Magna Vista Goes Virtual: Forensics Students Find New Way to Compete

Magna Vista High School won first place at the VHSL Forensics State Championships. Seated: Bryan Dunn, MVHS Forensics coach Standing Row 1 (L to R): Ava Knight, Lauren Trent, Brianna Tatum, Ivanna Gutierrez, Joanna Gutierrez Standing Row 2 (L to R): Brayden Lynch, William Ortega, MacKenzie Morrison. Contributed photo.

By Amie Knowles

April 15, 2021

Unable to compete in person, Magna Vista students still found a way to win a statewide competition.

RIDGEWAY – Students at Magna Vista High School talked their way into a state championship this year, despite the pandemic. The Henry County school fielded a team in the annual Forensics State Championships.

No, it’s not “that” forensics. Students did not put on white gloves, put yellow tape around a house or investigate a crime scene.

“While forensic science is more well-known to the general population, forensics within the Virginia High School League refers to the practice of public speaking and debate,” said team coach Bryan Dunn. “It actually comes from ancient Greek where students would learn and practice speech and research skills for contests where they would inform or persuade.”

So how does that translate to modern day? The Virginia High School League offers several debate-style “forensics” categories. Students can also compete in interpretation events. It worked out well for Magna Vista, as the team brought home a number of awards.

Briana Tatum placed first in the Humorous Dramatic Interpretation event. MacKenzie Morrison placed first in the Storytelling event Brayden Lynch and Ava Knight placed first in the Humorous Duo event. Sisters Ivanna Gutierrez and Joanna Gutierrez placed second in the Serious Duo event, followed by William Ortega-Wilson and Lauren Trent, who placed third.

The interesting part, however, is how they did it. None of the Magna Vista team showed up to the event in person. While they still performed in front of judges, it was through a computer screen.


The high school is no stranger to the state competition. In 2019, three Magna Vista students performed at the state level, winning the runner-up slot overall.

Four of the eight students who made it to state this year also advanced to state last year. However, the pandemic cut that season short and the students did not have an opportunity to finish the competition.

Understanding the competition’s expectations, Dunn started preparing students four months before this year’s big show.

“At this point, the students had a vague idea of what they wanted to do, but had not yet declared which category they’d like to compete in nor chosen a piece of literature,” Dunn said.

After each student decided what style of performance they wanted to do, they stated drafting, trimming and practicing their pieces.

Ortega-Wilson and Trent took their training time seriously.

“We rehearsed, like, through Zoom and through FaceTime, like, constantly all the way up until the actual [performance],” Trent said.

The duo practiced like they would for the actually performance.

“So we got prepared by, rather than performing in-person together and getting used to that, we got used to being on the camera,” Ortega-Wilson said.

During the practices, students learned several on-camera tactics that weren’t normally part of live performance rehearsals.

“There was a vast difference for the way the students competed. Things I would normally coach my students to do wouldn’t work,” Dunn said. “I had to focus on helping the students understand new things, such as staying within their frame and how their cameras and microphones worked in relationship to their performance. We planned for the performances we would have, not what we wished we could have, and it became apparent over time that our adjustments were working.”

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The Performance

Instead of sitting amongst their competitors in-person as usual, students Zoomed into the competition this year.

“Sometimes it was tricky because if we had internet issues, we might lose a judge or a competitor,” Tatum said. “So it was a test of patience. But it all worked out well in the end.”

Morrison expanded upon the difference in performing in front of a camera.

“It’s so much different this year because, like, as a performer, you, like, you perform off of laughter or emotion or whatever the audience is giving you. And you don’t get any of that since it’s online,” Morrison said. “Like, you can only see yourself and sometimes the judges faces, and it’s really hard to, like, perform and know that you’re doing well when you don’t get any feedback from it immediately. Like, you have to wait until you get the judges’ scores.”

Lynch and Knight performed as a team. They practiced a humorous piece and placed first.

Lynch competed in the forensics competition last year, but chose the debate option.

“I think with this one, since we got to interpret a piece as opposed to me going up and doing a debate, it felt a lot more fun and we got to be more energetic with it,” Lynch said.

Knight expressed excitement over the win.  

“This is the first time I’ve competed and first time I’ve won state for anything, I’m pretty sure,” Knight said. “It’s a pretty special experience.”

Sisters Ivanna Gutierrez and Joanna Gutierrez bounced off of each other on what the win meant to them.

“What made it special this year is that, you know –“ Ivanna started.

“It’s our senior year,” Joanna finished. “It’s our last year to compete and to have this experience. So that’s what makes it special.”

More Than Winning

For Dunn, forensics is more than a chance to win a trophy. It’s an opportunity to foster growth.

“With activities such as forensics, there are much more subjectivity and variables. A student could technically put on a solid performance, and still not make it to the state level of competition. Ultimately, I coach the students to put pieces together that will appeal to a wide variety of spectators while allowing their own self-expression to fuel the performance,” Dunn said. “I have come to enjoy coaching forensics as it allows me to work with individual students and their performance – whereas in a theatre performance the focus is often placed on the cast as a whole. There have been countless times I have had students find strengths in their performance abilities they never knew they had. Forensics has allowed many students to shine both independently and as a team.”

While preparing and delivering forensics performances is not about winning a trophy, bringing home the top award in the state came with its fair share of positivity.

“The students have endured so many challenges, it brings so much joy to know that amid the insane – mostly virtual – year we have had, there will always be a bright spot shining,” Dunn said. “I couldn’t be more proud of my forensics team this year. It is my hope that more students will continue to build on this success.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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