William Maus wasn’t looking for speech, speech found him.
The Chanhassen Class of 2020 graduate has always had the love for performance, the love for audience. However this — a room of maybe eight students giving speeches one by one — was new.
“I wasn’t looking to join. My coach (James Fedje) saw me with the play. I was the lead as a freshman. He asked me if I would be interested in speech. The funny story is one of the captains signed me up for an audition. It was during one of my class times during the school day, so I was required to go for attendance purposes. It was like, here’s your audition packet, you have 10 minutes to prepare. Go!” Maus recalled.
Four years later, Maus was the last contestant standing — well the last contestant remaining on the Zoom meeting screen, champion of the National Speech and Debate Association national championships in informative speaking June 20.
That’s right, national champion. The first in 11 years of the Chanhassen High School speech program.
FINDING HIS VOICE
Travis Rother had just one year working with Maus; his first three years with Fedje. Needless to say, they had a lot of ground to make up.
It was Rother who suggested to Maus to hone in a public address category versus his comfort zone in interpretation.
Both saw the potential for something big; now they just needed the right topic.
“We knew we wanted a topic that was personal to him, allowed him to use humor, and was relevant to what is going on in the world right now. We decided to talk about the Gay Male Voice,” Rother said. “He had to learn the category quick and by February, he was consistently winning tournaments, including the Harvard Speech and Debate Tournament. That tournament is the largest invitational tournament in the nation and when he won the tournament, we thought he might have a chance at doing well at nationals.
“However, you can win every tournament and never make it past the Minnesota qualifying tournaments because Minnesota is a crazy competitive place to do speech. So we buckled down and worked twice as hard to make sure he would make it out of Minnesota.”
Maus researched old Disney films from the 1930s and found a “Hays Code” that was created by filmmakers in Hollywood. All of the voiced characters with a stereotypical gay voice were characterized as villains, or died in the story. Often times these characters had a lisp, limp wrists or were flamboyant.
Maus also researched conversion therapy; his goal in his speech was to try and break stigmas around gay male voice.
“What I found, as an actor it’s so interesting to take on stories, to take on a character. With speech, it is speaking in William’s character. My actual voice, my actual thoughts, are heard,” Maus said.
District qualifying night was set for March 13. One night earlier, while preparing with Maus in his final rehearsal, Rother took a phone call. Qualifying tournaments had been postponed indefinitely.
How long it would be put off, or even canceled, was something no one knew.
As schools went to distance learning the following week, the speech team students decided early on that they were not going to let COVID-19 define their season.
“Even though they were balancing everything crazy happening around them, they kept working on speech through it all,” Rother said.
In early April, the NSDA said move forward with qualifying tournaments. The catch was they were online. A new medium. A new way of speech.
“I’m an actor first. Plays and musicals will forever be me. I love performing in front of people — I want to make a career out of it — so it was different,” Maus said.
“These kids and their coaches had no idea how to transfer what we do every weekend, during the normal season, to a video format. So, we figured it out. I am so proud of the time and energy put in to make these online performances outstanding. Students are used to having an audience and the performance is a very communal experience. When you go online, all of that changes. You have to think about how your performance translates to video,” Rother said.
In addition to Maus, Lauren Manna and Robbie Wichterman were also selected to participate at nationals.
After months of preparation, Maus, an all-state honoree, was among 262 online entries in the category of informative speaking.
He made the first cut of 60. Then 30. Then 14 into the semifinals. Lastly the top six, among three Minnesotans, including Jeremiah Cox of Chaska. Both were students together at Chaska Middle School East.
One more speech for the title.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ Honestly I was so stressed out. I felt like I had a speech to be in the top three, so I was really happy to be in the finals,” Maus said.
One by one, students read their speech. Afterward, as each participant was named, starting with sixth place, their face disappeared from the Zoom call. In the end, one face remained, William Maus.
“William was a dream to coach. I remember our first meeting last summer, I asked him what his competition goal for the season was and he said, ‘I need to be on that stage.’ This is sometimes the competition goal for students and as a coach, you do everything to support them, but also work to get them to focus on smaller more reachable goals. That wasn’t the case with William; I knew he was going to do it from the start of our season together,” Rother said.
“He’s funny, kind, and passionate. I checked his speech last week to see how many individual edits we made to the document this season and I was shocked. We made 9,613 individual changes that he memorized and then performed with pizzazz! That is a ridiculous number of edits, but it demonstrates his focus and drive,” the coach added.
Manna, competing in drama, reached the top 30, while Wichterman, a senior captain with Maus, was a top-six finalist in storytelling.
“Robbie is so good at entertaining. He takes the story and makes people laugh. He’s so funny,” Maus said of Wichterman, who ended up fourth.
MORE TO COME
Maus auditioned for 12 acting schools. In the end Molloy College’s Cap 21 theater arts program was right fit for him.
While the first semester will be held online — something Maus has grown accustomed to — he hopes to be on campus by January in New York.
“William is a star, but this is only the beginning for him!” Rother said.