In Maine, March Madness means something else.

The Maine Drama Festival unfolds this week, bringing together high school actors, designers and writers from Kittery to Caribou, North Haven to Fort Kent. More than 2,500 students from nearly 80 schools will compete at nine sites Friday and Saturday to advance to the state finals March 20-21 in Bangor and Millinocket.

For the kids, it’s a months-long effort to rise above their peers for the right to proclaim themselves best in class. The competition is friendly but spirited, and rivalries run deep. Class B schools hope to knock off Yarmouth, which has won the class B title two years in a row and will defend its title with excerpts from the play “Epic Proportions.”

Class A title-holder Gorham will defend with the play “Baby.”

While the competition begins Friday in places like Freeport, Skowhegan and Brewer, the work began months ago in schools large and small, with students coming in early and staying late to practice lines, bang nails and build sets.

The festival is deeply ingrained in the culture of the Maine winter. Just as Town Meeting season signals spring, the drama festival means a late-winter thaw. By the time the curtains rise in Bangor and Millinocket in three weeks, the worst of winter will be behind us.

The festival’s roots extend to early 20th-century New England. Beginning in 1929, the New England Drama Festival invited schools from across the region to Pawtucket, Rhode Island. By 1932, each state had its own festival, with winners advancing to the regional competition. That model holds today.

Morse High School in Bath hosted Maine’s first festival, in 1932. It’s been held every year since except 1943, when it was canceled because of World War II.

The rules are rigid and simple. Each school performs a non-musical one-act play, which is judged for artistic and technical merit. Plays are limited to 40 minutes, with five minutes on either side to set up and strike the set.

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