Student Artist Spotlight: Daniel Brown ’17

Arts  /  by James Wellemeyer '18  /  February 24, 2017

Ollala Duato '18/The Lawrence

Few high school students can say they’ve spoken in front of crowds of thousands.Yet Dan Brown ’17 is no ordinary high school student. Perhaps best known on campus for delivering Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech three weeks ago at school meeting, Brown commenced his career in declamation when he was just eight years old.

With the encouragement of his father who engaged in public speaking in high school and in college, Brown joined the Plainsboro chapter of the New Jersey Orators as a second grader. Every year, the organization hosted “dramatic interpretation tournaments,” Brown said. The first year he competed, Brown earned an Honors medal and then the Excellence medal for the six subsequent years. New Jersey Orators events often drew “crowds of thousands,” Brown said.

Aside from performing through the New Jersey Orators program, Brown has also spoken at large events his father has hosted, at The Hill School this last fall, and in middle school. “So I have some experience,” Brown said jokingly.

What Brown enjoys most about dramatic interpretation is that “you get to interpret [the speech…] in your own style when you get on stage,” he said. “Although you have it prepared and memorized, it’s a different feeling when you’re on stage because you really get to feel it in your own way. You get to add a little bit more emotion than you did prior to getting on stage.” The spontaneity that comes with public speaking “empowers [me] when [I’m] on stage,” Brown said. “I like that empowerment feeling.”

Not only does Brown see public speaking as an empowering exercise, but he also believes it has great importance in today’s society. “[Public speaking] instills in you the confidence to speak in front of big crowds, and that’s where being a leader begins,” he said.

At the same time, addressing a large audience is also what Brown finds most challenging about dramatic interpretation. “You get that twitch in your leg [...] and those tremors,” Brown said. Ever since his first public speech as an eight year-old, “controlling those tremors and the shakings [...has] been the hardest part.”

In addition to managing his nerves onstage, Brown also finds memorization one of the more difficult aspects of dramatic interpretation. Brown has two approaches to memorization. Either he repeats the speech to himself “line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page,” or he works with his dad. “[My dad] says one word, and then, I say it back. We do it for the whole speech; it really helps ingrain it in my mind,” Brown said.

In preparation for a speech, moreover, Brown also focuses on his expression and body language. While there certainly is some improvisation involved, “Most of my gestures [...] and emotions on stage are planned and rehearsed in advance,” Brown said.

But before Brown even thinks of memorization or body language, he first chooses the speech to deliver. “It’s all about the context,” he said when describing how he navigates this process. As for his speech at school meeting, for instance, Brown first attempted to “find something that dealt with Black Lives Matter and police brutality but [...] couldn’t.” Since the School had recently celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, however, Brown realized that a speech from King would also be appropriate for the event, thus leading him to “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

Besides public speaking, Brown engages in the arts at Lawrenceville through a number of other activities, namely the WSLR Radio Show and the Creative Writing Club. In college, Brown hopes to continue public speaking, as he “feel[s] it’s important to impact the souls of the audience [and] touch their hearts.” “I have the power to make one cry, make one reflect, make one angry, make one happy. There’s an art in that,” Brown said.