Speech connects students to their potential

Lily Brown and Jade Harper direct a bubble gum commercal as Isaiah Wittrock and Clayton Culp act out the scene.

            Having grown up at a rival school, Evanica Brown was familiar with Pekin. In high school, she was heavily involved in speech and theatre, learning the lessons that would later become a major benefit to her teaching as years later she applied for the open English position at Pekin.

            “I was excited when I was later offered the position,” Brown said. “Later, I saw that there was a speech and theatre position open and decided that I would let them know that I would take it if they needed someone to fill it.”

            And that’s exactly what she did, directing her new students for their fall play, “Sixteen in 10 Minutes or Less.” It was her first opportunity to connect with her students outside of the classroom, an invaluable experience that proved useful later as many of those same kids would move on to speech later in the school year.

            “My relationship with the students has evolved to mutual respect,” Brown said. “There was some carryover from theatre season. I think that these were the leaders in their groups. They knew what my expectations were and just got it done.”

            That respect doesn’t make it any easier for grouping students for Large Group Districts. Limits are established on the number of groups students may join, as well as the number of each type of group Pekin is allowed to take to Districts. Auditions were held later than usual to determine these groupings and one thing became very clear: everyone wanted to do improvisation, but only three groups can go. That’s no surprise to Jim Eschenbrenner, a volunteer coach for Pekin’s speech program since 1994.

            “High school students really love improv because they don’t have to memorize anything,” Eschenbrenner said. “On the surface, it seems like it’s easier, but once they get into it they find it’s not that easy. It takes just as much work, if not more, than taking something that is memorized and planned ahead.”

            One of those very students is Clayton Culp, a senior who has been doing speech since his freshman year. From day one, Culp has enjoyed how improve “gets your brain going” and working with his groups over the years.

            “With group improv, you really need to think about everything you are doing,” Culp said. “It’s a fun experience that I have done every year. It’s fun to test myself and see what I can come up each time to make people laugh.”

            After jumping over the hurdles of auditions, Brown and Eschenbrenner found themselves with seven groups in total consisting of three improv groups, a One Act Play, a Readers Theatre, a Choral Reading and a Short Film. With their roles established, the students practiced with their mentors to perfect their craft ahead of Districts on January 20.

            “Going into the season, I really had no idea of what to expect, as this is my first year,” Brown said. “I really leaned on the students and [Jim] Eschenbrenner to help me figure out what to do and what to expect the day of contest. I had high expectations for the students, because I saw the potential that each of them brought to the table. I watched them work, worry, cut film, re-tape, run it one more time, and critique each other's improv, until they felt it was right. They really poured a lot of their heart and soul into their work, and for that, to me anyway, they were already winners.”

Please view the February 7 edition of The News-Review for the full story.