Dispatches from the Winter Guard International championships, the Entertainment Designers Forum and 'Bug' at Queen's Head Theatre 

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Seth Kubersky

What is the dividing line between art and sport? Are creativity and competition complementary or in conflict, and where do aesthetics and athletics intersect?

These questions came to mind while watching last weekend's Winter Guard International 2015 Southeastern championships at UCF's CFE Arena. WGI organizes competitions between winter guard ensembles (winter guard is similar to the color guard that accompanies marching bands during football halftime shows, only indoors and minus the band). Teams twirl flags to prerecorded soundtracks during routines that draw from contemporary dance and rhythmic gymnastics, and are ranked under an Olympic-style scoring system.

WGI's slogan is "the sport of the arts," but, much like Drum Corps International (the outdoor equivalent), I find its fusion of art and sport to be as frustrating as it is fascinating. On the one hand, you have to admire the incredible dedication and effort invested by every participant who makes it to a regional championship, which this year included local high schools like Lyman, Cypress Creek and Boone in the open category, and Timber Creek High and UCF Pegasus in the World class. I endured a brief marching-band career, and can't imagine perfecting the movement patterns these performers attempt, much less while spinning sharp objects.

On the other hand, said objects – sabers, rifles and the like – are silly holdovers from the activity's archaic martial origins, and serve to distract from whatever aesthetic the shows are attempting to evoke. Unfortunately, that aesthetic is frequently of questionable taste, as many routines feature fashion-disaster costumes (few people look good in off-the-shoulder unitards), uncomfortable emoting (from plastic pageant smiles to vampiric grimaces, with little subtlety in between), and clichéd components pandering to Pavlovian audience applause – take a shot every time a routine finishes with a flag flying off-field, and you'll soon be sloshed.

The relationship of art to sport is also relevant to the theme park industry, as last Friday's Entertainment Designers Forum demonstrated. Banks Lee, host of Orlando Attractions Magazine: The Show, served as moderator for the sixth annual event, which is organized by Disney designer Kim Gromoll in honor of late Universal artist Stephanie Girard. This year's gathering raised more than $12,000 for the American Cancer Society with the help of attraction engineers and entertainers including Universal's David Hughes, Josh Siniscalco and Greg Senner; Disney's Katy Thomas and Chris Ort; SeaWorld's Jeff Hornick; and freelancers Ray Keim, Melody Matheny and Bobby Bascombe.

As ever, the panelists were supportive of attendees who asked the inevitable "how do I break into the business" questions, but they also sounded like professional athletes when describing how much passion, drive and sacrifice it takes to succeed. Each also shared stories of recent projects they'd helped succeed – from the Festival of Fantasy parade to Diagon Alley – but equally interesting were their tales of epic losses worthy of a Seahawks Super Bowl. Renaissance Entertainment's Binkowski was irrepressibly irreverent recounting how his Hard Rock Park blew through $400 million before closing after a single season, and Orlando Shakes' Melissa Braillard explained how their Les Miz flash mob viral video was nearly derailed by faulty walkie-talkies.

Lastly, competition drives attractions as much as it does athletics; Senner (who was show manager for Potter's Gringotts) spoke of his drive to work on "the best project of the decade" and his desire to see Disney "come back and do something great," just so that he can have "the perfect opportunity ... to one-up them [and] be the best."

Finally, for further proof that theater can be a full-contact bloodsport, look to Tracy Letts' Bug, a pitch-black psychological stress test currently being staged at the scrappy new Queen's Head Theatre of Winter Park. Leesa Castaneda (Orpheus Descending, Next to Normal) plays Agnes, a cokehead honky-tonk waitress who's hiding in a third-rate motel from her harassing ex-con ex-husband (Jay Glass). Her pal R.C. (Melina Smart) introduces her to Peter, an obviously shell-shocked vet played by Paxton McCaghren (SantaLand Diaries). His anger and paranoia, and her loneliness and grief, merge to birth a toxic plague of microscopic insects that infest their bodies and minds, to inevitably inflammatory ends.

Castaneda and McCaghren both give kinetic performances as exhausting as any marathon; McCaghren's Peter swiftly degenerates from strange but sweet into a scratching, twitching terror, while Castaneda unleashes seemingly bottomless anguish from the bottom of Agnes' broken soul. While not as eloquent as his redneck masterpiece, Killer Joe, Letts' tale is compelling, and the central performances are ready for the major leagues.

Unfortunately, director Karen Casteel and designer Rick Burroughs keep the production mired in the minors with awkwardly staged action, comically flimsy set pieces, ineffective sound and lighting, and uncomfortably long scene changes. It's a tribute to the two leads that I remained locked in with them through the anticlimactic climax, but it's as true in art as in sport: Two great players don't make a team.


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