“The Big Band Wolf” – School English Drama Contest in Taipei
Thursday December 20, 2012
8:00 a.m. 7-11 on Zhongshan Road, Taipei
I’m in my favorite morning spot – the counter at the 7-11 around the corner from my apartment. I keep trying different coffee shops, but they are never open when I want them to be, and they generally serve much worse coffee and for three or four times the price, so I frequent this 7-11, and if not this one, one around the corner on Chang-An. The one on Chang-An has tables as well as the window counter.
I can be here at 8 a.m. on a weekday because I’m going to a school in Sanxia to teach some classes later, and there is little point in going to the office. I could go, but I would have to leave soon after I arrived. Same thing for tomorrow, so I won’t be shivering and shaking at my desk until Monday morning. I say shivering and shaking for the obvious reason that it is extremely cold there. At least it is at my desk. With all the covering of vents, my desk has become the center of a swirling mass of cold death. I could fight back and cover up and redirect the vents myself, but the lack of logic in doing that makes me squirm. I can’t do it. If I were a superhero, I’d call myself Logical Man. So I sit there and shiver. More than shiver. My fingers get so cold that I can’t type sometimes. And my brain freezes up to the point that my synapses start refusing to fire. Luckily, I can often escape to the recording studio, close the door to the Arctic air currents, and warm up.
I went to a school event yesterday, and it was one of those epic ones, an experience I won’t soon forget. It’s funny that people in the modern world go way out of their way to do and experience unique things. Adventurers want to be the first person to do this or that, see this or that. These are usually adventurous things, physical things, dangerous things, and in exotic places. It amuses me to think that being a judge at a drama contest at a school in Taiwan is probably unique and exotic and interesting in a way that all these other feats of adventure are not. People spend $20,000 to climb Mt. Everest and give their life meaning. They should just judge a drama contest in Taiwan. Much cheaper and just as challenging.
I realized, as the sales rep drove me to the school, that I’d been there before. I was picked up at the Jiantan MRT Station and then driven a kilometer or two to the school. Once at the school, I spotted the distinctive outline of the National Science Education Center nearby. Then I knew exactly where I was, and I remembered seeing that building before from this exact same school.
The sales rep walked me to the teacher’s office. That is always a weird thing. I don’t know where we’re going, of course, and the sales rep has to guide me there. I always end up falling behind them and letting them lead. I am in their wake like a small child following his mother to the dentist’s office. I fall behind because I have no idea which way we’re going, but also because I like to dawdle and look around me. I enjoy glancing in at the classrooms to see if anything special is going on. Usually, there isn’t. The teacher is usually at the front of the room and droning endlessly into a microphone held in their hand or strapped around their neck and chest with a harness of some type. The students are leaning over their massive books and writing or simply staring. I assume this goes on for hours every day all day.
I’m also looking around for and making mental notes about the location of the school’s bathrooms. I will inevitably need one – desperately – before the afternoon is over and it is best if I have a good idea of where they are in advance.
The teacher’s offices at these schools are also very interesting places. To me, they illustrate that aspect of human nature that allows us to get used to almost anything. If a change is gradual enough, we will get used to it and then when things reach an extreme point – a point that might even shock a casual visitor like me – they don’t even see it anymore. In this case, what shocks me is the amount of clutter. Teachers attract paper and books just like furniture in Taipei attracts dust. It starts to pile up around them and their desks and eventually reaches the heights of castle battlements and walls. It looks like a movie set to me – like something a director set up to illustrate a future where bureaucracy and pointlessness has taken over everything. Teachers sit at their desks, almost hidden by the towering piles of books and papers all around them. There are computers and printers and photocopiers and heaters and fans and water coolers and other appliances scattered about and equally surrounded by stacks of paper and books. Many of these appliances have long since stopped working, but they remain in their places or have been shoved to the side or underneath desks. Shocking as these rooms are to me, they are also somewhat comforting. They strike me as nests or burrows. Just as a squirrel might pack a hollow in a tree with soft grass and leaves to make a pleasant home, these teachers eventually build themselves enclosures out of books and paper. I imagine a future point where the paper and books close in to such an extent that it forms a perfect mold for their bodies and they can simply slide right into it – like one of those toys for children where you have to select the right shape to fit into the hole. The teacher will recognize their own desk because there is a teacher-shaped hole in the paper wall – a hole that matches their bodies perfectly
But I exaggerate…
There was a tiny moment of confusion at the beginning of this event when I asked what time the drama contest would begin. I don’t really care when it begins. I just want to time a visit to the bathroom to be as close to the beginning as possible. Once a drama contest begins, there is rarely a break, and you can be stuck at a desk for up to four hours straight. And if you’ve fortified your system with a coffee or two, you’re going to be hurting by the end. And at the end, you have to give a speech. Squirming on stage is not a good look when you are supposed to be up there giving well-informed and professional feedback to the young rascals.
