Battle Creek

Voices of Youth: After-school forensics program builds community and confidence

Editor's Note:  This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's Voices of Youth Battle Creek program which is supported by the BINDA Foundation, City of Battle Creek, Battle Creek Community Foundation, and the Michigan Afterschool Partnership. This series features stories created by Calhoun County youth in partnership with professional mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth.

OLIVET, MI — On February 16, 2024, theater students from Olivet High School and dozens of other high schools around the state of Michigan headed to Wayne State University to compete in the Michigan Interscholastic Forensics Association (MIFA) State Theatre Festival. Olivet students performed the comedy “How to Survive Being in a Shakespeare Play'' and won fourth place in their division. 

However, the scores that students receive at the end of the competition season are not the main reason why they choose to do theater or forensics, committing time to this after-school activity.

Olivet freshman Katie Pell expressed that although getting good scores and awards is part of the fun, there are many other reasons to participate in theater. Not only are there obvious benefits to doing theater, like having something to do after school, or hanging out with friends. There are also benefits like gaining confidence and practicing public speaking. 

Theater builds confidence

Theater is an opportunity for high schoolers to get up on stage in front of a large crowd and perform. Actors often have to do silly or awkward things on stage. Katie states “It(theater) has helped a lot with me coming out of my shell because my character does some embarrassing things.Assistant theater director Abby Miller agrees, “Theater helps a lot with confidence and speaking to large groups of people.” 

Katie Pell, member of the Olivet High School after-school forensics team.Confidence is something that can help in every aspect of a student's life, Katie describes all the different times confidence comes in handy, “If you were to go get a job as a waitress you need confidence in order to go up to customers and talk to them, or if you have to do a presentation for class you need to be confident to get up in front of a group of people and speak.” 

Meeting other high schoolers with similar interests

Competitive theater also allows students to branch out and meet new people from their school, and other schools around the state of Michigan. Olivet student Grant D’Lamater says that his favorite part of theater is traveling around Michigan performing and meeting kids from other schools.

While many may think of crime labs when they hear the word 'forensics,' originally the word, which evolved from the Greeks, meant engaging in speaking contests that helped people practice democracy and good government — a sophisticated form of debate combined with performance art.

Grant D'Lamater, member of the Olivet High School after-school forensics team.Olivet High School, with around 485 students, has a small theater program. There are only 21 students in the MIFA program. When the cast of “How to Survive Being in a Shakespeare Play” traveled to Wayne State University to compete they got the opportunity to meet other, like-minded, high schoolers. 

Assistant Director Miller describes another benefit of meeting other students at theater competitions, “It's helpful to watch other schools' shows and meet people from other schools, so you can get and share ideas from other students” Collaboration and the sharing of ideas is the best way to improve and make positive changes, so watching other productions and talking to members of other schools crew is one of the best ways to improve a school's own show, she says.

Learning time management
Learning to manage time is also something that is taught through theater. Productions need to fit into a 45-minute time frame. This can mean cutting parts of a play that take too long. Aside from the play length requirements, students also have limited time to get their performance ready for competition. At Olivet, play rehearsals begin in late December and MIFA District competitions, which is the first performance, take place on January 20th. Students must use their rehearsal time wisely if they want to get a full 45-minute act put together and ready to compete in just a month.

The Olivet High School forensics team practices for two hours a day after school during competition season.“We have two hours of practice a day, altogether MIFA takes up about ten weeks of time… there is also an expectation that you(students) will spend however long it takes to memorize your lines outside of practice,”  says Miller. The stage crew can also have extra sessions on Saturdays to design and build the set. Students involved in the play must also juggle other responsibilities like homework, and other after-school activities such as FFA, sports, and student council or National Honor Society. Former student actor Lily Weaver says,“I had to use extra time during rehearsal to make sure I got my homework done.”

Friends and common goals

The main reason students decide to join theater, aside from wanting to act is because their friends convinced them to do it. Theater and other afterschool activities provide a safe, and structured environment for teenagers to hang out after school. Miller explains that her favorite part of theater in high school was the connections that she got to make with her friends.

Katie Pell, member of the Olivet High School after-school forensics team.Along with hanging out with friends, MIFA theater specifically creates a bond within the cast. "MIFA is my favorite show every year regardless of what show we are doing, they are normally the most tightly knit group, and the cast that works the hardest because they really care about it,”  says Miller. Katie agreed, adding that although she does not have a ton of theater experience since she is only a freshman so far the MIFA cast has been her favorite.

Hope for the future

Theater kids and their advisors love MIFA theater. However, it is not as popular as it once was, Miller says. “Our goals for the (of the MIFA program) future are to continue going to compete, not as many schools are involved in MIFA as they previously were, eventually we would like to expand our program, but most importantly we like to go every year, and to give the kids the opportunity to meet other theater kids across the state.”  

Currently, the theater advisors at Olivet are worried about the number of schools that attend MIFA theater competitions compared to years prior. Olivet Middle School 7th grader Alyssa Pell says, “I want to do MIFA in high school because I love theater and all of the high schoolers that I worked with in the fall musical were really nice.” 

Younger students in the Olivet theater program are not allowed to compete in MIFA competitions because of the strict high school age limits. Theater is an art that many people and students dedicate their lives to, the overall hope is that schools will continue to send competition teams to showcase their theater programs and allow younger actors like Alyssa to compete in the future. All who are involved agree there are so many benefits to doing so.

Sophia Pell, Voices of Youth Correspondent

Sophia Pell is an Olivet High School Junior. She runs track and plays volleyball. In her free time, she can normally be found reading or sneaking into local tracks with her teammates to get some extra practice in

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