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A Dancin’ Man: A Conversation with Andy Blankenbeuhler

The first thing I notice as an audience member at any musical is the choreography. Growing up with a dance background, I’d find myself tracking ensemble members that grabbed my attention throughout an entire performance. The show that solidified this practice for me was Fosse. My family didn’t know how much I’d get from that show, but I thought it was magic. During that show, I couldn’t stop watching Andy Blankenbeuhler, who sang my favorite song in the entire show, “Mr. Bojangles.” A few years later, I saw his choreography in the revival of The Apple Tree, which I can still picture. Most recently, Andy Blankenbeuhler has choreographed Hamilton, as well as making his directorial debut in Bandstand, as well as choreographing the piece. His ability to tell stories without uttering a word really struck me. Every time I’ve left a performance he has been a part of, I’ve come away with a new idea about nonverbal communication, and dance as a means of expression has become more prominent in my appreciation of the artform. Getting to speak with a choreographer whose work has had a profound impact on me was a real treat. We discuss choreographing a story, what collaboration can look like as a choreographer, perfectionism in dance, and so much more. Enjoy!

S: Which came first for you, dance or theatre?

A: Dance came first. I started dancing when I was three. I was always pretty good at it but I didn’t really love it until theatre in high school. Much like I am now, I needed a reason to do something. As soon as I had shows to do, I got much more satisfaction out of dancing. I grew up learning a little bit of everything. I got into theatre for the sense of belonging and community. I started performing in my high school in my sophomore year. It made me feel glad that I had a place to do something I was good at. I went to a college prep school, and academics were really important, but once theatre came into the picture, I knew this was what I wanted to do.

S: Your choreography is so distinct, I’d know it anywhere. I can still vividly picture Marc Kudisch slithering onstage as the snake in The Apple Tree revival.

A: I don’t try to make a style out of my choreography. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve found a comfort zone that I like to work in. It revolves around rhythm more than dance vocabulary. It allows my work to look more consistent, but it doesn’t fit with all music.

S: I can see where you’d say rhythm, but your ability to tell a story is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

A: I now can’t start on choreography without knowing the story. The idea of the story has to make sense to me. I’m working on some more dance-y stuff now, but even with that, if I can’t figure out the story, I can’t figure out the step. The story is the most important part, I’m actually glad you noticed that. When I’m working on a new idea, I’m actually thinking about character and plot before I’m thinking dance vocabulary. Steps are usually the last thing I think about when I’m choreographing. I don’t start with the dance vocabulary.

S: That makes so much sense to me.

A: I mean, when we grew up, there wasn’t always a story for the dance we were doing. You danced because there was music. Now I’m focusing on heightening a story and dance is the tool I work with. All of the steps have a purpose in pushing the story forward.

S: How does your contribution to a show fit in with the rest of the team?

A: All collaborations are different. Tommy Kail, who directed Hamilton, had me do a lot of the staging and I came in at the beginning of that process. I got to interpret the ideas physically. Other directors may think the dance just develops separately from the development of the scene. I think it’s important that the story and the dance go together, that’s why I’m directing more now. This way, you almost don’t notice the baton being passed off, and the dance and song get bigger and more heightened in a more organic way.

S: I grew up in a family where technique was valued and artistry came second, and I danced in the reverse order of what they valued.

A: And that caused you to make choices, I’m sure. I was never a really technician, I wasn’t a big jumper or turner, but I loved detail. Detail was where I wanted to be. In a way, it’s more Fosse than Jerome Robbins’, which is interesting to me since he’s my biggest influence.

S: Your choreography tells stories without words. In my line of work, I work with student who are nonverbal or communicate through other means than their voice, and your work is another example of that. What is the most intimate way you’ve found to communicate using movement?

A: There’s a moment in Bandstand where the men are pushing the piano onstage, and the use of the bullet in Hamilton, or the slow motion in 96,000 in In The Heights. The dancing in “Nobody” or “Yorktown” from Hamilton are fun and I’m proud of the artistry and dance vocabulary in there, but these moments are the more special moments to me. They’re ideas that are really moving and reach people. It’s rare when you can make that connection. Anyone can do steps, and make it look fun, but that’s not true for emotion. Those smaller moments are the ones I’ll always remember.

S: What do you do when the steps don’t come as easily as you’d like?

A: They often don’t come easily. There are a lot of choreographers who can make things up in the room, but I have to really chisel them out and work through them ahead of time. I will record myself in my studio and have 80 different ideas for one scene and end up narrowing that down. If the moment is dramaturgically sound, I can come up with four to six ideas for that scene. If not, it’s a lot more challenging to stage that moment. There are times where I’ll use one version in pre-production, even previews, but I will work on a version of my choreography until I’m told to stop. My dancers know that I’m a perfectionist, and I will work up until I’m satisfied with it, which may be the eleventh hour. I have to keep working through the same counts until it works.

