play and practical to use?
Lighting and Special Effects
The most important aspect of lighting is that the actors can be seen, especially their faces.
If it is a realistic play where is the source of light? From a window or from lamps?
If a more stylised, imaginative lighting plot is called for, how effective is it?
If the lighting plot is very complex and some errors made in the execution how could it be simplified?
If back projection, slides or other effects are needed what do they contribute to the play?
If music is used to introduce the play or during it, how appropriate is it to period, mood etc.
Are the sounds effects appropriate and on cue?
Costumes, make-up, masks, wigs
Are the costumes appropriate for the period and the role? Do the actors look at ease in them? Look at colour: earthy colours for rural scenes, bright colours for comedy etc.
Not all plays call for elaborate make-up, masks or wigs, but, if they do, they should be commented on.
Has the director a clear, overall concept of how the play should be performed?
Consider style, mood, tone, clarity of plot.
Note the use of pace, pause, grouping, build to dramatic or comedic climaxes, key moments, motivation, exits, entrances and teamwork. Is the acting style consistent throughout?
Audience response. If a farce, did it make us laugh? If a drama, did it move us emotionally?
I list the characters in the order given in the programme and make a note about what is expected from each character e.g. warmth, sternness, vulnerability, or flirtatiousness etc.
Interpretation of character, vocal projection, diction, body language, imagination are aspects to consider
Talking about individual performances in public is a sensitive area. I try to say something positive about each person as well as giving helpful tips about how to improve their acting skills. I call this an appraisal sandwich. Say something positive, suggest how the performance could be improved and finish with another positive.
I use the challenges mentioned in the opening comments as a checklist to summarize the overall success of the production. I like to begin with something positive, then suggest where some aspects could be improved, then end on a high, thanking the team and giving the name of the group.