SIOUX CITY -- Jacob Licht has a neat trick he uses right before a speech competition.
"If I'm just a little nervous, I go big," the East High School 11th-grader explained. "If I'm really nervous, I'll go even bigger."
"You gotta take ownership of the stage," Licht added. "Go big or go home!"
Actually, Licht and four of his classmates will be going to the National Speech & Debate Association's National Tournament in Dallas, June 17-21.
"From more than 150,000 student members, nationwide, fewer than 3 percent qualify to compete for a chance to become national champions," drama and humanities teacher Marissa Kuiken said. "To have five East students qualify for such a prestigious competition is huge."
Speaking of huge, that's one way to describe Licht's performance.
Along with scene partner Janaya Barnes, the two are performing a scene from the 2004 movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," which qualified them for a spot at the Nationals in the Duo Interpretation category.
"I'm doing a role that was originally done by Jim Carrey in the movie," Licht said, after performing a scene from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's Oscar-winning script.
"And I'm doing a role that had been done by Kate Winslett," Barnes, an 11th-grader, said.
Neither Barnes nor Licht are acting in the strictest sense of the word. Instead, they are playing their scenes directly to the audience. Given the judging requirements, the two can never touch nor look directly at one another.
Which isn't easy for Licht, an experienced actor, or Barnes, who must maintain a calm demeanor to her more frenetic partner.
"We have to trust each other completely," Barnes said. "We have to know what the other person is doing at all times."
Luckily, the two have been receiving expert advice from Nathan Irwin, an Iowa High School Speech Association (IHSSA) coach, who has been helping students on interpreting source material as well as stage blocking.
"I'll work with the kids extensively at the beginning, but they'll bring so much more to the material," Irwin said. "Once they become comfortable with their scenes, students add their own personalities to the pieces."
So, what can Whitney Lester add to a scene in which the 11th-grader assumes the role of a hyperactive 9-year-old with a killer IQ and an even more devastating taekwondo punch?
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If you ask Lester, she said she brings a natural confidence that comes from participating in debate class.
"I've never done interpretive performance before," said Lester, who plays the part of Anna in Don Zolidis' two-person "Anna & August" script. "In debate, you'll do fine if you have command of the facts. In interpretive speech, you bring much more of yourself into the performance."
Assigned the part of August, ardent admirer of Anna, the self-described "weirdest girl in school," is Carter Vanderloo.
"The great thing about interpretive speech is that it requires you to step way out of your comfort zone," the 10th-grader said. "You hold nothing back."
Indeed, Vanderloo finds it helpful to run laps prior to playing the perpetually over-the-top August.
"I may be performing the scene multiple times for multiple rounds," he said. "In order to play somebody as high-energy as August, it helps to get a head start."
While Vanderloo and Lester will be going to Nationals in the Duo Interpretation category, Leai Britton is going it alone in a solo oral presentation in which the 11th-grader plays multiple roles in a 10-minute piece that combines both poetry and prose.
"In oral interpretation, you discover how much can be conveyed through the way you use your voice, the way you move around a stage, or an attitude you assume as a character," she said, after giving a condensed piece from Julia Neva's "Rethinking Pink."
Unlike the presentations of her classmates, Britton's piece requires a wider range of emotions.
"I personally think it is more challenging when you go from something light to something dark," she said. "It keeps you on your toes."
Certainly, that's what it takes to earn the title of National Champion.
After rehearsing the part of elementary school pals Anna and August, Lester and Vanderloo reflect for a moment.
"When I'm in debate, it was all about the heated moments," Lester said. "What we do in interpretive speech is fun. It's much more enjoyable."
"Competing in regional qualifying contests, we've seen other students play Anna and August," Vanderloo said. "It's interesting to see how other people interpret the same material as Whitney and me."
According to Irwin, that's where the fun comes.
"Everybody brings a part of themselves to interpretive speech," he said. "It's rewarding to see how the students bring their personalities through the pieces."
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