Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Open for Dialogue

Terry and I pose with our team in front of the magnificent Austrian Parliament Building
One of my responsibilities at NJC is selecting and coaching the NESDA team. Last year I worked alongside Dan Martin, but with his departure from the school in June, I became the lead teacher, although I was ably assisted this fall by Terry Reynolds. The New European Speech, Debate and Acting Association celebrates the spoken word in a unique speech arts competition that takes place twice during the school year. We had tryouts early in the semester in acting and debate, whittling down fourteen talented prospects to the requisite number of ten. Then we got together twice weekly to prepare the students in five events.
Terry and the team pose upon arrival in Vienna
Happily for us, the competition was hosted by the American School of Vienna. Although we would not start our performances until Friday, we travelled after school on Wednesday. That allowed us a full day to visit this magnificent city. Lyn, our school's travel planner, suggested we start by taking in the Spanish Riding School's morning exercises. Then, it would be up to me to conduct a tour of the city. No problem, I thought, I had visited Vienna in May and (sort of) knew my way around.
Horses and riders at the Spanish Riding School
The weather on Thursday was ideal, and thanks to a very helpful hotel concierge, we found our way to central Vienna with ease. Although they lacked the pageantry of the show, the morning exercises were interesting. Clearly the Lippizan horses are impressive to look at and very well trained, but after an hour and half of watching them go through their manoeuvres, we were eager to get outside and explore the city.
Our group outside the Imperial Palace
Our walk took us by most of Vienna's "must see" sites. I really enjoyed being the guide, and only got us lost once.
Vienna's opera house
The group and I pose at the Hapsburg Gate in the Imperial Palace
One of the highlights of the day was a spontaneous game of frisbee, thanks to Terry's foresight. He pulled one out of his knapsack and within a few minutes, he and the students were burning off energy on the Heldenplatz (the Hero's Square). What a wonderful thing to do on a December afternoon!
Frisbee game in front of the statue of Archduke Charles.
Another bonus of the day were the many Christmas markets we encountered along our route. These pleased and delighted us all, and were the source of many gifts, and delicious street food and drink over the weekend. The largest of these was the one in front of the Rathaus, which we walked through very quickly since we knew that our hosts had organized a visit there the next morning.
Emma and Jennie enjoyed shopping at the Christmas Village at Maria-Theresien Platz

The Viennese Christmas Market in front of the Rathaus
The last stop of our tour was the iconic Café Central, where notable Viennese inhabitants like Trotsky and Freud had once gathered with friends. On my advice, many of us sampled the famous local cake there, the Sachertorte.
Inside Café Central
Amazingly, we found a space for twelve at the Café Central.
Our Thursday evening was spent at dinner near our hotel and then the students prepared for the big show the next day. They were very committed to excellence!!

For thespians, the focus of this competition is serious drama. To that end, our acting teams chose three strong pieces. In Madeleine Martin's "Something Happened Here", Jennie and Emma brought to life the aftermath of the rape of a teenager whose timid friend struggles to advise her.
Jennie and Emma put on their game faces.
In another two woman piece, Sasha embodied a well-meaning social worker confronted by Laura as a desperate mother who has lost custody of her son in a scene from "Final Placement" by Ara Watson.
Laura gets in Sasha's face in "Final Placement"
In "The Sniper" by Anthony David and Elaine Romero, Grace played an ambitious Moroccan journalist who is in a complicated relationship with Kieran's conflicted Israeli sniper.
Clearly Grace wants this relationship more than Kieran
You will notice that all acting pairs were attired in "theatre blacks". The competition forbids props and costumes, so that the performances themselves are the entire basis for judging.
Alana and Taylor looking professional
Meanwhile, our two debate teams worked together to prepare their arguments on the following resolution:" The pharmaceutical industry creates more problems than solutions." The rules of the competition are such that teams must defend both the affirmative and the negative sides of the resolution, so they must do extensive research, and make copious notes.
Brianna and Graham hide their competitive nature under smiles
Only one of our debaters had experience in the field before the competition, so there was a steep learning curve of debate rules and etiquette as well. The ability to think on one's feet is required too, since all teams must participate in an impromptu debate during the competition.
Brianna and Graham: ready to go!
Beyond these team events, all of our students took part in individual competitions too: Alana, Taylor, Kieran, Graham and Jennie tried their hand at impromptu speaking, where, given a topic, they had 90 seconds to organize a short speech; Grace, Brianna and Emma read very funny pieces in the oral interpretation event; and Graham, Emma and Laura all wrote and delivered speeches.
Eight teammates support the debaters in the quarter-finals.
By the afternoon of the Saturday, quarter and semi-finalists were announced. Imagine our delight when we discovered that our students' numbers appeared on every list!! All our actors and all our oral interpreters were included. In impromptu speaking, both Kieran and Jennie advanced, and in original oratory, Emma and Laura did the same. Brianna and Graham were our only debate team to move on but Taylor and Alana also did well in the competition, winning two of their three debates and placing in a four way tie for 6th. A scoring tie-breaker left them out of the quarter-finals, however.
A toast from some of the coaches.
Terry and I beaming at the coaches' dinner
By Saturday evening at the coaches dinner, Terry and I had lots to celebrate. Our students had secured themselves a spot in every final–and we were guaranteed a medal in debate as there were only two teams left. Emma, impressively, would compete on Sunday morning in all three events she had entered.
Winners: Jennie, Brianna, Graham and Laura
By the end of the competition, we came away with a gold in debate, and silvers in impromptu speaking and original oratory. With their articulately expressed and thoughtful arguments, Brianna and Graham impressed the crowd, also winning the audience's choice award. Jennie's positivity and warmth shone through as she spoke about "Fortune Favouring the Brave", thus securing her a silver in impromptu speaking while Laura also placed second in original oratory with her passionate and moving speech about her brother's experiences as a sufferer of Tourette's syndrome.
The best team!!
Truly, the entire group was part of this success. From the moment we selected them, we knew we had a strong team. Their solidarity as a team made our time with them in Vienna an absolute pleasure. They could not have supported each other more! Terry and I left the city as extremely proud teachers and coaches. And the students made new friends from all over Europe. After all, the theme of the competition was "Open for Dialogue" and there certainly was lots of that.

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