Kyle Peterson walks to the center of the room with his black binder and quietly introduces himself. He takes a deep breath and reveals a subtle smile like he knows some-thing the audience doesn’t.
“Hi, I’m Thomas-Bwady,” announces Kyle with the energy and excitement of the 5-year-old he’s transforming into for Thomas-Brady’s First Day of Kindergarten.
The parents, teachers, and fellow students in the room erupt with laughter. In quick succession, the audience meets Thomas-Brady’s uber-enthusiastic father and doting mother. If you close your eyes and just listen, you’d be convinced three different people were performing.
During his 10-minute performance at this year’s 20th annual Afternoon of Exceptional Oratory (AEO), the team’s annual fundraiser, Kyle performed as nine different characters – each with his or her own voice, mannerisms, and personality quirks. It’s like being in the audience for a one-man play. There’s the overeager fellow kindergartner who introduces himself as Thomas-Brady’s cubby mate and the intimidating drill sergeant of a gym teacher who is a bit too excited for dodgeball. At one point, one of his characters adds another dimension by launching into an impression of Spider-Man.
“With so many characters, there was a certain level of craziness to the piece. Everyone interprets characters differently and I knew I could make each my own,” says the senior as he explains why he chose this text.
Written by authors Chris and Ryan Wilkens, the piece is a short play. The text isn’t his, but Kyle knew immediately that he could make it his own, starting with his performance category.
Kyle chooses to perform the play in Children’s Literature, a category in the Massachusetts Speech & Debate League (MSDL), which requires an intended audience of children. He tells the story from a child’s point-of-view. However, the script reminds him of a classic Disney movie – appropriate for children, but with moments of humor for adults. And judging by the laughter in the room, he hits his mark in those moments.
He has crafted his own take on the characters and story. He spent countless hours creating his characters, perfecting their voices, and emphasizing the humor with his careful choreography and comedic timing.
For Kyle and his teammates, the text sets the boundaries – marking stage left and stage right – but each student, duo, or group creates something new with its interpretation and performance.
“Br. Cavet always says, ‘the words are your coach.’ I try to keep the piece true to its original meaning. Other than, we can get pretty creative,” said junior Ben Kimball, who competes in Duo Interpretation with fellow junior Luke Esposito.
CM’s Speech and Debate Team is one of the school’s oldest and most successful programs. Students in the group compete in state tournaments sponsored by the MSDL and national tournaments sponsored by the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA) and the National Catholic Forensic League (NCFL).
In the program’s early years – when it was the “Debate Team” – participants prioritized research, preparation, logic, and presentation. The team’s success gained notoriety for the young school. While current team members still compete and excel in debate categories, students on today’s team now have a dozen additional categories in speech, including Dramatic Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, Programmed Oral Interpretation, and Original Oratory.
These speech categories blur the lines between speech and theater, performance, and comedy and open the doors for members to construct unique works of their own. Unlike theater, performers have only their voices – there are no props, sets, or musical accompaniment.
Students create performances from a variety of texts that evoke a range of emotions from the humor of Kyle’s piece to the somberness of “110 Stories,” which chronicles the 9/11 attacks through eyewitness accounts to the optimism of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address.
“It is not necessarily the text that makes the piece unique, it is the way in which you perform the piece. We put our own unique perspective into the performance, which makes it shine,” says senior Marcus Gadsden, who performs a Duo Interpretation with his twin brother, Darius.
Crafting a new interpretation begins with practice – a lot of it. Each session brings new insight and a new adjustment, like calming a character down, adding movement for dramatic effect, or inserting a dramatic pause.
“When we start a new piece, Marcus and I go straight into it. You can’t worry if it’ll sound good or bad; you need to try out new things from the start,” says Darius.
The practice and focused study of the piece leads Marcus, Darius, and other team members to constantly tweak their performance. They seek advice from one another and other team members. “We fine-tune by bouncing ideas off each other in practice. Sometimes, we have conflicting visions for our piece, but a lot of times arguing about the piece can help us get into good conversations on why we do what we do and how to make the piece work better,” added Ben.
Thanks to the imagination and artistry of its members, the Speech and Debate Team has enjoyed incredible success, winning back-to-back team state championships in 2017 and 2018 and has had a multitude of state and national champions in individual categories.
Led by Br. Anthony Cavet, a 2003 inductee into the MSDL Hall of Fame, students receive expert coaching. However, one of the team’s hallmarks is that students also coach each other. As students mature from freshman novices into seniors who qualify for states and nationals, they take on coaching roles to help younger students learn the craft. Students learn from and find inspiration in feedback from teammates.
“I’ve learned how to take criticism and use it to become better. Too often people take criticism personally and brush it aside. Yes, it can hurt to get negative feedback, but ultimately, it’s to your benefit to listen to it,” said Darius.
The feedback from older students helps team members understand the intricacies of speech, but also contributes to an important mindset that has led to the team’s success – each performance can be a little better than the last.
Learning from older students was critical for Marcus and Darius, but they did not limit their study to practice. Team members also closely observe their competition to see what’s possible, hone their skills, and expand their repertoires.
“My freshman year I didn’t make a single final round and I nearly quit speech. However, at those tournaments, I went to watch the finals and I saw what I needed to do in order to make those rounds,” said Marcus.
The Gadsden twins have enjoyed great success in their careers and followed that mindset of always trying to do better.
At this year’s AEO, when Br. Cavet introduced Marcus and Darius for the day’s opening performance, they took the stage with their requisite black binders, but this performance wouldn’t simply be a new interpretation.
After years of creating performances based on other people’s stories, the Gadsden brothers took the team’s creativity to a new level. Rather than finding a piece and making it their own, they decided to create a piece from scratch.
They had an idea for a story of a young man struggling to find the right path. The broad idea of a story was there, one filled with mentorship and tragedy, and they even knew the ideal setting - a barbershop.
To move from idea to script, they needed some help. So, they did what they started doing as freshmen. They sought the help of a teammate – in this case it was Michael McCarthy ’19, an alum of the team.
“Michael McCarthy had offered to write us a duo and he came up with a script [based off our idea] and from that day we were hooked,” said Darius.
Marcus and Darius have performed “Clean Cut” this year to great acclaim and success. They qualified for the national tournament again.
“They won the Yale contest and I don’t think they’ve come in anything but first or second all year. Although there was one individual judge who had the temerity to give them a four and I heard about that on Monday,” said Br. Cavet with his trademark dry wit.
The Gadsdens-McCarthy collaboration and foray into script writing has started a new chapter in the team’s storied history. And with their own well-trained mentees soon to fill their shoes, the ceiling of success may keep rising, too.