Wednesday, 23 March 2011

On The Art Of Adjudication

by Dennis Johnson, Community Theatre Coordinator

Adjudicators are like painters. Each has a unique style.  Some adjudicators are avant-garde. Some have a classic style.  As I travel around to Ontario’s community theatre festivals this month, I am struck not by the adjudications, but by the reaction of the organizers and performers. They have bought a painting without always knowing the style of the painter, and this requires them to adjust and question their concept and expectations of adjudication.

Some festival regulars, for example, want a pointillist adjudication. Nothing else will do but for the adjudicator to take a tiny brush to the production and touch on every moment, dot by dot. The pointillist does not blend pigment on a palette.  They want to replay the movie frame by frame (in the manner of a play polisher) and don’t want to listen to a critic. No broad strokes. The pointillist insists that an adjudicator not talk about the play (too general) only about the production.

I know an adjudicator whom I would compare to Jackson Pollock. There may be a million dots of paint but you never know where they are going to land. After viewing the production (without taking notes) this adjudicator’s commentary is done with a broad brush and it touches on everything in the production except the individual moments.  And then you ask questions.  Each question sets off a new wave of the brush, a new layer of colour, a new set of insights. After a lengthy conversation, the participants leave the adjudication not confused by the lack of structure, but stimulated. And then they start asking each other questions.

We’ve all met the self-taught adjudicator, the primitivist, the folk artist – the Grandma Moses of adjudication. In primitive art, everything is seen in clunky perspective – a few large items in the foreground, less important ones behind. The adjudication has no depth even though there may be lots of detail.

On a similar but much higher pedestal sits Norman Rockwell. He makes you feel good about who you are and what you have done. Lucky you when he adjudicates – all the warts and inconsistencies become beautiful.  He honours you and what you have done, and makes you want to do it all over again.

And then there’s the tattoo artist – the adjudicator who feels compelled to leave his mark on the production, sometimes in places that are not entirely appropriate. These adjudicators want to re-direct the play, to tell you how to get it right. Happily, such people rarely get asked back to do another festival.

All adjudicators eventually turn into Amadeo Modigliani – long necks, craning for a good perspective (literally and figuratively), slightly out of focus and not too colourful. They each have a style uniquely their own, and even though they try to be subversive (undermining bad practice) their audience doesn’t quite get it.  Like Modigliani, they are not fully appreciated until after they are dead.

Finally, there is the Academy. Many adjudicators might be slotted into the Academic style, the classical approach. They have been trained by the best and strive to emulate their mentors. The Academic approach to training will produce one of two types of adjudicators – those who learn their lessons well and reproduce the traditional adjudication with precision.  Or, it will produce the Picassos of the world, who master all the traditional forms and then break away to create something new (which may or may not be acceptable to the clients).

Last May, Theatre Ontario organized a training program for new adjudicators, something we had not done for over twenty years. We had been relying on recruiting adjudicators, not training them.  In the late 1980s, Paul Eck taught a week-long Theatre Ontario Adjudication Course and repeated it four years in a row. In 2010 we asked Ron Cameron-Lewis to facilitate a similar training program, and hopefully there will be enough demand to do so again in May 2011 during the Theatre Ontario Festival in Richmond Hill. Thus we have set up our own Academia.

By coincidence, one of our current Talent Bank adjudicators, Annette Procunier, has just published a book on adjudication, titled Do You See What I See?  Annette has benefited from three decades of involvement in community theatre throughout North America and has adjudicated in Japan and Europe.

Do You See What I See? will be useful for future adjudicators, but it would be a mistake to see this as just an academic training manual.  It is a book that is equally understandable by the novice and useful for the initiated. In fact, I would argue that it is an even more useful read for someone unfamiliar with adjudication, than it is for the old hand.  In particular, the director and cast who want to see their production adjudicated would be well advised to find out in some detail what an adjudicator will be looking for.  Annette’s book may not prepare you for the wide range of styles that adjudicators bring, but it demystifies the process, and helps the adjudicatee get a handle on what an adjudicator should be trying to do.  Over the years I have encountered a great deal of fear of being adjudicated, and sometimes unrealistic expectations. I think this book is a good antidote.

Last fall, Theatre Ontario organized an Adjudicator’s Symposium. It was the first time, to our knowledge, adjudicators in this province have gathered to share experiences and opinions. This was a group of survivors.  One of the comments that stands out from that day was an observation that in Ontario the private (detailed) adjudication is often better than anywhere else in the world. Few drama festivals outside Ontario give the companies over an hour of commentary by an adjudicator.  But in Ontario, the public adjudication, immediately after the show, is often not entertaining or engaging enough to hold the audience – it’s not seen to be part of the “show.”

Now there’s a thought. A painter who sells part of his personality along with his canvas.  Salvador Dali anyone?


  1. I was lucky enough to have Ron Cameron Lewis as the adjudicator of my first play and, for sure, he was Cezanne. The 'real' became 'more real' with his smooth strokes!

  2. Interesting. Discourse on a whole different world of theatre than I'm used to. You've got me thinking on this more and more.

  3. Thanks Michael!

    Andrew - Thinking as something you're interested in doing?, participating? etc.