S: I think that’s something dancers have built into them—perfectionism. I think we all experience it.

A: Yeah, I think we all are perfectionists. Dancers are used to being told their dancing is wrong. We’re all waiting to be told we’re somehow doing it wrong. We really focus on the negative and it’s always a part of our life. We have a hard time thinking we’re good enough. Why do you think dancers roll up one pant leg when they’re dancing, have you ever thought about that?

S: I did it to show off my stronger side and hide what wasn’t working on my left leg. Is there a different reason?

A: Or they have to actively break the picture so that they can’t be criticized. Something about us presumes we’re going to get it wrong. There’s a battle for us to always get it right and be perfect and cover up what doesn’t work.

S: Most recently, you’ve made your directing debut with Bandstand, which you also choreographed. Are those two jobs different from each other?

A: They’re pretty inseparable now. It’s always story. Everything I have to say, I can put in a song. The story never ends with either. You just have to figure out where the tension of one moment can build to the resolution of the next. As director, I set myself up as a choreographer. My choreography can only be good if I’ve directed the scene well. If the scene isn’t pulling its weight, then the choreography can’t either. I also like being involved from the very beginning, and sometimes choreographers come in last, and you may not feel as valuable. When you start with the show, you can see the organic nature of the transitions between all of the moving pieces.

S: You took on the powerful theme of mental illness with Bandstand, and it was so moving. I saw myself and my students in the showcase of mental illness.

A: Thank you for saying that. I didn’t want to do a story about veterans suffering from PTSD. To me, a lot of people struggle with huge hurdles in their life that scar them. For me, that needed to be synonymous to how people get through life now. I found the storyline of the characters being World War II veterans secondary, and it was more of a lense to see how the characters functioned in this story. I’m passionate about WWII issues and that era, but it means a lot that you say it resonates with you and your students. Often when you do a period piece like Bandstand, people believe you can’t tell a contemporary story. People suffered through some of the same exact things in the forties that are happening now. It can feel like another world in a period musical.

S: This one didn’t. I saw a good portion of my caseload in Jimmy. The pent-up anxiety and his mannerisms really struck me. Unfortunately, a lot of my students are dealing with anxiety on a different scale and for different reasons, but I watched that character and knew who he was and why he was acting the way he was acting.

A: That was a difficult character arch to find. All of the characters had really interesting behaviors. Wayne exhibited some OCD behavior my son shows from time to time. The idea of drilling yourself into a hole to try to escape and you don’t even know you’re doing it—that’s familiar to me.  Exploring these behaviors through balletic moments was so interesting to me. None of these things existed in the script.

S: Honestly, it really added a depth to the show that would not have otherwise been there.

A: And we were extremely proud of it as a cast. It’s hard to do that in any musical, but even more so in a period musical where people have certain expectations about what they think they’re going to see. The cast knew they were telling really important stories, and that made such a difference in the show. And the musical was nothing like this out of town. The show at Paper Mill Playhouse was a lot lighter, but by the time we got to Broadway, we simplified everything and made it about the details, and that’s the show that you and other audiences saw.

 S: How do you choreograph in those spaces, and how do you leave it to work on the more upbeat numbers, or go home at the end of the day?

A: You know, I’m not an unhappy person. I’m pretty happy, but I’m serious. I’m an idealist.  I feel things very deeply, and I’m interested in the realness of thing. I’m not attracted to huge disfunction. I like happy ideal situations. But I’ve learned that there’s a tension that has to exist in order to fully appreciate the idealistic situations. I don’t want to do pieces of art that are fluffy and fun. I want to do the ratcheting tension that lead you to realize that you have something wonderful. I’ve learned as a choreographer that what I’m good at is the tension before the release, which leads back to my dance vocabulary. I don’t do big dream ballets well, I do stress really well. It’s something I understand and something I can physicalize in really interesting ways. For me now, it’s all a decision about how honest the movement can be in a situation

S: Your shows have had a lot of choreography that must really wear on the performer eight shows a week. How do you choreograph sustainably?

A: I take pride in that, but Hamilton is really hard and there’s not breath in that movement. It’s hard for the body to sustain that choreography. Since I spent so much time as a dancer, I feel like I can read if it works for the cast. It has to feel organic and like the character would do what they’re doing. If it feels natural, it’s usually sustainable. If dancers are thrilled by it, they’ll want the challenge. If it’s a chore in rehearsal, it’ll be a chore for the run of the show. I like to keep track of balance, to make sure the choreography is evenly distributed on the dancer’s body.

S: How did you do that with Bring It On, because dance and cheerleading are very different worlds.

