July 12, 2021 Achievements

East High students place 7th at National Speech and Debate Tournament

East High School speech students act out a scene from their duo performance of
East High School speech students act out a scene from their duo performance of "Visiting Mr. Green". Picture courtesy of The Sioux City Journal

When an actor plays an asynchronous scene, he can neither see nor touch his acting partner.

In fact, the two performers can’t even deliver their lines in the same room.

They must be taped separately and their performance must be shown only via a split screen.

That was the challenge facing East High School students Max Braunstein and Carter Vanderloo when acting out a scene for the National Speech and Debate Tournament, which due to COVID-19 concerns, was held virtually in June.

Considered the largest academic contest in the world, the National Speech and Debate Tournament is also one of the most competitive. Students need to place in the top two, statewide, during a national qualifier contest to get a shot at the nationals.

Out of 140,000 National Speech and Debate Association student members, only 6,700 students qualified nationally. Incredibly, East had five students qualify — Caleb Baker, Ella Berkenspas and Jacob Mace in addition to Braunstein and Vanderloo.

For their asynchronous split screen duo performance, Braunstein and Vanderloo wowed judges, who gave them a seventh in the nation finish. This is the highest achievement for any student in East speech and debate team history.

Plus the pair’s success was a perfect way to cap off an unusual senior year.

“Ordinarily, we’d travel to compete in tournaments,” Vanderloo said. “Because of the pandemic, most of our contests were done virtually.”

This made it difficult for Vanderloo to get into the character of young corporate executive Ross Gardiner, who was found guilty of reckless driving after nearly running over an 86-year-old widower known only as Mr. Green in playwright Jeff Baron’s “Visiting Mr. Green.”

As a way to serve six months of community service, Gardiner must pay weekly visits to Mr. Green (played by Braunstein), who resented the younger man’s presence.

“Normally, you draw a lot of energy from an audience,” Vanderloo said. “You get it when they laugh at a funny scene or when they’re touched during a dramatic scene.”

During a taped, virtual performance, an actor must rely entirely on instinct and ability.

“When your performance is captured only on a split screen on a computer, it becomes like a choreographed dance,” Vanderloo said. “I had to know exactly what Max was going to do, so I could respond to it.”

The art of performance was nothing new for Vanderloo, who has been acting since the third grade.

Acting is still a recent phenomenon for Braunstein, who took up performing in high school.

“When Max started with the speech and debate program, I barely knew who he was,” Vanderloo said. “Now, I consider him one of my best friends.”

Braunstein nodded his head in agreement.

“You need that personal chemistry to pull off a scene together,” he said. “You have to trust your scene partner completely and he has to trust you.”

Language arts teacher Marissa Kuiken saw the bond between Braunstein and Vanderloo grow over the years.

Indeed, she can’t help but get a bit misty-eyed with the knowledge that the students will both be going to college this autumn.

Vanderloo, the longtime performer, will replace acting with science at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, while Braunstein, a latecomer to the arts, will be pursuing acting as a major at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“I’ll always love to perform,” Vanderloo said. “But I think I can make a bigger impact in science.”

However, Braunstein is all in when it comes to the theater.

“I’m going to give it my best shot,” he said. “I have to because performing has given me the confidence I needed all along.”

View the full coverage by Earl Horlyk at the Sioux City Journal.