Skagway’s Drama, Debate and Forensics team recently made a strong showing at the ASAA/First National Bank Alaska DDF Championships, with Kara Whitehead winning the state title in expository speaking, and three other pieces making it to finals in the competition.

Whitehead, Steaven McKnight and Micah Cook are headed to the National Speech and Debate Association competition in Birmingham, Alabama. Dainean Teeluk qualified for the National Catholic Forensics League tournament in Louisville, Kentucky. Taking her expository speech to nationals is “exciting and terrifying at the same time,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead’s expository speech is about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. When she was 10 years old, her father fell ill with ALS, and passed away the following year. Two other residents of Skagway have also passed away from the disease in the last ten years.

Performing the speech is different each time, according to Whitehead.

“Sometimes it is easier than others,” Whitehead said. “I remember my first time giving it, I nearly cried with the judges [as I was trying to speak]. And then by state it came just a lot smoother, and more confidence built with telling people about it.”
Whitehead had written a persuasive essay on the topic, and said she’d chosen to transfer it over to DDF.
“Because I knew it would be something very meaningful to me, and I knew it would have an impact on my audience,” Whitehead said.

DDF coach John Baldwin said that personal component, while powerful, was not the only thing that pushed Whitehead’s performance towards the top place in Anchorage. Her knowledge on the subject and command of the room were key factors as well.

“But…that command came from the fact that it was a personal experience and she knows what she is talking about,” Baldwin said.

Skagway likes to push the envelope with edgy pieces, Baldwin said, and this year was no exception. McKnight, Danny Brady and Cook performed a piece titled “Extremely Terrifying and Incredibly Close,” which mocked violence in modern socio-political culture.

Whitehead, Lily Goebel and Teeluk’s reader’s theatre piece “10,000 Cigarettes” focused on the dangerous allure, addiction and deadly outcomes of smoking.

Testing the boundaries makes for an interesting piece, but can also cause a few raised eyebrows from the judges.

“There was one judge that at first thought we were advertising for cigarettes,” Whitehead said. “That was actually kind of amusing to read on the scoresheet.”

Goebel and Whitehead also competed in duet acting, which made it to finals at state. Teeluk’s dramatic interpretation performance, which is sending her to the Catholic Forensic League’s national competition, made finals as well. In addition to his reader’s theatre performance, Brady performed a dramatic interpretation and extemporaneous commentary. Cook also performed an expository speaking piece, and McKnight and Cook made finals and nationals with their duo interpretation; McKnight also performed a pantomime for “commands” on stage before the entirety of the competitors.

Taking the DDF team to state is “pretty awesome,” said Baldwin, because coaches get to see the students step out of rehearsal mode.

“And then when you get in front of this new audience, you see this great surge of energy that you have never seen,” Baldwin said. “It is all of a sudden like you see these kids turn from your students into young adults.”

The three-day state competition is rigorous. Baldwin said it runs from 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m., and students will spend that time either practicing or performing.

Kara Whitehead and Lily Goebel receive an award.

“Eating schedules are off, you just grab food wherever you can,” Baldwin said. Coaches can read the judges’ score sheets after a performance, and give criticisms on the fly so students can improve their piece before they must carry it out again. For all the competition’s hectic nature, Baldwin said it is an exciting time for the students.

The National Speech and Debate Association’s competition will be in June; the Catholic Forensic League’s national competition is in May.

Baldwin said the DDF team will be trying to raise money in order to pay for the travel and lodging expenses to get their competitors there. The team will be seeking donations, holding burger feeds at the Elks Lodge and looking for other fundraising opportunities. In addition to raising money, the students going to nationals will have to stay on point for their speeches to remain competitive. The nationals’ expository speech adds an extra two minutes to the maximum time allowed, so Whitehead said she will look at other pieces that have won nationals to see if there is anything she needs to add to her speech to improve it.

This will not be Skagway’s first trip to a national DDF competition.

“We have a good record the last 5-6 years of getting a student or multiple students to nationals,” Baldwin said.

Practice and dedication, of course, are the keys to success, according to Baldwin.

Whitehead said the students do a two-hour practice every weekday. The competition doesn’t allow scripts, so memorization is a must.

“Just drill it in, say it over and over again until you can say it in your sleep,” Whitehead said.