Judging Forensics

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{Header image by Niaz and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license via Wikimedia Commons.}

Note: as of March 2011, this article will be published in the April 2011 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).

On Saturday, February 26, I participated for the first time as a judge at the Shawnee Mission South Forensics Invitational. Not only was it my first time as a judge, it was my first time with the area of forensics. My high school had a speech and debate class, and we had a very small theatre department, but I only became aware of forensics by the time I hit late college.

Kelly Michale, the head of Shawnee Mission South’s debate, forensics, and theatre department, defines forensics as, “a term that is used to encompass all competitive speech, debate, and drama. In Kansas, we do competitive debate during first semester and competitive speech and drama during second semester.”

Michale continues, “It has been at SMS since the school opened in 1967. This is my first year as the coach here. I am a SMS grad, and I am actually getting to work my dream job! Cathy McNamara-Wood (my former teacher and mentor) retired at the end of last year.”

Image courtesy Pixabay and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain license.

She had sent out a request looking for judges via Facebook, which is how I heard of it. Invitationals are held every weekend at SMS, with one of the goals to qualify for the Kansas State Speech Tournament. There is winner in each event, and the top six in each event are recognized at an awards ceremony. Qualifying for the State tournament is dependent on the number of contestants in each event.

Usually, about 200 students compete at each invitational, according to Michale. “Almost all Kansas high schools offer a Forensics class,” she says. “We had 17 schools attend ours this year.”

There were several different areas available for judging, including a public forum debate, poetry interpretation, extemporaneous speaking, and dramatic interpretation. “There are 11 competitive events and 3 preliminary rounds in each event,” Michele explains. “The top six in each event advance to a final round.”

I had received dramatic interpretation, and was requested to arrive 30 minutes before my round. When I got there, I received a manual that helped me figure out the rules and regulations of not only the event I was judging, but the other events being judged that day. Aside from the standard guidelines of being as unbiased as possible, it explained that after observing all contestants, I need to rank each contestant (1 being the best), as well as rate each contestant on a scale of 1 to 25 — with the proviso that no two contestants should receive the same rank or rating, and that the rank and rating must correspond.

Shawnee Mission South High School. Photo courtesy their website.

For dramatic interpretation specifically, one of the rules indicated that the performer was not allowed to move freely about the room. I asked Michele about this rule, and she says, “The movement rule was created so that the Interpretation events do not cross the line into acting.” I was to keep in mind whether the selection chosen was interesting, matching the contestant’s personality and having a subject matter worthwhile. On the contestants’ forms was not only information about the piece the student was interpreting and the place for me to rank and rate, but also had a section for me to make comments — specifically what they did well, what they didn’t do well, and any additional comments.

I had a total of six students competing in my round, and for their sake I won’t go into the specifics of each presentation. The student would come in, hand me the sheet with their information, and then set up what he or she was presenting (I had one male, and the rest were female, if you’re curious). Out of the six, three of them were very good interpretations, and it was a difficult decision to decide their individual rankings. I ended up going back to the question in the manual, “Does the selection fit the contestant’s personality?” to determine who got the top ranking, as only one of those three chose a piece that was age appropriate. In fact, across the board it seemed a problem to find an age-appropriate piece. I know it may be difficult to find a monologue that is for someone in their teen years, but if you do an older piece, make sure the topic is something you can relate to. Don’t choose a piece about a wife who just lost her husband if you’ve never had someone close to you die, for example.

All in all, my one round took maybe a couple of hours, not including the 30 minutes prior of waiting and finding where I needed to be. Michele is always looking for judges for each weekend invitational, and is a good way to not only support this branch of the performing arts but also to get experience in giving both positive and constructive feedback.

For more information on forensics, you can check out the National Forensic League. If you would like to volunteer as a judge, contact Kelly Michale at 913-993-7714 or via e-mail at kellymichale@smsd.org.