When I was a kid competing in USAT, my favorite event was always the P.A.R.T.Y. performance. I loved getting up in front of the crowd of parents and other teams to share our interpretation of the PA.R.T.Y. in a Box problem. I went on to do two professional plays as well as many school and community performances over the years and I know that I achieved some of the confidence I needed to even try out based on my time in USAT. In addition to my own acting chops, I have also been a judge for USAT performances several times and I plan to share some tips to help students do their very best at each competition. Over the next several weeks I will be giving advice about creating costumes, backdrops and props, and making performances memorable.
But, let’s start with the basics. Getting up in front of a big group can be incredibly intimidating even if you have done it lots of times. The best way to help everyone feel comfortable and give it their all is to have a respectful audience. Many of the participants in USAT have never been to a formal performance of a play, orchestra or other event that would demand proper theater etiquette so they probably don’t even know the right way to act unless parents, coaches or facilitators tell them (and show them) how it is done.
1. Turn off all electronic devices. Smart phones, MP3 players, tablets and all manner of electronics have become the norm, but they have no place in a theater setting. Not only are the noises the devices themselves make distracting, but how many times have you seen parents leave their seats in the middle of a team’s performance when it isn’t their kid’s skit going on? It is distracting to the actors and to the audience members, and a gentle reminder from the host facilitator at the beginning of the performances can go a long way to keeping this from happening.
2. No talking during a performance. Unlike a real theater, the spaces like libraries, gyms and classrooms where most USAT performances take place have not been designed with noise in mind. Even a whisper in a small space can pull focus from the actors and derail their trains of thought. A policy of quiet during performances will also help ensure that teams who perform later due to their assigned letter will not have time to do additional planning and preparation during the performances of others.
3. Respect the rules about eating and drinking. In many school spaces there is no eating or drinking allowed. These rules should be respected by the coaches, teams and their family members throughout the Meet, and especially during P.A.R.T.Y. performances. Besides the potential for mess, many snacks come in noisy packaging and the unwrapping of a candy bar or crunching of potato chips can be just as distracting as talking.
4. Always applaud. We want students to gain confidence in their creative abilities and problem-solving through the course of the USAT season to promote positive risk-taking. Even performances that fall short of solving the problem, are difficult to hear or even are giggled through by the actors deserve the attention and respect of the audience. Every team should applaud and encourage the others, and in the rare case of heckling or booing this should result in a penalty against the offending team.
Unlike other types of performances, USAT teams also need to be sure to clean up after themselves. As soon as they are done with their performance they must clear the stage area and make it easy for the next team to set up. The facilitate clean-up, hosts can often arrange to have extra garbage cans brought in before the performances begin and set up near the staging area so the materials can be disposed of as soon as the students leave the stage.