In any event, my teacher guide, Allen, told me that the contest would start at 1:30 and he would take me over to the auditorium at 1:20. The sales rep pricked up his ears at that, as well he might. The schedule says the contest started at 1:00, which is why we were there at 12:45. The sales rep was worried that this change in the time would be a problem for me or it would bother me. I assured him that it made no difference. I was happy to sit there and absorb the atmosphere as long as they wanted. And in this case, I was handed the scripts to the 9 drama performances I was expected to judge, so I could spend the time reading through them.
Reading the scripts beforehand often helps a great deal. The students generally write original scripts based on existing stories, and they bring so many wild and wonderful ideas to bear that without some kind of guidebook, you can be quite lost as to what exactly is going on. They also speak very fast and act very fast and change sets very fast and have so many scenes and set changes which flit by at breakneck speed that I often can barely catch a word here or there. Without the written script in front of me, I would often have no clue as to what they were saying or what was going on. That could just be me. I have notoriously bad ears when it comes to picking out the nuances of speech in any language. I hear the sounds and not the words in pop songs for example. I can almost never understand the lyrics of pop and rock songs – a blessing, probably. I often end up liking a song that I would otherwise hate if I could actually understand the words – words that usually make no sense anyway.
I settled at a desk with a computer on top (one that may or may not work) and a heater of some kind jammed underneath. I was fairly sure the heater had stopped working a dozen years ago, but it still sat there forgotten. My chair was a creaky monster that threatened to break and/or topple in whatever direction I tried to lean. It held, though, and I settled back and read through the scripts. There were 9 classes performing. They were performing, in order, New Mulan, Othello, When Juliet is not Juliet, The Big Band Wolf, The Fierce Wife, Tragedy Story, The Sword in the Stone, Peacock, and My Prince.
To say that these scripts were ambitious is an understatement. In my opinion, they were too ambitious. New Mulan, for example, had 7 separate scenes plus one gratuitous (but very entertaining) dance scene, plus narration and music on top of that. It required costumes for a lot of people as well as set backdrops and props for every scene – all coordinated very well by backstage workers, who rush onto the stage like an army of crazed ants on too much coffee, whipping off one step and installing another. Before the lights even come up, the next scene has started and before I’ve managed to figure out where we are and what is going on, the scene has been rushed through and the crazed ants are thundering across the stage in the dark changing the set once more. I often feel as though someone has sped up the film reel.
Most of the scripts and the resulting performances followed this same pattern, and, without some time beforehand to read the scripts, I would have been totally bewildered about what had actually occurred in each play. The problem, as I see it, is that in all the ambitious staging and costuming, the two most important elements get very short shrift – English and acting. It is an English drama contest after all. The point is to put on a play in English and that aspect often gets forgotten entirely – except by the judges, especially me. My scoring sheet – a byzantine document of unparalleled complexity – indicated that English Delivery and Pronunciation accounted for 40% of their score, Acting for 40% and Stage Effects for only 20%. Given that scoring sheet, I generally pay a lot of attention to the English – both as it is written in the script and spoken on stage. I also look hard at the acting. Therefore, I end up not taking the massive spectacle of it all much into account. I feel bad about that. The kids obviously put a tremendous amount of effort into building all the sets and painting all the set backdrops and making the costumes. At this event, I was astonished at how big each production was and how much work it all represented. Yet, as a judge, and as me, I would have been far more impressed if a play had consisted of simply a bare stage with two actors speaking loudly and clearly enough for me to hear them, in sentences that used correct English grammar.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t bright spots. One performance – my favorite by far – embodied these qualities. This was The Big Band Wolf by Class 206. I was so impressed by this performance that I sought this class out after the competition and spoke to Little Red Riding Hood, Grandma, and the Big Band Wolf. I would have liked to have spoken to the writer or the director to figure out just where the unique qualities of this performance had come from.
