Students win awards in improvising, chess

By Kit Irving


It must be something in the air …” was the happy thought expressed by one boy, when pupils at Laurentian High School-learned this month that fellow students had brought home some special laurels in chess and drama.
First it was 16-year-old Paul Ross in grade 11 who traveled at his own expense to St. John’s, Nfld., to compete in the Canadian Cadet Chess Championship for players under 17 years. There were representatives from each region except Quebec at the May 3 to 9 round-robin-type tournament, including Wayne Barclay of Ottawa, the Ontario representative.
But when Ross had played each of nine opponents, his score of six wins, two draws and one loss was the tournament’s best and he came home with the Canadian championship and a chance to represent Canada at the World Cadet Chess Championship on July 30 to August 11 in Le Havre, France.


Trying too hard


Last year he had competed in the Canadian championship when it was held in Toronto and had tied for second last spot.
His “dismal placing” last year had been due to his attitude, he admitted.
At the Toronto games, he had been, “trying too hard.” His second experience in national competition had come unexpectedly, for he had heard about the tournament too late to prepare for it and had gone “simply to have a good time.”
“I didn’t feel any stress during the games, and played well as a result,” he recalled.
Paul Ross, who comes from a family of keen chess players (both his grandfather Sam Blinder and his brother Dave Ross are expert players), has been competing In chess tournaments for three years now and placed second to Johnathan Berry In the Ottawa Speed Chess Championship last year. What are his chances in the upcoming World Cadet Chess Championships? Ross gave a rueful smile and said he could only predict that he would do his best In what would probably be “the stiffest contest” of his chess career.


Beating the stars


The seven Laurentian drama students who represented Canada along with seven Gloucester High School students in an international improvisational drama meet in New York City on May 10, were optimistic about his chances as they wished him luck during a recent picture-taking session.
Still riding high on a fluffy cloud of success following their first place showing in improvisation against an all-star drama team from New Jersey, the members of the drama group were able to give Ross the encouragement of their example as “dragon slayers” on the international scene.
For the international meet, organized by the American Drama Association, had been the “first of its kind” for budding amateur actors under 18 years, said David Alexander, coach of the Laurentian team.
The invitation to compete against top young amateurs in the United States in the improvisational field had come following a hard-fought contest amongst 17 Ottawa area high schools last fall in the Improvisation Olympics at the University of Ottawa, he added.
The Laurentian team had come first in the “Olympics of Instant drama” followed closely by the Gloucester High School team who took second place honors. So the two teams had combined to train for the invitational meet.
In improvisation competition, teams are given various scenario ideas (two or three unrelated sentences, a song, an action such as giving a dog a bath) and from this start the team must act out a full-scale scene or even perform a music hall song, he explained. The group is usually given about 20 seconds to plan what it is going to do before the performance must begin.
Needless to say, this kind of drama experience develops quick-thinking, imaginative players, said Willie Wyilie,who along with Andy Lonie and four others, formed the semi-professional improvisational Ottawa company called Stage Fright three years ago. These experienced players have trained and encouraged the team members.
It was the Stage Fright actors, former Sir John A. Macdonald High School drama students, who have sparked interest in improvisation in the city by organizing the High School Improvisation Olympics, Wyllie explained. Their interest, in turn, had come from a renewed use of this form of training in “instant theatre” started at the University of Chicago in 1952 by David Shepherd.


Playwright to psychologist


Since that time, professional teams of improvisors have been started in many other North American centres including Ottawa and Toronto. Last year on Labor Day the Stage Fright troop took part in the first Olympics for professional improvisors. They came home with a first place win against teams from all over the United States.
Laurentian drama teacher Catherine Spennato was enthusiastic about the interest and success of the high school group in improvisation. It was spontaneous theatre and a chance to bring cooperation to a fine point, she said. “An improvisor learns to think on his feet, how to put across an idea with a minimum of props and fuss, and all the basic acting skills,” she added. “Yet the whole thing is fun for everyone, both actors and audience, from start to finish.”
Sam Goldstein agreed that improvisation developed every conceivable talent from those of playwright to psychologist.
One of the Laurentian team members who was absent attending the New York meet when elected co-president of the school for the coming year, he said it was hard to miss the excitement of a school election, but the experience of competing in the drama competiton was something he would never forget.
The group had been tested in five different improvisational situations and had won in all five to score 105 points out of a possible 125, he recalled. The New Jersey team’s score was 88.
The Ottawa team included Laurentian students Nancy Sakovich, Paul Biesenthal, Sam Goldstein, Steve Larkin, Pam Irwin, Janet Bower and David Alexander (coach). Gloucester High School members of the team were Tim Hadley, Beth Barber, Steve Walker, Sylvia Toffola, Penny Joyce, Heather Wilcox and David McVeigh (coach).


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