Getting Into Character

Getting Into Character

GMU summer camp sharpens students’ speaking skills.

Wearing a white dress and carrying a bouquet of purple flowers, Alyssa Faughn discussed her upcoming wedding with the students sitting in front of her. She talked about Michael, her fiancé, about her mother and her old boyfriends. She said she might not be completely ready to get married.

The ease with which Alyssa described her plans and her life was impressive, considering that those plans and that life were fictional. Alyssa, who is really 15 and from Evansville, Ind., was speaking from the perspective of Eve, a reluctant bride in the novel "Otherwise Engaged" by Susan Fillimore, as part of an exercise in the George Mason Institute of Forensics (GMIF).

"It’s so cool that you can transform yourself into somebody else you want to be," said Alyssa.

About 300 schools from across the country practice forensics, the art of public speaking and literary performance. George Mason University has a forensics team of its own, led by coach Peter Pober.

But the two-week summer camp is new, founded by Pober this year. GMIF has over 100 students from 22 states and 40 faculty and staff members, said Pober. Along with training students in public speaking, the camp also helps fund George Mason’s forensics team.

"(Forensics training) revolutionizes the way they deal with subjects back at school," said Pober of the students. "They become better readers, better writers and test-takers."

Pober has taught forensics at GMU for two years. For a long time, he said, he worked in the forensics program at the University of Texas, but when funding and support for the program dropped, he moved eastward to Fairfax.

"George Mason has been very supportive," said Pober. "It’s a joy to work here and to be able to know that they’re behind this endeavor."

THE CAMP offers three branches of study to students: oration, extemporaneous speaking and literary interpretation. All deal with speaking in some form or another, said Pober, whether in giving speeches, improvised discussion of current events or performing from a book or play. Students take classes in all of these branches but tend to focus on one.

"Instead of competing with each other, the students have a sense of what they’ve shared and learned together," said Pober. "It’s a very positive environment."

For Brandon Cosby, who co-directs the interpretive division of the camp, the shared experience extends to forensics teachers as well. Having worked as a principal, English teacher and speech teacher, Cosby had already met many of his GMIF colleagues coaching forensics teams and in nationwide competitions.

"We share a common belief as to the way things should be," said Cosby. "It’s a beautiful thing where all of us from across the country with like minds get to come together."

Cosby grew up in Indianapolis and was, in his own words, a "dangerous and volatile" teenager. But in high school, a speech teacher suggested that with his deep voice he might be good at public speaking, and that, he said, was what helped him deal with his anger and frustration.

"If it wasn’t for this activity, I’d be dead or in prison," said Cosby. When he coaches now, he said, he tries to build his team "looking for kids like me."

Thursday’s exercise, said Cosby, was meant to help students "take something two-dimensional and create it into an honest-to-goodness believable character."

ONCE STUDENTS pick out their character and refine their monologue, said Cosby, he has them do everything from the perspective of their character, from writing their biography to dressing and talking like their character during workshops.

"The kids get excited about it, even though they think it’s stupid to begin with," said Cosby. "You want them to think like their character away from the script."

Alyssa, a dancer who wants to be a doctor when she graduates from college, has to portray a character 20 years older than she is.

"I was looking for comedy, tragedy, everything in my character," she said. "In Indiana, people love the three D’s: death, disease and dysfunction. My character has death and dysfunction down."

Some characters are harder to embrace than others. Ben Kaufman, 16, of Randolph, N.J., chose Katurian, the main character of Martin McDonagh’s play "The Pillowman" for his monologue. In the play, Katurian is a 30-year-old fiction writer who kills his parents and brother.

"I think you have to be legitimately crazy to do this," said Ben, who joined the forensics team in his high school because he "likes arguing people and being right," loves commercial jets, and wants to go into transportation law after college. Getting into a character like Keturian was a very emotional process, he said.

"It was scary when he did his monologue. I hid in a corner," said Alyssa.

But both Ben and Alyssa agreed that there was nothing else they’d rather be doing.

"The things you can do with your voice, the things they teach you here," said Alyssa. "It’s phenomenal."