This performance was unique because it was simple and elegant and quite imaginative. There were only the three main actors playing Little Red Riding Hood, Grandma, and the Big Band Wolf. The play opened with a short narration by Little Red Riding Hood as she sat surrounded by a circle of woodland creatures singing a song. Her English was good and she spoke clearly and loudly right to the audience and for the first time, I knew what was going on in one of the plays. They had just a few props, but these props were well made and quite interesting. All three actors, not just Little Red Riding Hood, spoke clearly and slowly. They also moved slowly and deliberately and gave the audience enough time to appreciate what was happening. Now that I look at the written script, I can see that the English was actually not that good. There are lots of grammar mistakes throughout. And the English is quite simple and basic. Other scripts, Peacock by class 209 for example, were much better written and the English was much more complex. However, the overall effect of The Big Band Wolf was more dramatic and memorable.
I should say that the name The Big Band Wolf is not a typo – as I originally thought. The twist in the story is that the Wolf was not chasing Little Red Riding Hood to eat her. He simply wanted her to join his band as a vocalist. Even when the wolf tied up Grandma, it was not because he was trying to eat her. It was an accident. Grandma was so scared of the wolf that she tried to run away and she ended up getting all wrapped up in her own knitting. It was all a big misunderstanding and when it was worked out in the end, there was a big song and dance number as Little Red Riding Hood joined the Wolf’s band.
I have to back up in my story. That tangent came from sitting in the teacher’s office and reading through the scripts. While reading the scripts, I thought, as I always do, that it would be nice to get a copy of these scripts in advance. However, the logistics of that would probably be too much. As it was, I only had time to read four of the scripts before it was time to go to the auditorium. Allen led me through the usual labyrinth of hallways and up a crowded elevator to the fifth floor where a large theater was located. There were hundreds of students everywhere getting in costume, practicing their lines and otherwise creating an air of total chaos. Allen and I were jammed into the elevator along with the entire cast of Tragedy Story – a re-envisioning of Toy Story. Mr. Potato Head was right beside me and I reached out and patted his big belly stuffed with newspaper.
I was on a mission to locate that magical bathroom along the way, and Allen said that there was a bathroom at the theater. When we got there, I suddenly remembered the last time I was there. And I remembered the horrors of this particular bathroom. These bathrooms are, perhaps, the most surprising aspect of my trips to schools in Taiwan. They can be (and usually are) dirty and smelly beyond reason. To be honest, the bathrooms don’t really surprise me. The schools, large and elaborate as they are, can be quite antiquated and dilapidated. The bathrooms fit that overall tone. However, that they are as bad as they are often comes as a surprise. The smell can rival the worst smell you’ve ever encountered at the worst divey bar you’ve ever visited anywhere in the world. This bathroom was a particular challenge because it is very small and cramped and yet seems to be the changing room for all the hundreds of students getting ready for the performances. As the honored guest judge, I felt a bit weird pushing my way in there among a crowd of dozens. I found out later that every floor in this building has a bathroom, and I could have just zipped down to the fourth floor to use the bathroom there. However, it never occurred to Allen, my guide, to suggest that.
The theater at this school is like a regular theater with soft theater seating rising steeply from a stage. The judges sat in the very front seats with large tables pushed up to them. I remember this exact same setup from the last time I was there. It stuck in my memory because it’s so crazy. The theater seats are quite low and these tables are high. The table practically comes up to my chin, and it is nearly impossible to write on the score sheets. During the performances, the lights often go out completely and we are in total darkness. To allow the judges to keep filling out our scoring sheets, they had put a desk lamp in front of each of us. These were regular desk lamps probably scavenged from a half dozen teacher’s desks. As such, they were huge and bright and blocked my view of the stage. I kept having to duck my head this way and that in order to see the action on the stage. I couldn’t turn my light on because it blinded me no matter how I angled it, and I worried that it would blind members of the audience behind me. Powering these lights was a spider web of extension cords and adapters creating a deathtrap for anyone walking past. My first act as guest judge was to trip over a cord and nearly bring two of the lamps crashing to the ground. Luckily, I caught them both before any serious damage was done.
