Let us preface this section by saying in most cases, the skills discussed below can be taught and developed, but some students have an innate ability or can develop these skills with ease.
When helping students choose between Dramatic and Humorous Interpretation, it is crucial to consider their skill level. Skill level is different for every student. Just because they are brand new to speech and debate doesn’t mean they don’t have the talents necessary for competing in an Interp event. Unfortunately, not all students are adept at knowing what they are capable of performing. I have coached students who had loads of talent, but it took all of the encouraging words and ego-boosting we could muster to help them believe in themselves. Conversely, we have coached students who believed with every ounce of their being that their event was _____ (you fill in the blank). Several years ago, an enthusiastic freshman convinced me he would be amazing at HI because he could do lots of voices and accents, sing, and dance. Still, after weeks, maybe even months of coaching, no amount of fairy dust was going to get that HI to score higher than a 6 in a round. When he became frustrated that he was not improving and was on the brink of quitting, I realized I had to lead him in a different direction. I just had to convince him that he had all the talents to be successful in debate and speaking events, but Interp wasn’t in his skillset. Note: He won many tournaments in Congress, Extemp, Impromptu, and Informative Speaking. He was a repeat qualifier to NSDA Nationals in both Congress and Extemp, choosing both times to compete in Extemp as a national semifinalist. The point of this story is sometimes the student doesn’t know what they will be best at, but we as coaches have to do what we can to guide them through the process. However, even if a student isn’t naturally disposed to an event, if they enjoy it and don’t feel the same about other events after trying them, they should continue to compete in the event they want. I have had students who never broke to an out round, but to this day comment on how much competing in speech and debate helped them gain confidence, grow, and learn.
We know your students might feel speech is all about winning and placing—it is not! Presenting one’s Dramatic or Humorous art is about changing people’s lives by communicating important, entertaining, and compelling messages. It’s about putting oneself in front of an audience (in a tournament or practicing) and giving a great gift. If a student focuses just on winning, they will miss the long term benefits of the activity. Speech is far more than a trophy. It is a life-changing experience that will continue to give something back forever.
Choosing literature is an essential skill in the process. According to the NY Book Editors’ website, every good story has a plot, and every good plot needs a theme. The story is a series of events. The plot is a structure that the storyteller uses to show how the events are connected. The theme is the central message behind the story. To tell the best story possible, one needs both a plot and a theme. But here’s the thing: Interpers should not state the theme directly. Instead, they need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to help the listener figure out the story’s theme. As students choose their Dramatic or Humorous Interpretation, they should remember their story is just as important as what it says. The interper should choose their material because it speaks to them and communicates something important to their audience. Not all literature is playable. Even a great story can fall flat in performance.
Interpretation of Gender
The key to creating a person is to be as truthful as possible under imaginary circumstances. Some literature dictates a student be able to portray a gender other than their own. Performing another gender must be believable. Gender might be distinguished not only by the vocal qualities but also by the physicalities of the character. Our caution to the interper as their coach is not to allow a student to fall into stereotypes
The Challenge of a Multi-Voice Interp
Depending on the event and the script chosen, the student may need to perform multiple characters. Each character/person needs to sound different to create distinctive human beings/characters. If the student is doing a piece with three female characters and two male characters, all five characters/people should sound distinctively different and consistently performed.
In Dramatic Interpretation, the trend recently has been to choose first-person narrative pieces that often only have one character telling their story. Occasionally, an interper will incorporate another character or two for a few lines. We would encourage you not to forget about the fantastic literature, mostly plays, that require cutting multiple characters. With the NSDA Resource Package, you can watch some of these amazing performances from over the years. Most of the pieces we see are multi-character performances, but comedians have proven that monologues work. The point is it never hurts to think out of the box.
While the archives are useful, speech and debate is always evolving. Over the decades since the inception of DI and HI, students portrayed characters or made choices regarding language or stereotypes that our community would not condone today. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind.
Additionally, depending on the piece chosen, a student will be required to portray a character who might be 20, 40, or 60 years older than the student. Age is so challenging to perform that students create caricatures. For example, not all senior citizens are hunched over and use a cane.
Playing a Different Race
The issue of a student playing the main character outside their race requires thoughtful consideration and compassion. Across the country, the speech and debate community is sensitive to allowing an interper to portray a race without respect for the literature, the intent, and the character’s truth. On this issue, Luke Ostrander, Director of Speech and Debate at Apple Valley High School in Minnesota, states, “Stories rooted in the racial experience must remain in that race. To do otherwise is appropriation and privilege. A student ought to portray a character with whom they identify unless the racial or ethnic identity of the character is not a leading factor.” If racial experience is a key theme in the story, or a character’s storyline, you should speak with the student about the harms of appropriation and guide them away from the material. Utilize these resources for how to talk about race with students as you have conversations about what literature is appropriate for them to bring to life.
It is essential to develop any person/character in the Interp selection with honesty, reverence, care, and respect to the character’s truth.