Fire From a Spark: A reflection on the 2022 State Oral Interpretation festival from the photographer who was there to document it

What follows is an intimate first-person look inside last week’s South Dakota High School Activities Association’s 2022 State Oral Interpretation festival.
Kleenex is not required but recommended.
Ariana Edwards stood at the front of the Black Box Room, one of the performance centers at the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy that is part of the Mitchell School District and poured her heart out.
No, not hers.
Rather, the Sioux Falls Washington senior poured out the heart of Rebecca, the central character in the piece she presented in the category of Serious Reading at the 113th State Oral Interpretation Festival held Friday and Saturday, Dec. 2 and 3. Ariana’s selection titled “A Year of Firsts” and written by Susan Miller tells the story of Rebecca leaving her husband and falling in love with a woman who gave her joy she had never felt in living a life conformed to society’s standards. But it’s not long until tragedy strikes — an automobile/pedestrian accident that sends Rebecca’s partner to the hospital.
Rebecca races there to see her, but after identifying as her partner, she is told by staff that she is not allowed into the room because she is not “family,” and the love of her life dies alone.
I was wrecked.
“How do you not cry?” I asked Ariana, who won three superiors at last weekend’s state festival — for “A Year of Firsts,” and also in the categories of Duet Interpretation and Reader’s Theatre.
“I keep it controlled,” she responded. “I want it to be about my character’s feelings, not mine.”
But Ariana, who came out as a lesbian her freshman year, does find time to cry and did so in the hallway after giving the piece one last time on Friday — after saying goodbye to Rebecca.
“It’s emotionally draining,” she said, hoping that the message resonates with those who heard it — that it doesn’t matter who you love, but that you love. “It’s such an important story and hits really hard.”
With most of the other events concluded, the theater at the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy was nearly filled when the Reader’s Theatre team from Brandon Valley took the stage for “How to Eat Like a Child” — the final presentation of the day.
And Ian Candy, Kaylee Willard, Lucy Lamont, Bella Reif and Julia Tinker had the audience in stitches as they gave life-lesson-advice through the eyes of a child, like how to convince parents to get a dog, how to torture your sister and how to resist bedtime. It was a fast-paced romp, much like many of the Reader’s Theatre productions that took that very stage, and generated an abundance of authentic emotion. It was as powerful as Ariana’s piece but in an entirely different way in that it made people laugh.
After all, it doesn’t matter what you feel, but that you feel.
It was glorious.
Thor Aanenson was the eighth speaker in the 13-contestant Non-Original Oratory category that came near the conclusion of last week’s festival. What the Freeman High School freshman delivered was well worth the wait.
Thor presented “The Good News on Poverty,” a TED Talk delivered by U2 front-man Bono in 2013, a fact-driven, hope-based account of why we should feel good about an existence that all too often feels heavy and hard.  
“What the facts are telling us is that humanity’s long, slow journey of equality is actually speeding up; look at what’s been achieved,” Thor told the audience through his powerful selection. “Since the year 2000, there are eight million more AIDS patients getting life-saving antiretroviral drugs. Malaria: There are eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have had their death rates cut by 75 percent. For kids under five, child mortality is down by 2.65 million a year. That’s a rate of 7,256 children’s lives saved each day. Wow. Wow.
“Let’s just stop for a second and think about that. Have you read anything anywhere in the last week that is remotely as important as that number? Wow. Great news. It drives me nuts that most people don’t seem to know this news. Seven thousand kids a day.”
Activism has achieved a decrease in poverty and an increase in equality, Thor’s piece said, and the people are taking power.
Note the quote from an activist behind a revolt in Egypt, he said:
“‘We are going to win because we don’t understand politics. We are going to win because we don’t play their dirty games. We are going to win because we don’t have a party-political agenda. We are going to win because the tears that come from our eyes actually come from our hearts. We are going to win because we have dreams, and we’re willing to stand up for those dreams.’
“That activist is right,” he concluded. “We’re going to win if we work together as one, because the power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power.”
And Thor owned the room.
