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The Awe Factor: Polson senior Kai McDonald heads to National meet

by BERL TISKUS
Reporter | February 22, 2024 12:00 AM

“There’s one part of my piece where I throw myself on the ground. I catch myself with my arms, and I kind of slowly lower myself and lay down. Every time a judge sees it, they are kind of left in awe,” Kai McDonald said, smiling. 

The Polson senior competes in Humorous Interpretation in Speech and Debate meets, and says it’s good to awe the judge – especially those at the National Speech and Debate Association competition in Des Moines, Iowa, where he’s competing July 16-21.

His HI piece is “Get Your Stupid On” by Bradley Walton. With that piece, McDonald placed third in HI at the Montana State A Speech, Debate, and Drama meet in Columbia Falls on Jan. 26-27. 

“It’s a tough one to win,” McDonald said, since 30 of the state’s best were competing for the three top slots. (Don’t let that humbleness fool you; McDonald won State last year, and went to Nationals then, too.)

PHS Speech Coach Mel Butler describes Kai as “a very strong speaker and such a positive person.”

She teaches Polson Middle School special education and is PMS Special Olympics coach and assistant PHS Special Olympics coach. 

As well as being a strong leader, Butler noted that McDonald is willing to help other kids, including those from other schools. If he thinks of something that might help another student, he tells them, she said. 

Wica-ta-wi Hoksina Brown and McDonald are co-captains of the PHS Speech, Debate and Drama team. Of the dozen team members, many placed at State, Butler noted.  

McDonald has noticed that how a person places at state “is a good indicator of how you would do” competing in the National Speech and Debate Tournament Qualifier, held in Helena Feb. 9-10. At that event, McDonald again earned the opportunity to represent Montana at the National Speech and Debate Association competition in Des Moines.

Asked how national competition differs from Montana state meets, McDonald noted that in Montana “If you don’t have a very specific type of humor or piece about a specific topic you aren’t going to do well.”

 “At nationals I saw pieces that would never fly around here,” he says. “I guess other states have less of a filter than we do.”

“Oh my gosh, some of the pieces – I cannot say on the record ‘cause they're so bad – risque, funny as could be, but oh, my God.”

McDonald takes a different approach – instead of shock, he goes for awe. 

“My whole shtick is slapstick comedy,” he explained. “I’m not the best at being able to do facial expressions or deliver lines in the perfect way. I’m just able to get the physicality into it ‘cause that way, it’s very easy to see the comedy.”

He suspects he’s a natural at physical humor and says his parents, Caroline and Rob McDonald, regard him as a rambunctious kid, who gets his work done and is smart, but absolutely crazy.

By way of explanation, McDonald added, “If someone would get slapped in my piece, I would be able to do a perfect slap on stage, and it would look like it actually hurt. It wouldn't actually hurt.” 

You can tell he’s just aching to do a slapping scene or toss a pie in someone’s face. It’s a talent he put to use in a recent Port Polson Players production of “Bus Stop.” 

He played Bo Decker, a young rodeo cowboy from Montana, who’s crazy in love with Cherie, a nightclub singer. In the play, Bo and the sheriff engage in some fisticuffs. No one got hurt.

When he’s not competing in speech meets, McDonald has classes to keep him busy: Advanced Placement Language, AP Government, AP Calculus, Spanish 3, Physics, and a choir class. He lifts weights at the beginning of the day, and he also runs cross country and is gearing up for track, where he competes in running and pole-vaulting events. 

McDonald’s favorite classes reflect a patchwork of interests, from Engineering Design 1 and 2, where students learn to laser cut wood and metal and other skills, to AP History with Mr. Danley to any art class with Mr. Holmes.

“In Mr. Danley’s class you have to take a lot of notes, and it  helped me grow as a student. I never knew how to study before that, but after that class I learned how to study and what my best study habits are,” McDonald said.

He’s been involved in Speech and Debate since his freshman year, when he competed in Impromptu. Each speaker is given a prompt and a short time to prepare a speech, and McDonald told his speech coach that discipline helped him with AP essays. He explained he planned the essay in two minutes and started writing while the other kids were still planning. 

“It gave me a new perspective on how to approach just anything literary – history, English, science,” he said. “I’m just able to look at things in a new way because I know how I process information and how I transfer it into a performance.” Already accepted by early decision to Dartmouth College, McDonald plans to study psychology with a modification towards theater. In the fall, he’ll take the complex, articulate, smart, funny person he is to New Hampshire for the beginning of a new episode of his life.