Do we need more theater competitions for kids?

When I was a pre-teen, I was a student at Fred Villari’s Studios of Self Defense (or kar-a-tey, as we used to say), and made it all the way up to my purple belt, before I . . . well . . . got more interested in the theater.  Earning “belts” was great, but you know what was even better?  Every six months or so there was a tournament.  Yep, straight out of Karate Kid Parts I – III, at the end of every semester we trucked our gi-wearing butts to a convention center and battle other Fred Villari students from across the state for . . . yep . . . a genuine fake gold trophy.  Awww yeah.

The tournaments were pretty cool actually.  As you have probably already guessed, I didn’t take home any of those genuine fake gold trophies, but I did win a couple of rounds.  But participating in the tournaments made me practice more and introduced me to new people, and in general it got me more excited to be studying kar-a-tey.

When I was thinking back on my days in the dojo, I started to think that one of the ways we might rev up the engines of young people in the theater is to have more local, state and national theater competitions.  We do have The Jimmy Awards now, and there has always been the Irene Ryan Awards, but when I think back to growing up and how it seemed like every other week the girls in my class had dance competitions, it feels like maybe we could use more theater competitions.

Should every community theater around the country have monologue comps, and scene comps, or American Idol type sing-offs for young people?  (Actually, since most competitions have registration fees, this might be a way for some struggling non-profit theaters to earn a few bucks to help fund their productions).   Should the big professional regional theaters out there sponsor contests for high school students to earn scholarships to college?

Even when the gold trophies are genuine fakes they still could mean a lot to a young actor’s resume and to their confidence, and therefore their future.

I held off on writing this blog for a while, actually, because there is an unfortunate flip side to competitions like the ones my young dancer friends were exposed to, or the many mini-beauty pageants that sometimes make us want to throw up.  Not everyone wins.  And even “free market” me thought to myself, “Do we really need to expose our kids to more competition?  Can’t they just enjoy things without having to win?”

It’s a big debate, of course, and one that only parents can finally decide . . . hopefully along with their kids.

But I did hear a great argument for these kind of comps this past weekend at a screening for a brand new (and brilliant) documentary about The Youth America Grand Prix (the largest competition for ballet students in the world) called First Position.  At a post-show talkback, first time (!) director Bess Kargman said that without the Grand Prix or similar competitions, some of the dancers profiled in the film would never have gotten the opportunities that were afforded to them.  Competitions changed their lives.  (You should see the movie, by the way – it really is fantastic.)

What do you think?  Since it is proven that engagement in the arts as a child helps develop an audience for the future, do the pros outweigh the cons?  Should we have more comps?


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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.