Joe Pate of Sitka High School practices a humorous interpretation piece for the High School Alaska DDF State Championship this weekend. Pate also competes in debate and won first place in public forum debate with teammate Ella Lubin last year. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

While the Olympics come to a close in Pyeongchang this weekend, another competition is underway at East Anchorage High School. That’s where over 100 students and their coaches have gathered for the state’s annual “Drama, Debate, and Forensics” Championship.

DDF is an after-school activity grounded in public speaking. Sitka has two teams: one from the local high school and one from the all-Alaska boarding school. Despite the many rules, DDF offers kids an unusual amount of freedom.

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I attended DDF practice at Sitka High School a few days before the state competition. It was crunch time. Students were running lines, researching debate points, and fine tune their orations on laptops. DDF Coach Christian Litten laid down masking tape on the carpet, in a square.

“Joe’s too active, so we gotta bring it in a little bit,” Litten said.

His student, Joe Pate, rolled out the cricks in his neck before practicing his HI. That stands for humorous interpretation. The DDF judges will be looking for Pate to keep his performance inside of a 3′ x 3′  area. “It’s not my favorite exercise, but it keeps me in good shape for state,” Paid said.

Practicing at home, he’s broken a sweat. Pate’s HI is adapted from “World’s Best Teacher,” a play by Clint Snyder, and he’ll portray four characters in 10 minutes. At one point, his teacher character – Ms. Porschtov – hands back the results from her pop quiz to her three terrified students, all played by Pate.

Porschtov: You failed. (Paper sound) You failed. (Paper sound) You failed. (Paper sound)
Phil: Look guys, Morgan failed! Look at that. Big fat F. Dance party!
Morgan: Wait, I failed. I give up. (Sobs)

Pate doesn’t stay quite within the box, but he does hit all the bells and whistles of what it’s like to be a high schooler: to be the teacher’s pet, the class clown, the loner. He’s been polishing this piece for months.

“It was hard finding a piece that really fit me as an actor. I wouldn’t say I have a lot of variety. I’m absolutely terrible at doing a British accent,” he admits. I wasn’t quite convinced, so asked for proof. “Tea and crumpets. H’ello gov’na,” he recited, laughing at himself.

The Sitka High DDF team is a diverse group of fifteen, some with a knack for research and debate, others with a flair for the dramatic arts. As a coach, Litten’s job is match a student’s unique strengths with 16 unique events.

Unlike a sport or a particular school subject, there are three types of events – drama, debate, and forensics (“Not CSI, but competitive speech”)  – and so many ways to be good at DDF. Litten said that’s what drew him to this after-school activity in the first place. “When I was a high schooler, I was a kid that was not really into the academics of things. I was acting out, which is a funny term to use. I needed some way to do that in a healthy environment.”

Litten said the ability to explore his emotions within the safety of a character got him through high school. When the coaching job opened up in 2016, he applied.

The classroom is wallpapered with awards, a few from last year. Pate and Ella Lubin took first place in public forum debate, fending off fierce competition from Juneau and Anchorage. Sitka High won “Best in Drama,” “Best in Debate,” and “Best Sweepstakes” among small schools. While it’s a big legacy to uphold, Litten said what’s most important is cultivating an environment where students can act out – in a healthy way.

Mt. Edgecumbe students Aria Phillips, Esther Burdick, and Muriel Reid practice their reader’s theater, a Shakespearean parody of ghostbusters. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

“The hardest part of being in high school is just trying to survive and just trying to figure out, ‘How do I be a person and be a good person?’ And then move on from high school and be a healthy adult. It’s tough. It’s a tough transitionary period for kids,’ he said.

Some students make that transition at a young age. Just across the bridge is Alaska’s only state-run boarding school, Mt. Edgecumbe High School. During one lunchtime practice, three students on Mt. Edgecumbe’s DDF team ran their “Reader to be ghostbusters, in the style of Shakespeare.

Esther Burdick: Be you serious, this catching of ghosts?

Muriel Reid: I, still serious.

Esther Burdick: From thenceforth, we shall be known as…

Aria Phillips, Esther Burdick and Muriel Reid: The Ministers of Grace!

Coach Marcia Drake chuckles, jotting down notes as the three Elizabethan ghostbusters aim pretend proton packs. Mt. Edgecumbe’s team this year is smaller than Sitka High’s, with six students instead of fifteen. Drake says her focus is less on winning awards and more on encouraging students to do their personal best.

English teacher Marcia Drake has been coaching DDF at Mt. Edgecumbe for nearly fifteen years. She was chosen by fellow coaches as Coach of the Year last year. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

“T-ball is my favorite sport because everybody gets to hit the ball and go out there and play in the dirt. DDF is kind of like that: everybody gets a chance to do a thing. In light of this latest school shooting, there isn’t one solution to it but we all have to do what we can do. This is what I can do,” Drake said.

In 2017, Drake was chosen as DDF Coach of the Year. She’s pretty humble about it. An hour after getting her plaque, she told me, she was helping a student who had thrown up in her hotel room.

Her students are big fans of Mrs. Drake. When I ask them why she won Coach of the Year, as they passed around a box of Tootie Fruities cereal, Freida Nicori and Esther Burdick put it this way.

Nicori: If you have a mountain in front of you and you’re trying to get to the other side and you have no idea how to get there, I think she’d just be one of those people that would hold out her hand and help you every step of the way.

Burdick: Yeah. Or even, she’ll help you until you don’t need it anymore.

Drake has been coaching DDF for nearly 15 years and said one of her favorite moments came from Taylor Stumpf, a student who performed an original oratory in 2014 about transitioning from a woman to man. Before competition, Drake took him to a used clothing store to pick out men’s clothes. Taylor won first in state that year.

“It really was a validation of who he could allow himself to become,” Drake said. “Teenagers need adults in their lives who care about them and who perhaps see in them what they [the students] can’t see yet.

Both Sitka High and Mt. Edgecumbe boarded a plan this week bound for the state competition, taking their orations and dramatic interpretations, their debate notes and their nerves. They also took their coaches, who will be there if they win, if they puke, and as they do their very best.