Speech, drama coaches fear new rule’s possible chilling effect

Matty Merritt, a senior at Lincoln Southwest, holds her fifth place trophy from National Forensics League National Tournament. Merritt's humorous interperation was cut from "Debbie Does Dallas" a musical referencing a '70s porno movie.

Matty Merritt, a senior at Lincoln Southwest, holds her fifth place trophy from National Forensics League National Tournament. Merritt's humorous interperation was cut from "Debbie Does Dallas" a musical referencing a '70s porno movie.

Story and photos by Daniel Wheaton, Nebraska News Service

LINCOLN- Matty Merritt knew she was taking a risk when she chose her humorous interpretation script last year.

Merritt, then a junior at Lincoln Southwest High School, chose the piece “Debbie Does Dallas” by Susan Schwartz, which is an off-Broadway musical based on the 1978 pornographic film by the same name.

Merritt is one of some 5,000 Nebraska high school students who participate in competitive speaking, also known as forensics. She travels to tournaments statewide and has her performance evaluated by judges. If her cumulative scores are good enough she could advance to the final round of competition.

“I performed it in one of my rounds and the judge didn’t even clap for me,” Merritt said, remembering when she performed “Debbie Does Dallas” in Nebraska. “Later I found my ballot and she said that ‘you’re never going to get anywhere with this script– it’s repulsive.'”

Merritt proved that judge wrong by not only qualifying for the National Forensics League National Tournament in Birmingham, Ala., in March, but advancing to the final round of humorous interpretation and placing fifth.

Had Merritt decided to use that script this year, she would have faced a problem thanks to a rule change by the Nebraska School Activities Association.

 New Rule

On every official speech and one-act play ballot, a new line has been added that allows judges to dock speaker points for any “vulgarity/profanity/lewd acts deemed inappropriate for a high school performance.”

In addition to the added line, school administrators must sign a form saying that any event going to a district or state contest adheres to community standards of decency.

Matt Heimes, speech coach at Lincoln Southwest High School, circles the addition to the Nebraska School Activities Association ballot. These ballots are used to rate performances by adding comments, assigning ranks and speaker points.

Matt Heimes, speech coach at Lincoln Southwest High School, circles the addition to the Nebraska School Activities Association ballot. These ballots are used to rate performances by adding comments, assigning ranks and speaker points.

 A brewing issue

Deb Velder, associate director of the NSAA, said this issue has been brewing for a while. Some audience members have walked out of events at state contests, and administrators asked for the NSAA to do something, Velder said. She then organized a committee of speech and drama coaches from across the state and came up with the rule.

“The policy is not shying away from any kind of content, it is just how you present it,” Velder said. “We all understand that any kind of literature is life. These are issues our kids are dealing with every single day of the year.”

Reaction in speech and drama community

The change has irked the speech and drama community, where students may perform pieces and discuss topics that are real to life–and sometimes discuss topics that are left out of the classroom. Some have likened it to banning books, but allowing people on multiple levels to arbitrarily decide which books are banned.

“We kinda knew it was coming,” said Matt Davis, speech coach at Lincoln East High School. “Rumor has it that there were a couple of people offended by a one-act they saw performed last year at state, which resulted in a unilateral rules change.”

Davis, who has coached a team that has placed first since 2002, said he was frustrated that the rules don’t define what is and what isn’t “appropriate for high school.”

Although known for being outspoken, Davis said he is conservative when allowing students to pick pieces for competition. His rule of thumb is if it can air on network television, it should be OK in a speech round.

“So, if you were doing something that was risque, you were taking a risk,” Davis said. “It doesn’t make any sense to have the judges currently enforcing what they already have administrators enforcing.”

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While interpreting a piece that airs after 10 p.m. on Comedy Central may obviously put a student in trouble, how the change will affect non-interpretation events like entertainment speaking, informative speaking or extemporaneous speaking isn’t quite clear.

Davis said one of his former students performed an original oratory–a persuasive speech–that discussed ovarian cancer and the student received comments disapproving of the word “ovary.”

It raises the question: should high school extemporaneous speakers be answering questions about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s drug use? Or can a persuasive speech address laws pertaining to domestic violence or rape?

Matt Heimes, speech coach and teacher at Lincoln Southwest High School, said he feels the new rule will affect performances more so than content.

“I could see a piece performed by a kid and be offended and see the exact same piece done by another kid and not be offended at all,” Heimes said.

While the rule is in place, Velder said it will be looked at after the state one-act competition that ends on Dec. 12 and after the state speech competition in March.

As speech and drama competitions begin statewide, some students may choose to push the envelope. After hearing the news about the new NSAA rule, Merritt said she sent a message to Velder expressing her frustrations.

“The whole point of speech and theater is to show perspectives,” Merritt said. “It’s taking away rights from the performer.”

Click here to listen to an audio version of this story.

 Contact Daniel Wheaton at nns.danielpwheaton@gmail.com.

 

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