By Brandon Martin
Students at Magna Vista High School emerged from the Virginia High School League Forensics Competition as Class 3 State Champions.
Coach Bryan Dunn said eight students from Magna Vista competed in the championship, with Briana Tatum placing first in Humorous Dramatic Interpretation, MacKenzie Morrison placing first in the Storytelling, and Brayden Lynch and Ava Knight placing first in the Humorous Duo event. Additionally, sisters Ivanna and Joanna Gutierrez placed second in the Serious Duo event. William Ortega-Wilson and Lauren Trent took third place.
“Together, the student’s placements put Magna Vista at the top overall school at the VHSL Forensics State Championships,” Dunn said. “The students have endured so many challenges, it brings so much joy to know that amid the insane—mostly virtual—year we have had, there will always be a bright spot shining. I couldn’t be more proud of my forensics team this year. It is my hope that more students will continue to build on this success.”
Dunn said that forensics, within the context of high school competition, refers to the practice of public speaking and debate.
“It actually comes from ancient Greek where students would learn and practice speech and research skills for contests where they would inform or persuade,” Dunn said. “The VHSL offers several debate-style categories, including Original Oratory and Impromptu, however, the students in the MVHS Theatre Program focus on the interpretation events that are offered.”
The students chose between categories such as Prose, Poetry, Storytelling, Serious Dramatic Interpretation, Humorous Dramatic Interpretation, and Serious Duo and Humorous Duo.
“In the interpretation events, students can select essentially anything that is published to create their speech from,” Dunn said. “Their next step is to create a cutting—a script they will use and memorize for competition. This is a long process that requires a lot of editing. Students will rehearse and continue editing their script up until and in between competitions to constantly improve their performances.”
Unlike normal years, the competition was held virtually.
“As far as creation of their performances, the students practiced the same, but the competitions were held virtually,” Dunn said. “Each student competed in front of a single computer—judges and other competitors watched from their own devices. It was very jarring, especially for students in humorous contests, as there was no audible indication they were achieving their goal. Imagine trying out a joke for the first time and not knowing whether or not it was landing the right way.”
Given the new structure, Dunn said his coaching approach was also different.
“Things I would normally coach my students to do wouldn’t work,” he said. “I had to focus on helping the students understand new things, such as staying within their frame, and how their cameras and microphones worked in relationship to their performance. We planned for the performances we would have, not what we wished we could have, and it became apparent over time that our adjustments were working.”
Dunn said that four of the students competed last year before the pandemic forced the cancellation of the competition.
“This year was more for them—it was a chance to do what was taken from them: compete at state,” Dunn said. “We have had successes with forensics in past years. In 2019, three students advanced and placed in state, leading to a Runner-Up State Trophy. As excited as I was, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is probably the best it will ever get.’ I have never been happier to be proven wrong this past March.”
The students also were happy.
Tatum said she enjoyed her performance of “So you want to be a cheerleader?”
“It was super cheesy, lots of fun,” Tatum said. “There were lots of crazy characters trying out for the cheerleading squad.”
She said placing first in Humorous Dramatic Interpretation was “exciting” after having the competition cancelled previously “because we actually were able to compete and win.”
Winning the competition also was special for the veterans of the team.
“This was the first time I’ve ever competed or won state for anything,” Knight said. “It’s a pretty special experience.”
Morrison said the new format was tricky for those who are used to a live audience.
“As a performer, you perform off of laughter or emotion, whatever your audience is giving you and you don’t get any of that because it’s all online,” Morrison said. “You can only see yourself and sometimes the judges’ faces. It’s hard to perform and know that you are doing well since you can’t get any feedback from it immediately.”
Despite the challenge, Morrison finished first in Storytelling.
“I was very surprised,” she said. “It’s kind of a scary thing leading up to that. Especially since we are virtual. There is no way to tell. Last year when I competed, you could tell when people messed up or when people were nervous but this year it was so much scarier. I think it is a much bigger win than last year because times are changing, and we have to adapt so quickly to what we are learning.”