In a big way.
Nobody took an eye off the charming and engaging orator, who poured his heart and soul into the words he spoke. Using the perfect combination of science and humor to dazzle the judges all along the way, he delivered one of the most well-deserved superiors I have ever heard.
“It was tangible,” Thor said of the silent energy inside MCTEA 10. “It was exciting. It was awesome. To spend 10 minutes giving something to people that matters, means everything to me. That’s why oral interp needs more attention. It’s amazing.”
What Thor said.
I had the absolute privilege of photographing last weekend’s state festival for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and experienced roughly 18 hours of incredible human beings being 100% committed to whatever it was they were talking about, and it had a profound impact that left me adrenalized days after the event’s conclusion.
The power behind the presentations I heard from Ariana, the team from Brandon Valley, Thor, and the dozens of others who poured their heart and soul into the pieces they prepared and shared prompted an indescribable blend of emotions — grief, wonder and delight.
At times, it felt like an out-of-body experience.
Here is the Facebook post I shared late Saturday night after I got home.
“The emotional volume these incredible students outputted was and is beyond words and I can't express enough what an incredible experience it was. While photographing each group of those who earned a superior, I took a minute to tell them something from my heart that I could not keep quiet — that winning a superior at state was an enormous accomplishment and extremely hard to do, and that even though I didn't know (most) of them, I was proud of all of them.
“Tears swelled in their eyes, and in mine. It was authentic and spontaneous beauty. It was humanity looking at each other with a quiet understanding and belief that everything is going to be OK.
“And here's the thing: Even those who didn't win a superior gave a gift that they will never know and never understand, because I promise you that the people who heard those words FELT THEM.
“That is art, my friends.
“We are not better because of Facebook or Twitter, 24-hour news cycles or true crime podcasts, debates about who worships the correct God or stands for the right causes. We are better because of what I saw and heard the past two days by the next generation that wants to do better, and I am as hopeful as I've ever been.”
In the few days following the many hours I spent in Mitchell, I have thought a lot about why my emotional decoder ring was so lit up, and I still don’t have a good answer.
I guess I can’t help how I feel; I don’t think anyone can.
And that is the answer!
When it comes right down to it, oral interpretation is all about feelings. About heart. About humanity. About gain and loss and heartbreak and hope. As I said before, it doesn’t matter what you feel; what matters is that you feel.
When we own and honor our emotions, we grow into better people, and when we become better people we become better citizens of the world, and when we become better citizens of the world, we make a difference. And one small and seemingly inconsequential state oral interpretation festival can be a spark that sets a city on fire.
But it was a spark that set a city on fire last week, yet only a few people know about it.
And that’s why I’m writing this.
We fill basketball arenas with edgy fans and call them sanctuaries. We fill baseball stadiums with seed-spitting spectators and call them cathedrals. We display state championship trophies behind locked glass and hang banners on gymnasium walls. We recount the year that we took it all and talk about that one call that cost us everything that, in the end, really doesn’t matter. And we get excited when that one special group of athletes is ready to take the town by storm.
And we should.
But the fact that we pay so little attention to the Arianas, the team from Brandon Valley, Thor, and all the performers from 91 high schools in South Dakota who opened up their souls for anybody who cared to listen last weekend …
Well, that breaks me, too.
Because when it comes down to it, with few headlines, scant attention and little glamour, the people who are going to make a difference in the world were those in the Black Box Room and on the PAC Main Stage and in Room MCTEA 10 and the three other performance centers inside the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy last weekend.
My hope is that the performers who performed know that they will, in fact, change the world.
And that love is love.
Laughter is laughter.
And that hope lives in all of us.
Thank God it does.
Jeremy Waltner is a second-generation editor and publisher for The Courier (Freeman, S.D.) who freelances as a photographer and videographer. He has worked fulltime at his hometown newspaper since May of 1999 and has been co-publisher with his wife, Stacey, since 2016. They have two children: Ella, 16; and Oliver, 13. He can be reached by text at 605-351-6097. 


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