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  • Talon Stradley

S1E3 - Acting With Advocacy

Shauhin: Oral Interp is a lot of Forensics and yet it is hardly ever talked about. To this day, I’ve been doing this for a long time, my friends will still ask me “Oh, you coach a speech and debate team? What do you debate about?”

Talon: Hi, my name is Talon Stradley and this is Soapboxers, a fly-on-the-wall podcast about speech and debate. I used to competed on the Orange Coast College team and now I’m back after 2 years to document the speech and debate experience and bring it to you. Today, a deep dive into one of the least well known aspects of speech and debate. The Oral Interpretation of Literature. This is Soapboxers.

Talon: I’d like to start this episode with one of the questions most asked to anyone in the speech and debate community. No matter what your involvement is, whether you’re a competitor, or a coach, an organizer, or even making a podcast about speech and debate, you have been asked this question. And that question is… What do you debate about?

Sean: Hey you coach speech and debate? What do you debate?

Talon: That’s Sean Connor, head of individual events for the Orange Coast College team. Individual events are basically anything that’s not debate.

Sean: Not only do I not debate, I also don’t coach debate so it’s very confusing to people. They’re like “Well you coach speech and debate but you don’t coach debate so you don’t do anything then.”

Talon: Which, as we all know by now, is not true. I asked Sean what his response is when people ask him that question.

Sean: If I want to get more into it I’ll explain or I’ll clarify the fact that I don’t actually coach debate. That there’s an entire other world to the speech and debate world that’s referred to as ‘speech’. And if the person has kind of a performance background I might clarify that there are competitive acting events known as interpretation.

Talon: So in today’s episode, we’re talking about oral interpretation! Probably the least well known part of speech and debate. We’ll jump into the different categories, what you need to compete, and how these events have impacted the competitors.

The Oral Interpretation of Literature, as you’ve heard a couple times now, is essentially competitive acting, but what does that actually mean? Well to start us off, we’re going to look into the different sub-categories of Oral Interpretation, most of which depend on the kind of literature you are choosing to interpret.

Shauhin: There are prose, which is something that was written with the intent of it being read off of a piece of paper or maybe an online magazine or whatever, but something that was written to be read.

Talon: So a book, a short story, a newspaper article.

Shauhin: Then we have drama which was written in order to be performed.

Talon: Such as a play, movie, TV Show, audio fiction, or even a performative non-fiction piece such as a reality show, a documentary, or a podcast like this.

Shauhin: This would also count as drama. If someone wanted to turn this, what I’m saying right now, around and make it a script, it would be drama. Because it’s something that was done with the intention to be heard or seen.

Talon: And then there’s poetry.

Shauhin: Defining poetry is like a whole class. What is poetry? It’s like, a whole thing. But the basics of poetry come down to was the author’s intent for this to be poetry. That’s it. At the end of the day, that’s the easiest way to determine whether something is poetry or not is did this author intend for it to be poetry.

Talon: So these are kind of the style categories. Prose, Drama, and Poetry. Each of these are their own event. You take your literature, cut it down to 10 minutes, and perform it during tournaments. While Prose and Drama tend to be one single piece of literature performed throughout the whole 10 minutes, poetry is normally what we call a program of literature.

Shauhin: What is a program of literature? It means lots of lit cut together around one theme. Poetry’s a program because it’s hard to find a 10 minute long poem. Right? That’s just hard to find. Most poets are not writing 10 minute long, one piece of poetry.

Talon: So instead of one long poem, you might take three or four independent poems and weave them together to make one cohesive performance. There is also an event entirely based around programs called Program Oral Interpretation, or POI.

Shauhin: If you’re doing POI, now you can use any type of literature that is out there. Lot’s of different lit all cut together around one social significant topic.

Talon: So you could pull from a book, a movie, and a poem, weave them all together, and produce them as one piece. That is a POI. Next up, we have Duo.

Shauhin: Which is exactly what it sounds like. Two people, ten minute event and it can be either a program or it can be one piece.

Talon: And finally, the biggest interpretive event of them all: Reader’s Theater.

Shauhin: Or what I call Interpreter’s Theater.

Talon: Which seems to be picking up steam, so we’ll call it Interpreter’s Theater, or IT.

Shauhin: And that’s three or more people and it’s 25 minutes long.

Talon: Yeah, 25 minutes of all kinds of different literature all based around some kind of central theme. This is the only interp event with props, costumes, or any semblance of a set. Sometimes there is even music! It is a whole theater production.

Shauhin: Yeah, any time I’ve explained speech and debate to people or have them come to public performances— I’ll have friends come to public performances at Orange Coast College and they’ll have known what I do for five, six, seven years and then they’ll finally come to a public performance, they’ll see some kid do a POI or they’ll watch a theater, and they’re like “Wait, that’s what you do? I didn’t know that you were a director of a theater and that you helped write and direct and like coach acting. That’s not what I thought that you did. I didn’t think that speech and debate were acting coaches.”

