2 East High School students reach top 30 in national speech contest
Max Braunstein took down all the posters in his bedroom before stacking one table on top of another table.
On top of the second table, the incoming East High School 12th grader placed a smartphone to record a prose performance piece he’d been reciting for much of the school year.
Braunstein was one of six East High School students who qualified to compete in the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA) Tournament, held June 14-20.
In any other year, Braunstein, along with his East classmates Carter Vanderloo, Whitney Lester, Clair Hendrich, Jacob Licht and Annabelle Helms, would need to travel in order to compete against some of the nation’s top speech and debate students.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, this year’s qualifying participants had to submit videos for judges to evaluate.
That actually turned out OK for a self-described perfectionist like Braunstein, who said he performed his prose piece, “YouTube Celebrity,” at least 50 times before he had a take he liked.
“You can’t do a retake when you’re performing live for judges,” he said.
On the other hand, you can’t connect to an audience’s energy when you’re enacting a highly charged monologue in front of a computer camera. This is what East incoming 12th grader Carter Vanderloo discovered when he performed his oral interpretation piece, “The Cost of Crazy,” in his bedroom.
“I’ve done the piece often enough to know when I should pause for a laugh or pause for a dramatic effect,” he said. “Still, it doesn’t take the place of performing live in front of people.”
Despite the unusual circumstances, Braunstein and Vanderloo wowed the judges. They were both top 30 quarterfinalists in the competition, which is a major achievement, according to Marissa Kuiken, an East drama and humanities teacher who coaches the team.
“Out of the 140,000 students who are NSDA members, only 5,073 or around 4 percent qualify to compete at the national tournament,” Kuiken explained. “Having six East students who qualify is extraordinary. Plus having Carter and Max finish in the top 30 in their categories.”
In addition, East received an NSDA School of Honor Award, which is given to the top 50 speech schools in the country.
“This showcases the amazing dedication and talent of our students,” Kuiken said. “I am proud to be their coach.”
Braunstein said he was fortunate to connect with “YouTube Celebrity,” a performance piece in which the main character hides his loneliness by creating a separate online celebrity.
Similarly, with “The Cost of Crazy,” Vanderloo was able to examine the financial and emotional toll of mental illness.
“It is so important to choose material that you like,” he said. “You’ll be doing it over and over again.”
Which is fine for Vanderloo, who has been involved with East’s speech and debate program since he was a freshman. Braunstein was recruited for the team during his sophomore year.
Kuiken said her speech and debate students are often high achievers in other classes and extracurricular activities.
“Being articulate and the ability to think on your feet certainly helps,” she said.
That will help Vanderloo, who is considering either becoming a premed or science major when he goes to college.
Braunstein is still undecided when it comes to college. He has more pressing things on his mind.
“Right now, I’m beginning to search for the perfect monologue to perform,” he said. “The new school year will be here before we know it.”