And this brings us to the scoring sheet. I’ve encountered lots of overly complex and illogical scoring sheets on my trips to schools, but this school has by far the most interesting and challenging specimen. It’s so weird because a lot of work obviously went into the sheets. They were incredibly complicated and there were several sets of them. Yet, none of the sets seemed to have anything to do with each other. I can only guess that six different people went off to six separate rooms and then just came up with stuff at random and then stapled them all together and gave them to the judges. Sure, there were lots of sheets and lots of boxes and columns and headings and subsets, but essential bits were missing from each one and none of them connected with any of the others. It was mind-boggling.
I spoke to my guide and fellow judge Allen before the contest began to figure out what I was supposed to do with the forms. He didn’t seem to know either. However, he wasn’t bothered by that and none of the other judges were either. I glanced around when the contest began and I saw that they were all using different systems, so I just went with the flow and made up my own system and hoped it would all work out in the end. The problem with that system is that I ended up having to make a huge amount of notes and give various scores on everything just to cover all my bases and hope that when the dust settled, I would have something like reasonable judging results to offer. On top of this, I knew I was also expected to give a speech at the end, so I had to keep a separate set of notes about things that I wanted to comment on. The end result was that I was a note-taking score-giving fiend with barely enough time to look up at the stage to see what was going on. It would have been a total disaster except that someone had had the brilliant idea to build in two intermissions. Those two intermissions gave me just enough time to impose some kind of order on my notes so that I kept my judging head above water and had the vaguest idea of who might be deserving of the Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (2), Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (2), Best Director, Best Stage (2), Best Script (2), Special Award, and Overall Awards. This was complicated by the fact that the forms made no sense and that the actors and actresses were often listed by their Chinese names with no reference to who they were actually playing. Even if I knew who they were playing, I often had little idea of who was who on stage. As at all these contests, I could only cross my fingers and hope that there would be two or three stand-out performances in all categories and I could give them the awards. When a performance on stage struck me as particularly noteworthy, I simply asked Allen who or what the person was playing and then I’d work backwards and try to assign them some high marks. It was exhausting.
Once all 9 performances were complete, the judges were asked to retire to a separate room to make our decisions. I had been sort of dreading that. This often happens that as judges we are asked to kill ourselves coming up with a numerical score for the performances. And then when it comes to choosing winners, we end up going to a room to talk about it instead of just adding up those numbers. It gets very complicated and confusing.
This particular case was an odd hybrid. In a way it was good that we had to retire to a room and have a discussion because the vague nature of the forms meant that every judge had used a unique scoring system. Some had assigned scores out of 100 for every single actor and actress listed. How they did that I can’t imagine. I had no idea who was who. Others had simply chosen one Best Actor or one Best Actress. Others had chosen the top three. Others had chosen the top five. Others had simply made verbal notes. It was total chaos. Therefore, it was impossible to just “add up the scores.” There were no scores to add up.
And it didn’t seem as if there was any final system for us to use to make our decisions. We had to make it up on the spot. Seems odd considering just how many forms were floating around. Luckily, a leader emerged and this teacher suggested we all rank each category from 1 to 5. Then we’d list our rankings and see where we were. I had only gone so far as my top 3 for each category, but we worked our way around that. So we had to go through each category laboriously and slowly with each judge verbally giving their top 5 rankings to this teacher who simply jotted these rankings down in the margins on a random form. Then through some mathematical voodoo that I didn’t understand (and, to be honest, don’t think was very fair or accurate) came up with winners.
This took a long time, and various student organizers and the principal of the school and other dignitaries were hovering outside the room and popping their heads in to see if we were finished yet. Understandable, since there were like a thousand students sitting in the theater just waiting for us to come back with the results. It was a lot of pressure, but there was no way for us to go faster. In fact, it was a miracle that we made any progress at all.
