Student speeches champion social awareness
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
After earning a No. 15 national ranking earlier this month, Grand Canyon University’s speech and debate team won yet another major tournament, thanks in large part to student speeches that brought to life social justice issues such as child sex slavery and the stigmatization of mental illness.
In raising awareness of those issues, the team repeated as champions in individual events at the National Christian College Forensics Invitational, March 20-22 at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colo. They bested more established student groups from Biola, Azusa Pacific, Point Loma Nazarene, Cal Baptist and other universities.
Freshman Chloe Saunders won first place in prose interpretation for her portrayal of a 10-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome who struggles with her emotions after losing her brother in a school shooting. Sophomore Emmett Foster and junior Ashlyn Tupper finished in first place with their duo interpretation of a Thailand sex slavery investigation in which Foster played both a pimp and a lawyer, and Tupper the nameless Russian teen prostitute.
Foster and Tupper have worked their piece, based on the play “She Has a Name” by Andrew Kooman, for seven months, performing it at various competitions and refining their character portrayal over time. With such an emotional topic, the first-year speech and debate team members found themselves working closely together after years of competing against each other at Arizona high school competitions. After performing it all year, they’re still emotionally invested in the piece and continue to want to shed light on the seemingly out-of-control issue of international sex trafficking of children.
“The script never gets less important, the characters never get less emotional,” said Foster, a 20-year-old Christian studies and communication major from Winslow, Ariz.
Tupper, 21, who’s majoring in theatre and English literature, said conveying the character of a child prostitute — known simply in the original text as “Number 18,” although the child was first forced to prostitute at age 9 — was incredibly challenging. She portrayed a “seasoned prostitute, but also that little girl who never had a chance to grow up,” Tupper said.
Communications instructor Barry Regan, the team’s adviser, said the highly emotional pieces left some audience members in tears and remarking about the rapid development of GCU’s program in only two years.
The team will display its award-winning talents at GCU’s second annual Speech Showcase on Wednesday, April 15. The events are scheduled for 11:15 a.m. and 7 p.m. in Antelope Gym, Room 102.
In the fall semester, the speech and debate team earned four first-place finishes at collegiate forensics tournaments and scores of individual accolades. Earlier this month, it finished one spot behind defending champion Western Kentucky at the prestigious Pi Kappa Delta national championships at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, en route to its first-ever Top 25 ranking.
With the bar set so high, Regan said he hopes the speech and debate team can expand next year to include more students and coaches.
“The goal is finding students who have an attachment to this activity and consider it part of their identity, but in a good way,” Regan said. “They have to have that emotional resonance with speech and debate.”
Saunders, 18, spent hours observing children with Asperger’s to approach her first-place interpretive speech in a way that would accurately convey their behavior without coming across as offensive. Regan said she “struck that balance really well.”
The piece is based on the young-adult novel “Mockingbird” by Kathryn Erskine, who lost a son in the Columbine (Colo.) High School massacre and wrote the book from the perspective of an autistic child.
In addition to her first-place award in prose interpretation, Saunders and her older sister, Victoria, earned second place in duo interpretation for a piece based on the memoir “The Memory Palace.” The book by Mira Bartók addresses the relationship between a schizophrenic mother and her daughter, and how both are victimized by a sickness that many families struggle to address openly.
Chloe Saunders said she was humbled and moved by the opportunity to champion awareness for mental illness.
“When you focus on the justice of your piece, that passion doesn’t go away,” she said. “It’s almost like a release when you’re able to perform. You’re able to bring those stories that are just sitting on pages to life.”
Contact Michael Ferraresi at 602-639-7030 or [email protected].