Chemistry propels friends to all-state speech nomination

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MFL MarMac speech participants Max Koeller (left), Jaxton Schroeder and Nick Stavroplus have been nominated to perform at the Large Group All-State Festival on Feb. 22. The three, who are all close friends, excelled in the group improvisation category. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

A rare nomination in the group improvisation category has the MFL MarMac trio of Max Koeller, Nick Stavroplus and Jaxton Schroeder headed to the Iowa High School Speech Association Large Group All-State Festival this Saturday at Iowa State University. The group is just one of five in the northeast district that received straight ones at state and was chosen by judges to perform.

One of the most popular group speech categories, improv differs from others in that the skit is not pre-recorded or repeatedly practiced and performed at each level of competition. Rather, the story line differs each time—forcing participants to spontaneously craft a unique tale for the judges and audience.

Basically, explained Max, “You draw three topics and decide in two minutes which one you want to do and develop the skit as much as you can. Then you do about a five-minute skit.”

Not all topics are created equal. Of the three, one usually stands out, said Jaxton.

“The more skill you have, the more you can play off that,” he added. “Being able to play off a lot of different topics can really help a team.”

At districts, the group selected “teaching the cha-cha.” The state topic was “going to a health club.”

Although they couldn’t prepare for those specific topics beforehand, the trio could practice other scenarios, learning which roles and character types fit each member well.

“It’s nice to have three different people who are able to do three different sections of the improv. We basically need a story teller, a person who can build off the story teller and a support,” said Nick. 

He was pegged to create, or lead, the stories while Max and Jaxton built off the plot line.

“Max often found the role of adding details or progressing the story. I try to do world building, introduce place and people and add details to make it more comprehensive,” Jaxton noted.

“We also have set characters we found we’re really good at,” Nick said. 

For example, he was often a teacher, trainer or salesman. Max excelled as a sad wife or drill sergeant. 

After several practices, they learned how to incorporate one of those set characters into any given competition.

For “going to a health club,” Max was the wife hoping to get fit, while Jaxton played the husband. Nick filled the personal trainer role.

In the two minutes they have to prepare, Jaxton said the group starts by creating the story’s beginning. That takes 30 to 45 seconds. 

“Then we go to find an end,” he explained. “Usually a judge wants a twist ending. For the health club, even though Max was the one going to get fit, I, the husband who took her there, ended up having a heart attack, which was actually appendicitis, and ended up dying.”

With the remaining time, the three develop character names and a setting and determine how they want to use available props—usually just a few chairs.

They enter the skit with very little of the “middle” planned.

“That’s where the big improv comes in,” said Nick. “We need a start and an end, and all that middle is unknown—it’s whatever we make up on the spot and how we play off each other.”

Once the improv begins, the group has to pay close attention as time elapses.

“The maximum is five minutes, but you don’t want a three-minute skit,” Max commented. “You want to get pretty close. You have to watch and eyeball when you should be moving toward that ending.”

Going over that five minutes, even to finish telling the story, results in disqualification.

Max felt the group’s physicality and fast humor is what set them apart to judges. They could bring a scene and characters to life with just their interactions and expressions.

“There are a lot of little witty things we just kind of gloss over that made people laugh,” he noted.

Other groups are funny, said Nick, but they can’t always incorporate it well into a plot line.

“We were able to play off each other really well, and we were able to put in the humor and make people laugh, but we didn’t get caught up in just making people laugh,” he added. “We made sure the plot and story moved along and that the jokes came naturally.”

“We also saw that the judges weren’t fond of ones who were sitting and not moving very much. So we knew we had the ability to do a lot of movement and energy with our bodies, and we brought that throughout,” Jaxton said.

But perhaps the biggest factor in the group’s success was their chemistry. Although in different grade levels—Max is a senior, Nick a junior and Jaxton a sophomore—the three are close friends.

Even when you largely can’t plan ahead, or predict the judges’ sense of humor, “just being able to know you and your friends have that [chemistry] together, the judges will like it either way,” quipped Max.

“With some of the groups I’ve seen, if you don’t have people who are friends beforehand and know each other really well and know how a person reacts to certain things, it’s almost impossible to keep a fast moving, good reaction improv going,” remarked Jaxton.

Without it, finding the humor and plot build is difficult, said Nick.

“One thing Max and I were able to pick off each other was already knowing what the other was about to say without knowing it,” he continued. “The big line we had was Jaxton holding his stomach saying, ‘I think I’m having a heart attack.’ But I said, ‘Why is your heart so low?’ Max picked up immediately ‘I think it’s appendicitis,’ knowing I was trying to get it back onto how we originally thought it was going to end.”

The three enjoy that improv pushes them outside their respective comfort zones.

“You have to be willing to step outside that box you want to put around yourself,” said Jaxton. “I found it easier with Max and Nick to be out there a little bit.”

That, in turn, develops a sense of confidence.

“You’re already playing characters you have within yourself,” Nick shared. “You’re just not scared to show it. You’re putting it all out there.”

Communication skills improve too. While many speech events help participants talk in front of a group of people, improv helps you with conversation, said Max.

“That’s so infinitely applicable,” he explained. “Just being able to talk to another person and use what they said and reciprocate.”

Although Max has previously been to all-state for individual speech, this will be his first experience at the group level. It’s also the first opportunity for Nick and Jaxton. The three are proud of where personal hard work has taken them.

“Whatever you do, you get back out of it. To me, it feels like I’ve really earned what I’ve put into it,” Jaxton said.

Similar to the other competitions, the trio will draw a new topic at all-state; they won’t perform the health club skit that got them there. That uncertainty is a little disconcerting, but they’re ready for the challenge.

“We’re going to practice hard,” Nick said, “and it should come out well, like our last two times.”

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