Talon: This is why I wanted to start our deep dives into events with Oral Interoperation. It’s a huge part of speech and debate. It’s what got both Shauhin and Sean into speech and debate. Heck, it’s why I joined the team! And yet, unless you’re involved in speech and debate, you probably didn’t even know it existed.

So those are all the categories. Just to recap, we’ve got Prose, Drama, Poetry, POI, Duo, and Interpreter’s Theater. While there is a lot of variance between these events, they still have their similarities. The things that make them Oral Interpretation. We’ll be delving into that right after the break, along with a look at how Oral Interpretation has impacted and inspired it’s competitors.

Jinno: I have all this poetry that I had written throughout my speech and debate time. Why don’t you make your own nationals or make your own Phi Rho Pi and make this poetry book.

Talon: That’s coming up next on Soapboxers.

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Talon: Welcome back. In the first half of the episode we talked about the different kinds of events under the umbrella of Oral Interpretation.

Shauhin: We have some different types of interp, right? We have Prose, Drama, Poetry, Duo POI, and IT. Now, what do all interns have in common?

Talon: That’s the question for the second half of our show. And first up is something very basic: You have to choose your literature. If you’re performing something, then you have to have something to perform. But choosing literature isn’t as easy as flipping through a book, there are a lot of things to consider.

Shauhin: So, this is the literature selection recommendation that I have. When you’re looking at literature, is it written by a particularly famous author? If it’s written by a famous author, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not possible. It just means you have to understand you’re going up against someone’s interpretation of it that’s already seen it in their mind.

Talon: That’s a very fair point. We see stuff like this in the real world all the time. Take for example, the recent announcement that Chris Pratt will be playing Mario in an upcoming Super Mario movie. The internet was extremely critical of this decision, in part because they are so familiar with Charles Martinet, Mario’s voice actor for the last 25 years.

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t do popular pieces. It just means you have to be deliberate with it and you better be bringing something new to the table.

Shauhin: For example, there was a POI maybe seven years ago that took a gold medal at the national tournament because it was Shakespeare and it was done by a Black woman and she was like “Look, Shakespeare was not written for me. I don’t get to have parts in fucking Shakespeare and I would want to do that because it would help progress my fucking acting career.”

Her whole entire point was, Shakespeare wasn’t written for Black people and yet it is such a primary function of theater. Ok! You have taken a topic, you have taken common literature and then you have turned it on it’s head and completely done it upside down and inside out. Wonderful, that’s fine, but you have to have that. Why? Because how many of us have seen Shakespeare. We’ve all seen it, we’ve at least read it in our English classes. We have an idea of it in our minds. If you’re not going to completely change what idea we have of it in our minds, then we are stuck comparing you to other things.

Talon: So you don’t want it to be too well known, check. What else?

Shauhin: And then does it have societal impact. You’ll notice that the POI I told you about from the Black actor is a really interesting topic. Right? That, you’re like “oh”. I saw a couple people like, “Oh yeah, I had not thought about that and the way that might impact someone’s career. So when you’re picking an interp piece, you want to ask yourself what societal impact does this piece have. Remember, interp is not just acting it is acting with advocacy.

Talon: Advocacy, I would argue, is the whole point of speech and debate. Teaching people to be aware of their world, their country, their culture. Helping to give a platform to voices that haven’t had one in the past, and giving everyone the tools to make impactful changes in the cultural zeitgeist. We want our pieces to have societal impact. And finally…

Shauhin: The next thing you’re going to ask yourself is, do you like it?

Talon: Yeah! You should enjoy the piece you are performing. Those are all some of the things to consider while picking your literature. Has it been done before, is their societal significance, and do you enjoy the piece. All of that is a part of the literature selection. The next thing that all the interp events have in common is a point where you drop character, address the audience as yourself, and explain why you have chosen this piece. We call this the Introduction.

Shauhin: This is your opportunity to directly tell the audience the advocacy behind your performance and literature selection. Why did you choose this piece of literature? Why is it important? The introduction is the moment where you get to tell the audience directly those things.

Talon: The last similarity I want to bring up this episode is probably the strangest. In every interp event, the performer is holding a black book, filled with their literature. To help us understand what a black book is, I reached out to my good friend Jinno Vicencio.

Jinno: Ok, how do you want me to introduce myself. My name is Jinno Vicencio, I competed from 2017ish to 2019.

Talon: Jinno and I were both on the team back in 2019, we were actually roommates when we were away at state and national tournaments. He also just so happens to be an excellent interper and had one of my favorite POI’s I’ve ever seen. I asked him if he could describe a black book for me.

