If you want to debate with Ella Schnake, watch out. The Raymore-Peculiar High School senior combined her debate prowess and dramatic skills to take first place in program oral interpretation at the National Speech and Debate Tournament in Dallas last month.
She found stories in the New York Times, Huffington Post, research papers and other sources to create a 10-minute dramatic performance illustrating what it’s like to be a female debater. The performance, called “Debate Like a Girl,” highlighted the ways girls and women are judged on their appearance and punished for exhibiting qualities valued in male debaters.
Performers can choose whatever theme they want to create their piece.
“I really love how this event specifically gives people the opportunity to speak about something that’s incredibly important to them. We see such a diverse group of pieces. People have a lot of different stories they want to tell,” Schnake said.
Schnake performed in front of about 3,500 people for the final round, after going through numerous preliminary and semi-final rounds. In taking the top award, she bested about 240 other competitors from all over the country.
“I always say the more you perform, the less you think you’re going to get nervous, (but) I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous in my entire life,” she said. “I took a deep breath, and I could feel how physically nervous I was, but as I started to perform, it felt like my nerves just melted away.”
In additional to this type of performance, Schnake is also a debater and has seen firsthand through her own experience and her friends’ experiences how this is a problem.
“I wanted people who were in debate to understand it. I wanted other people who weren’t in that community to be able to understand it. I knew I was making something true to the activity and true to what women experience, not only in debate but in the real world,” she said.
When she delved into people’s stories, she found one from 2015, where a male debater from Blue Valley West allegedly sent a message to a female competitor, offering to concede a debate round if she sent him nude pictures.
“I never expected to find that. Because it was so local and it hit so close to home, I knew I needed to include it,” Schnake said. “It gives people the opportunity to see that this does happen here. We can’t try to separate ourselves from this issue, because we are so close to it.”
One of the requirements for the piece was to incorporate both prose and poetry into the performance. Since there’s not exactly a lot of poetry about women debating, she chose to use a poem about a girl who wanted to play a drum, even though it wasn’t the accepted thing for a girl to do.
“I found an overwhelming amount of literature, specifically news articles, that covered different experiences women had with sexism in the activity. A lot of this literature came out of the 2016 election,” Schnake said.
She was especially excited to see people sharing their debate stories on Twitter in response to her performance.
Ella actually qualified for the national championship last year, too, but opted to go to the Missouri Scholars Academy instead. She said having that extra year to mature as a performer before going to the national tournament was good.
“Competing in the event for a year helped me with confidence, because I was a sophomore (at the time). I was able to watch all the other kids and learn from them and grow as a competitor,” she said.
Her coach is also her dad. Todd Schnake has been a teacher at Ray-Pec for 28 years and been head coach of the speech and debate team for 26 of those years. He’s had just one other student win a national title.
“I’m awfully proud of her, both as her coach and her dad. It’s always nerve-wracking when your students are competing. … There is an extra tension that comes with it being your child,” he said.
“Ella and I try to balance me being dad and me being coach, and I think that works out well for us and for the other kids in the program.”
As she looks ahead to her senior year, Ella plans to compete in this category again.
“I guess my goal moving forward is just to create art that is doing good for the world and that I’m proud of,” she said.