Young speech and debate team strives for gold at Nationals

Charles “Alex” Simpson likes to pretend to hit hedgehogs with flamingos.

Charles “Alex” Simpson likes to pretend to hit hedgehogs with flamingos.

The high school junior from Clinton, along with his schoolmate Henry Apfel of Seattle, wowed the judges when they performed their own condensed version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll.

The two teens, who attend an alternative public high school — the Edmonds Homeschool Resource Center — are members of the school’s Speech and Debate Team led by coach Dawna Lewis.

Simpson, 16, and Apfel, 17, won the right to represent the state in the Duo Interpretation category with a win at the Puget Sound National Forensics League qualifying tournament at Kamiak High School in March.

The team heads to Birmingham, Ala. for five days in June to the big show, the National Forensics League Speech Tournament, a trip for which Simpson and Apfel and other members of their debate team are trying to raise funds.

Simpson couldn’t say enough about the positive effects that speech and debate has had on him.

“Speech and debate is possibly the best thing you can do in high school,” he said.

“It helps you with numerous skills you can apply throughout your life — self confidence, public speaking, editing, people skills, researching, etc.”

Previously a self-proclaimed musical theater junkie, Simpson said he’s found a new way to perform without the complications and time commitment of doing big shows. He said since he “hopped on the speech and debate train,” he has only returned to theater once.

“I absolutely love making people laugh, so if I’m able to make even one person laugh while performing, it’s a win for me, regardless of the outcome of a tournament,” he said.

Simpson and Apfel were randomly teamed up by coach Lewis and have become good friends in addition to becoming the “dream team” of the duo set.

“We competed in the same event last year with a satirical rendition of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’” Apfel said.

They made the finals last year, but only as alternates, so qualifying this year is a big deal for them.

“It was kind of a surprise to make it to nationals,” Apfel said.

The boys competed against 13 other two-person teams in their category and won the chance to represent Washington state.

Lewis is not surprised the boys made the finals.

“Alex and Henry have a very competitive piece,” the coach said.

The duo performance of “Alice in Wonderland” was judged a favorite due to the exceptional blocking and synchronization, lip-synching, and the humorous interpretation of the characters they portray, Lewis noted.

Also impressive is the team’s references to popular culture in the interpretation, including the Caterpillar as Hannibal Lecter, the March Hare as Sean Connery and the Mad Hatter as Dr. Strangelove.

Lewis said Simpson and Apfel also did well to use music to their advantage, incorporating both Jefferson Airplane and Johann Strauss in their interpretation.

Duo or Dual Interpretation is an official speech event of the National Forensic League. The event involves a pair of performers acting out a short literary piece under certain restraints, including not looking at or touching one’s partner.

The students choose any published work, such as short stories, plays, scenes from a film or poems. Participants may cut the piece for the purpose of condensation, but cannot add dialogue. Each duo is allotted 10 minutes to perform for judges.

Performers often twist the meanings of words for comic effect, and use body language, humorous wordplay and characterization of voice to signal a change of scene or character.

Interpreters are judged on how well a character is developed and the presentation of that character. Hand-gestures, elaborate body movements and pantomiming are necessary, as the performers are not allowed to use any props or costumes.

Apfel said they had an interesting time putting a unique spin on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” without adding anything to it.

He said the idea is to cut out bits and pieces of the story and weave them together.

“We use the part where Alice is talking to the Cheshire Cat because everyone loves the Cheshire Cat.”

They also explore the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the rose- painting scene and the croquet game with the Queen of Hearts, of course.

“It’s kind of fun because hitting hedgehogs with flamingos is entertaining,” Apfel said.

When asked how Duo is different from theater Apfel said it comes down to narrative.

“With speech and debate you’re cobbling together a very short narrative in 10 minutes and need to convey it to the audience. You want it to be understandable and not this inconceivable morass,” he added.

Interpretation is “theater of the mind” and should break down the “fourth wall” that stage actors typically employ, Lewis noted.

Simpson said practice and getting to know your partner are key.

“Once you’ve got a good feel for each other, that’s when the magic can start happening,” Simpson said.

The National Forensic League has run the National Speech Tournament continuously since 1931 (except for the World War II years), along with the National Student Congress since 1938.

This year, the competition will see 3,200 students from 943 American high schools. Apfel noted that it’s mainly juniors and seniors with more experience who make the cut.

In addition to duo interpretation, students compete in policy debate, humorous interpretation, dramatic interpretation, impromptu speaking, extemporaneous speaking, oratory, expository, student congress, a Lincoln-Douglas debate, cross examination and public forum. The tournament offers only certain categories each year.

Students may compete at nationals in only one category. Winners are rewarded with trophies and more than $130,000 in college scholarships.

Apfel and Simpson are eager to raise the funds to get the team to Alabama.

“I’m excited. This is a big, new, interesting experience,” Apfel said.

“I get a rush of adrenalin even at little tournaments. It’ll be interesting to see what the big one is like.”

Simpson just likes the fun of it all and the people that compete.

“Winning is not at all unpleasant when it happens. Most of all, hamming it up in a room full of people who are likely just as nerdy as you in their own way is pretty nice,” Simpson said.

To find out more about Simpson and Apfel’s debate team, visit coach Lewis’ Web site at

To raise funds, the team is currently selling See’s chocolate candy bars at $2 each or two for $3. If you would like to help support the team, call coach Dawna Lewis at 425-431-4667 or e-mail her at