4 Tips for Responsible Performance Adjudication

Cindi Calhoun teaching during a music rehearsal

As a high school theatre teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time with performance adjudication: classroom assessments, thespian events and festivals, and high school awards competitions. Most recently, I had a show adjudicated for a state-wide competition of musical theatre. Not surprisingly, as a director, I revelled in the compliments and bristled at the criticisms. But I also saw vastly different adjudicator comments – for the same show – that reminded me of the importance of responsible adjudication, especially when dealing with students. They are still in the process of learning, and as adjudicators, our job is to give feedback that will teach. 

    1. Remember the purpose of the adjudication

      Especially when judging high school performances, adjudicators should see themselves as educators. This is an opportunity to give young actors feedback about their work and offer them lessons for improvement. Some of the most helpful and respected feedback my students have received from adjudicators comes in the form of questions to consider. After a performance that an adjudicator saw as static, she posed these questions to my student: What is this character feeling at the beginning of the piece? How does this feeling change? How is the character different at the end of the piece? These types of questions about the performance prompted my student to critically evaluate her own work, learn how to ask questions in reflection of that work, and then answer those questions. In this way, the adjudicator does not offer a “this is good/this is bad” response, but instead teaches the young performer how to be self-reflective and improve his or her own craft.

    2. Use the criteria for evaluation

      Many adjudicators are given ballots or rubrics, and the International Thespian Society publishes their ballots for evaluation on their website. Often, ballot or rubric scoring is not dependent upon the adjudicator’s personal taste or how they adjudicator thought a piece should be performed. I once had a pair of students complimented on their vocal abilities and characterizations, but given a low score because the judge believed “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” was an inappropriate choice for high school students (even though Kiss Me, Kate is regularly performed at high schools around the country). Adjudicators must let go of whatever preconceived notions they may have about a show and instead focus on the presentation before them. Admittedly, this is hard; I have a difficult time not comparing performances of shows I directed. But the adjudication is not about what I think; instead, it is about the performance in front of me, what these young actors are doing, and how that is scored with the criteria on the rubric. 

    3. Focus on strengths, and offer suggestions for improvement

      A performance adjudication in process

      When dealing with high school students, remember that they are still learning, and they want to learn. Based on the criteria, what strengths were present in the performance? Did the actor present a believable and engaging character? Were the choices and intentions clear? Were the vocals strong and appropriate for the performance? These are yes/no questions, and each deserves an explanation. I recently had a young performer critiqued in an adjudication: Her acting ability was strong, but she struggled with confidence in her singing. The adjudicator gave her tips to improve (breath support and to continue training) and complimented her potential. For that same show, another adjudicator wrote that this young lady was miscast in the role because she did not sing like Patti LuPone. The first adjudicator offered a critique and a suggestion for improvement. The second tore this young actor apart because she did not have the ability of a Broadway legend – a comment that does nothing to help the performer grow and develop. The first critique was valuable, but the second one shut down possibilities for progress.   Additionally, adjudicators need to keep in mind the limitations of actors, resources, and directors. For this same show, the second adjudicator argued that the show was miscast; but without knowing the crop of actors at our school, this is a problematic claim to make. And one young man, who played a romantic love interest, was deemed “short and skinny” and therefore not qualified to play the part. However, he is handsome and charming and actually embodied the character very well. This is another reason to let go of preconceived notions and expectations, and instead look at what is present on the stage.

    4. Have a kind heart

      Young (and old) actors are baring themselves for a performance. They are putting themselves onstage in front of their peers, family, and community to perform – which can be terrifying for anyone, let alone a high school kid. Be conscientious about how tone can color comments; something that is well-intentioned may come off as simply mean-spirited. And for all of us – young or old, novice or experienced – we want our work to be valued and recognized. Adjudication is a difficult task and should be wielded with great care, and the honest but kind adjudicator will always be more respected than the honest but brutal one.

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Cindi Calhoun is a theatre teacher, actor, director, vocal coach, costume designer and seamstress, and writer based near Phoenix, Arizona.

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