Just when I thought the scene could not get any more bizarre, three people in a row came into the room and delivered MORE forms to be filled out. The person who brought in the biggest and most complicated set of forms was, and I am not joking or kidding in any way, blind. A blind man with a walking stick came into the room and spoke to the other judges and delivered a thick bundle of forms we were supposed to fill out. I’ve never seen anything like it. These forms were, apparently, the actual final and official forms with which we were to render our decisions. Why we couldn’t have used those forms from the very beginning, I have no idea. Anyway, this final stack was added to the ongoing stack and to the eternal credit of the other judges, we just kept working. The pressure was somewhat off me since all the forms were in Chinese and I couldn’t have figured them out anyway. I don’t even know that there was anything to figure out. I was completely puzzled. There were so many forms and they were so complicated with so many columns and headings that there is no way that they could have made sense in any language. When it came right down to it, the teacher who had taken control of the system would turn to one page of one bundle and out of the perhaps 100 boxes divided into 10 columns, he would tick one, and then move on to the next. He was very professional though, and would not be rushed no matter how many times the principal came in and told us the natives were getting restless. He even, when it was all done, gave the stack of forms to another teacher and then had that teacher check every mark as he went through all our various notes and confirmed them verbally. It was a bravura performance.
Luckily there was a big box of snacks for each of the judges, and I tucked into mine with gusto. They had also brought the judges a hot cup of coffee at one of the intermissions, so I was well taken care of. And despite the chaos and confusion and the long wait and the delays, everyone seemed to be happy and in a good mood. When we finally broke up our round table and went back to the theater, the students were all still in their seats and they gave us a huge round of applause as we entered – whether they liked us or were just overjoyed that we’d finally finished is anybody’s guess.
Things were far from over, though. We had filled out our forms and I think backstage somewhere, minions were busy transferring data from our forms to their forms and compiling everything officially. In the meantime, I was asked to go on stage and give my comments. On good days, I am comfortable on stage and don’t mind doing that as long as I have had a chance to make some notes beforehand. In this case, there were only 9 performances, so I could make comments about each performance in turn as well as give overall feedback. It seemed to go over well. A large group of girls all screamed out “You are so handsome!” in unison (and for quite some time before they quieted down) and I was allowed to speak.
After my speech, another teacher spoke and then the awards were presented. Considering that they had all been in that theater for a solid four a quarter hours by that point, the students were quite upbeat and happy. At least this time, they had comfortable theater seats and were not sitting down on a hard gymnasium floor as often happens at these big school events. Each of the judges was asked to come up on stage and present an award. I was given the job of presenting the Best Actor award. This went, oddly enough, to the girl that played Othello. It was a quirk, once again, of the forms. From each class, certain people were pre-chosen to compete for the various awards. So in the Best Actor category for this class, the candidate was this girl playing Othello. I guess since she was playing a man, they felt that made her an actor and not an actress. I mentioned this during our judging roundtable, but no one seemed to understand what I meant. The result, of course, was that there really was no Best Actor chosen for this competition. The girl who played Juliet was given the Best Actress award. Then another girl, another actress, was given the Best Actor award. I suppose justice was served in the end, since none of the boys, the “actors”, were up to their standards. The boys tend to ham up their roles and turn them into jokes. It’s rare to find a boy with the courage to play a role seriously and show some actual emotion on stage. Their range goes from goofy to stupid.
The organizers, as always, tried to rush me out of the theater once the contest was officially over. They do this out of politeness and concern for my well-being. I resisted this time, though, and remained behind to chat with some of the students – including the cast from The Big Band Wolf. They were eager to talk to me and they asked me to pose for a picture with their class. That probably caused some bad feelings somewhere as the other classes would wonder why I had my picture taken with this class but not theirs.
It took a bit of effort on my part to find my way out of that neighborhood and to the MRT station, but I found my way. It feels, in an odd way, like a walk of shame. The thing is that as an honored judge, I feel quite singled out and special. Then when the competition is over, I am suddenly out on the street and walking along the sidewalk right beside all the students that had taken part in the competition. There is no limo to whisk the honored judge on to his storied life somewhere, no taxi to take him to his swank pad, no driver to escort him. No, he trudges to the bus stop and the MRT station like everyone else. The weird thing is that surrounded by hundreds of students away from the competition, I can’t tell who they are anymore. I don’t know if these are just students from the school (they all wear the same uniform) or they were in the competition. So I don’t know whether to make eye contact and smile or ignore them. I kind of toe the line and take my chances. I do both and look either foolish or unfriendly pretty much the entire time.
I was exhausted when I got home, but I was in the middle of one of the Dexter books. I had been reading it while heading home and I just settled in for a pleasant evening of reading before the trials of the next day – teaching classes at the school in Sanxia.
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