The Dream Season

Mount Vernon’s ensemble act wins All-state banner

Michael Briesemeister

Large group speech members Lydia Benesh, Charlotte Krob, Jessica Belding, Tori Oelrich, and Lillian Booth perform “Controllling Interests” for the student body Feb. 24.
Lydia Benesh, who plays Jack, the leader of a group of 8-year-old boys is shocked by Ashley, a girl played by Lily Booth, who reveals that the boys may one day see girls in a new and exciting way. The ensemble acting group performed “Controlling Interests,” their banner-winning piece, to the MVHS student body in the PAC on Feb. 24. (Dallas Olberding)

All-State speech, the highest acting competition a student can reach. A victory in and of itself, being allowed to perform at All-State is an acknowledgment that each and every individual in a group has achieved true greatness in their acting. Held at Iowa State University in February, All-State is both a celebration and the final competition. And this is a story of how one small group from Mount Vernon won the highest achievement in a category — the banner for ensemble acting. 

The crowd around and below them hummed with excitement and anticipation, the voices bouncing off the concrete walls and reaching all the way up to the balcony they sat on. The object of the crowd’s excitement hung before them, tantalizingly close yet a million miles away. Eleven banners seemed to glow under the spotlights, royal purple to scarlet red and every color in between. The banners swayed gently, their golden tassels dangling below them. 

Everyone was hopeful that they might win a banner, but they knew their chances were slim. Some schools brought as many as 17 performing groups, with a coach for each of those teams. Mount Vernon brought five groups and two coaches. 

As the speakers arrived there were ceremonies to go through, traditions to cover, and praise to give for all of the performances. But the speakers knew what the sea of Thespians in front of them was waiting for. Many of them had been in those seats before, years ago. The time to give out the ultimate honor was fast approaching. 

The critic for Group Ensemble, the first banner awarded, walked briskly to the podium. The click-clack of her heels echoed through the room as the crowd quieted. Hundreds of eyes focused sharply on her as she began her statement. She began with praise for each and every group that performed that day, a slew of talented individuals, and she hoped that they all would continue acting in the future. 

But only one group could be her favorite. She described the bravery of the piece, how all of the actors had surely flung themselves wholeheartedly into it, how each and every one was amazingly talented and detail-oriented. 

With a deep breath, she named the best ensemble act in the whole of Iowa.

“The critic’s choice for this year’s ensemble acting is ‘Controlling Interests,’ from Mount Vernon.”

Their journey to All-state started out the same as all the other groups. Six very different people met in the high school, sat down, and looked over a few skits they could perform. Most of them were comedy, a few tragic, but none really caught their collective eye. So their coach, Grant Freeman, gave them another option. Controlling Interests was a piece he had directed before, and it was a comedy that centered around four eight-year-old boys having a meeting on whether or not they should start liking girls. 

Lily Booth, one of the two seniors of the group, had performed the piece her freshman year. She was assigned the role of Ashley, the sole female character and “the popular girl.”

Jess Belding, the other senior, remembered watching it as a freshman and was all for it. She was assigned the character Stephen, and said she based him on “a kid in elementary school who always had a red Kool-Aid ring around his mouth and ate his boogers.”

Tori Oelrich was returning to speech after taking a break during her sophomore year and thought the piece sounded funny. She got the role of David, whom she describes as “the ‘jock’s best friend.’    

Lydia Benesh had been in speech every year she could, and was even helping to coach another group. She was bestowed the role of Jack, the leader of the boys’ club. 

Charlotte Krob was just joining the speech team, making this performance her first. She was assigned the role of Brad, a somewhat jerkish kickball player, and Jack’s right-hand man. 

One of the more interesting things about the group was that the five had never really met — they were acquaintances, but they had never really spoken at length before. Typically, groups have at least a few people who know each other and their respective strengths and weaknesses. In spite of this potential limitation, the five quickly found out how well they all fit together, and became fast friends. Occasionally, they would even eat lunch together as their characters in order to better get into the roles. 

That’s not to say that there weren’t any difficulties, however. Each member seemed to face a different challenge- Krob kept breaking character and laughing at the jokes. Benesh had to get used to making all of the jokes her character made, as some of them toed the line a bit— which Benesh does not do in her daily life. However, the five worked with their coach and each other to iron out any kinks as they presented themselves. 

After performing at two entry-level competitions, the WAMAC competition and districts, the group was nominated for state. At state, they received straight ones and were nominated to perform at All-state, the highest rating achievable. 

The day of All-state began with a bus ride from the high school at 5 a.m. Most of the students slept on the way up, needing their rest for the day ahead of them. Upon arriving at Iowa State’s Stephens auditorium, the group headed inside and backstage. As one of the most recognized schools in the area, they had been chosen to sing the national anthem for the assembly. 

After the singing, they trekked through the back hallways and into the auditorium, listened to the rest of the opening ceremony, and headed off to the first performance of the day. The winter air outside was bitterly cold as the wind slashed against their faces, so they were in a hurry to get inside whenever possible. 

Large group speech members Jessica Belding, Lydia Benesh, Charlotte Krob, and Tori Oelrich perform “Controllling Interests” for the student body Feb. 24. (Dallas Olberding)

Running from performance to performance, the time eventually came for their own. A slight sense of sadness permeated the air between them — this would be the last time they would perform together (or so they thought). The performance itself went by in a blur, and afterward, they embraced.

The closing ceremony came at the end of a long day. “I was prepared for anyone else to win the banner,” said Oelrich. But then the ceremony began, and we return to where we left off.

They all remember a lot of screaming, most disbelief. Krob immediately turned to whoever was beside her and said, “Oh, they made a mistake?” 

When the realization set in, there were hugs. Crying. Screaming. Ty Panos, another speech team member, yelled the loudest. Coach Grant Freeman made a mad dash out the door and down two flights of stairs to the stage, where he grinned like a madman. 

None of them could believe it until they finally got down to the stage and touched the crimson threads of the banner they had worked so hard for. Piling back on the bus, praise filled the air for the five, and everyone cried a little more. They rode back home in relative silence, exhausted.

Now, they see the banner displayed proudly in the entryway every time they come to school. It is reportedly an odd feeling. “I want to cut off a little piece and keep it,” says Booth. She reassures the concerned glances around her that she won’t.

The legacy of their team will surely live on for a while. “I really loved this season,” said Benesh. “Large group was amazing.”

And in the future, many a speech will be given about the five’s fantastic speech skills.