Jinno: I think I need to get a little method right now and grab my black book. A black book is… your best friend in interp. It’s like a binder that you would carry to school on your first day. But it is a lot smaller. It fits in your hand very comfortably. Yeah, it’s like a small binder, essentially. It basically is a story book or is like a metaphor for a story book. So that when you open it you’re like telling a story and you’re this character or this narrator or this person. And then when you close the book, you’re yourself.

Talon: The competitor has this book for the entire performance. Inside it is a copy of your literature, or you’re script. While most competitors have their pieces memorized, the physical representation of the literature is important, like in that storybook metaphor Jinno mentioned. In every interp event other than IT, it is the only kind of prop the performer has leading to all kinds of innovative uses. Page turns become deliberate shifts in tone or setting, a fast closing of the book becomes a gun shot. An open book held lengthwise in your arms becomes a swaddled baby. The possibilities are endless and they can get pretty ambitious. When Shauhin was a performer, he had a move where he subtly and perfectly flipped a book over his arm in the middle of a piece. The black book is part of what makes interp interp, instead of just regular acting.

So that is an overview of interp. You have a variety of different events that depend on the type of literature chosen and the number of performers . You have interesting, unseen, and socially impactful literature performed by people who really enjoy the piece, all while holding these mysterious black books. It might all sound a little overwhelming or odd, but Oral Interpretation teaches a different set of skills than most other speech events. It brings an emotional charge to advocacy and helps teach competitors to make their own impactful literature.

Jinno: It helped me realize that… I am an artist. That my voice matters. My point of view matters. And so it has empowered me to live life on my own terms. That’s what speech and debate has liked help me do.

Talon: Last year, Jinno released his first poetry chapbook called Flowers for Brown Boys.

Jinno: Yeah, so Flowers for Brown Boys emerged as a way for me to cope with the fact that Covid hit. From 2019 to 2020, I was competing. Three days before state happened, it got canceled. We went to the retreat that weekend. We just had a meeting talking about who we’re rooming with, what we’re gonna be doing for state and we were all so pumped. And then it just, it just like… evaporated. I had all this energy ready for state and nationals and I didn’t know what to do with it. Then I was looking through my journals and I was like “I have all this poetry that I had written throughout my speech and debate time. Why don’t you make your own nationals or make your own Phi Rho Pi and make this poetry book.”

It’s all because of speech and debate, Flowers for Brown Boys happened. I never knew how to make a program. Never knew how to compile poetry or literature or anything like that. Never knew how to compile poetry or literature or anything like that. It was all through the coaches of like Jimmy Gomez, Shauhin Davari, Sean Connor, Hannah Haghihat. All those people helped me develop these skills to release this poetry book. And then to like, go out and record it with you and feel comfortable enough to even use my voice and speak the words that I wrote.

Talon: Over the course of the last year, Jinno and I worked on recording his chapbook and making it into a poetry album. And it’s out, right now. It actually came out the day before this episode.

Jinno: It is a 25 track album. It is complete with soundscapes so you are really like, put into these scenes. You feel like you’re really there and you’re experiencing the words, you’re experiencing the environment. So Flowers for Brown Boys is just a lot of the feelings I felt growing up as a little brown queer filipino boy in a big family of other filipino people who didn’t quite understand him. You know, little Jinno went through some hard stuff and went through some dark times and I feel like this is my way for thanking him for being so strong and for getting me here.

Talon: This is why speech and debate is so important and why I made this podcast. It’s fun and exciting and competing is a blast, but it also helps you to be a better person. To find that voice, that self-advocacy, and to create something beautiful. To make the world a better place, for everyone.

Flowers for Brown Boys is out now on all major streaming platforms. Just search for Flowers for Brown Boys or visit the link in this episodes description. Stick around after the credits to hear one of the poems from the album.

Talon: Next time on Soapboxers.

We talk about platform speeches, the most traditional form of public speaking. We also solve the mystery of why speech and debate is called forensics.

Sean: So then what does criminology and like, the dissecting of bodies and crime scenes and all that kind of stuff, have to do with speech and debate?

Talon: That’s next time on Soapboxers.

Talon: Soapboxers is produced by myself, Talon Stradley, and mixed by Chris Moore. Our Executive Producer is Shauhin Davari. Our theme music was created by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our podcast art was designed by the delightful, Rhiannon White. Other music in the episode was provided by Special thanks to our sponsors, Hired Judge and the Professional Speech and Debate Association. An extra special thanks to Clark Moore, John Farkas, Fuzzy, Ben Steidl, Aaron McGuire, Ali Beheshti, John Lewellen, and of course, my mom, for their support on Kickstarter. If you want to join these saints in the fiscal support of the show, you can visit us on Patreon where we have ad-free episodes, buttons, and shout-outs.

If you want to stay up to date on the show you can follow us on Instagram at SoapboxersPod. We’re also on Twitter and TikTok.

Soapboxers is a production of Newtons Dark Room, a podcast studio set to explore imagination through antiquated audio dramas and non-fiction expeditions. For more information visit

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