High school forensics might not be exactly what you think. It's not rummaging around for clues in attempt to solve a mock-murder or pin down a bank robber. In reality, forensics offers an opportunity for students to gain a series of soft-skills in a fun, laid-back yet competitive environment.
For example, LUHS students competed at the 2017 state competition in categories such as poetry reading, solo acting, prose reading, demonstration reading, farrago (literature interpretation) and oratory (a 10-minute speech or presentation on a specific topic). In essence, students are focusing on improving public speaking skills in a creative way.
Four seniors took their time to explain their trek through the world of high school forensics. Michael Grebe (gold medal, prose reading), James Samster (silver medal, solo acting), Rachel Handrick (bronze medal, prose reading) and Casey Kassien (gold medal, Critic's Choice Honors, solo acting) all competed successfully at the state competition, and all became interested in forensics through different avenues.
"Casey (Kassien) said I should come out for forensics, and I was like 'well, I don't know,' but I went to the first meeting," Grebe said. "I said 'I can't memorize anything, so solo acting is out.' Someone suggested 'why don't you try reading prose?' That's what I did, and I've really come to love it."
Samster was encouraged by the head advisor of forensics, Ethan Jahnke. Samster spends "a lot" of time in the school's multimedia studio, where Jahnke teaches as a media specialist. Samster only spent his senior year as part of the forensics team, but said it was worth every minute of effort.
Both Kassien and Handrick come from extensive theater backgrounds, which made their transition into the world of forensics a bit more seamless than others. Kassien kept up the memorization duties that come in the solo acting category, but Handrick took a different avenue, into prose reading, where she felt she could become engulfed in the material. Although she did compete in solo acting during her sophomore year, and poetry reading in her junior year. Kassien and Handrick stood as the veterans, with a combined six years of forensic experience.
Competing in forensics is somewhat of an intimate experience, which came as a surprise to many of the students. They were often relieved when they found out performances often took place just in front a panel of judges, fellow competitors and perhaps several observing parents.
Practices are equally as unassuming. Time is allotted for practice during the LUHS school day for students involved in forensics. Most of the effort spent on practicing or research the material is spent on student's own time, though. As performance dates loom closer, run-throughs are conducted in front of a similar sized audience a student would see during a competition. Fellow students, Jahnke, and assistant advisors Andrea Donner and Martha Handrick then give individuals feedback.
At every competition during the season, aside from the state meet, three rounds of judging are conducted. Students move from room to room, to different sets of judges, giving the opportunity to improve on their last performance. At state, though, it's one and done. There are no second chances.
"State is extremely intimidating," Grebe said. "It's make it or break it. I made it, fortunately."
"You just have to go up and perform. Then when you're done, you sit and watch," Samster said. "There are some really good performers."
The judging aspect can come as a bit of a surprise to performers. Grebe, Samster, Handrick and Kassien all said there have been instances where their personal reflection of their performance did not translate to the final scoring.
"Oftentimes I feel that I'm going too fast. Or in my case, this year I wasn't blind enough," Kassien said. "I played a blind person, and that was really challenging. I remember a judge telling me that I didn't make enough eye contact. What do you want me to do?"
Solo acting performances often range from five to eight minute stretches, but some categories can extend over 10 minutes. Each student is ultimately allowed to choose their material, which allows for a more vested interest in the performance. For example, Samster chose a scene from the television show "Breaking Bad."
"I was able to chose something from a TV show that I liked and I watched, which is fun to do," Samster said. "Although we're supposed to disassociate from actors on-screen and make our own personas to properly display something new and original."
A lot of time and effort is put in by advisors Ethan Jahnke, Andrea Donner and Martha Handrick, who take time out of their own schedules to help facilitate an educational and enjoyable atmosphere for the students. Kassien, Samster, Handrick and Grebe shared the notion that "we couldn't do it without them."
Much of that strive towards excellence is ultimately placed on the shoulders of the students, though. Taking a performance to the next level is under the responsibility of the individual.
"It's a competition with yourself, to do better at each meet. We're all looking to progress over the year," Handrick said. "I've never really thought about it as a true competition against other people. It's similar to Solo and Ensemble where you're just trying to put on the best performance you can."
Ethan Jahnke retains a firm notion that learning the skills utilized in a forensics program translate well beyond the walls of a high school. As advisor, he looks at his role as an opportunity to connect students to a set of skills not in traditional curriculum, but remain important in the professional and personal world.
"Being able to communicate effectively is paramount, especially in today's world," Jahnke said. "We've been able to have a solid group of students who have found a healthy outlet in forensics. My role as advisor is to nurture their interest in the subject or performance and encourage them to make the choices that they need to in order to accomplish their individual goals."
Overall, the 2016-17 LUHS Forensics program saw 12 metalists at the Wisconsin High School Forensic Association festival on April 21 and 22 in Madison.
Bronze Medalists include: Anna Cardinal in demonstration speaking, Molly Larson in poetry reading and Rachel Handrick in prose reading.
Silver Medalists include: Daria Busakowski in farrago, Rhiannon Baasch in prose reading, Hailee Coy in oratory, Skyler Miller in prose reading and James Samster in solo acting.
Special recognition goes to Blair Dunbar for earning a gold medal and Critic's Choice honors in poetry reading, Anastasia Bruss for earning a gold medal and Critic's Choice honors in poetry reading, Michael Grebe for earning a gold medal and Critic's Choice honors in prose reading, and Casey Kassien for earning a gold medal and Critic's Choice honors in solo acting.
Evan Verploegh may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.