A: Bring It On is a very complicated math equation. Everyone in that show was utilizing skills they already had. No one went up in the air that hadn’t been doing it for years. Cheerleaders weren’t being asked to do choreography that wasn’t innate to them. I wasn’t teaching new skills. What I did was rotate people onstage so when vocabulary changed, you weren’t aware that people were moving forward to highlight their own skills. That show took a huge physical toll on everyone and we were really aware of everyone’s health during that show. We had huge health and safety standards for that show.

S: Are your kids into the arts?

A: Yeah. My daughter is a beautiful dancer and my son is getting into theatre and he’s around my work all the time.

S: Dance nerd that I am, I saw your choreography for So You Think You Can Dance with Thayne Jasperson. What was that like, especially now that he’s in Hamilton?

A: I love Thayne. He has so much passion. I wanted to do So You Think You Can Dance, and I got to know him very briefly then. He did pre-production with me for Bring It On. Thayne is so courageous in his movement and feels things so deeply. I love that about a person—they have so much to offer that you can sculpt them into a smaller, more controlled place. And over the last ten years, our journeys have intersected, and we’ve both grown and I love the interconnected ness of it all.

S: Every week I challenge my students to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?

A: A.BlankI didn’t go outside my box as much as I ‘d like to as a kid. I think they need to put themselves out there physically and not care who’s watching, and to do it with other people. Those types of challenges deal with reacting to other people and insecurities, and it helps them to become unafraid of being silly and foolish regardless of the situation.
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This conversation is one of my favorites to date. I can’t thank Andy enough for this conversation and what I’ve taken away from it. Everything he said about how he understands and executes dance really resonated with me. I’m really looking forward to how my students take on his challenge. I don’t know what Andy Blankenbeuhler’s next project is, but I am sure to be one of the first with a ticket to witness another feat in directing and choreography.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

The Human Connection

The Start of Somethin’ New

Hi everyone!
I don’t know about my readers, but I am officially back in school and working with students. This is a big year for me: I’ve changed schools and populations and age groups. Boy, do I have heaps to learn and I am beyond eager to do so. Since I will be learning on my feet this year, some changes will also be happening here.

So what does this mean for this blog? I will continue to share interviews and strategies, but on a schedule of twice per month, instead of weekly. It means I’ll have new insights into new populations to inform my posts, including new topics and revisiting topics through a new perspective.

I may also be adding more about taking time for self care. It’s something I’m personally experimenting with and encouraging my colleagues and students to do the same. If that’s something you’re into and want to see here, let me know and I’ll happily share.

My challenge for my readers and students this week is to pick something new to learn or try. You never know what you’ll learn about yourself until you step into something new, and what better time than the start of the school year?

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP

Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

Reindeers Are Better Than People: A Conversation with Andrew Pirozzi

There are many people who believe that working on Broadway is easy. They believe you perform one or two shows a day, that the rest of the day is free, and that it’s an easy career in relation to whatever it is they do. This has never been my mindset. I am always in awe of what it takes to pull off an eight-show week, especially in a musical. These are physically demanding feats of stamina, and no one showcases this better than Andrew Pirozzi, currently playing Sven in Disney’s Frozen. I had first seen him in the tour of Movin’ Out, and in various television appearances. In my endeavors to explain to my students that theatre is athletic, no one embodies this more. We talked about the differences between performing on stage and screen, what it’s like to become a puppeteer, and what it’s like to be a part of the theatre community.

Stef: Which came first for you, dance or theatre?

Andrew: Dance came first. I was four, I was the only boy, and it took about twenty minutes until I was enjoying myself. My parents were really good about fostering whatever it was I wanted to do. I played soccer, football, piano, French horn, you name it. I was dancing in multiple studios, doing the musical in school, and on the football team. My mom let me do anything and everything to get my energy out as a kid, and everything I was able to do was because of her.

S: I saw you in Movin’ Out on tour. What’s the difference for you in how you prepare to perform while also changing cities on a regular basis?

A: The hardest thing is the recovery time. You’d finish a show late at night, have to turn off the adrenaline, get up early to travel the next day, and be in one position for three to six hours on a bus. That was a really dance-heavy show, and every break we got we stretched. The most important thing about live theatre is keeping the integrity of the show, which can be challenging on the road.

S: Everything I’ve seen you in has required a heavily physical performance on your part. How do you take care of yourself to perform eight shows a week?

A: I don’t know why, but for some reason, physicality has kind of been my language. I will cross-train all of the major muscle groups. Outside of that, I will do yoga and Pilates and meditation work. And nutrition is huge for me, too. I balance everything.

S: My students and I want to thank you for helping to being more musicals to more people through Peter Pan Live. What’s the biggest difference between performing a musical onstage versus in front of a camera?

A: Repetition. When you perform in film, you have to be rehearsed to a point where you feel comfortable, but you have to be flexible enough to change your positioning to adjust for the cameras. You still have to respond and be present. For theatre, the difference is repetition over a span of time. You rehearse and refine something so specifically so it can be performed eight shows a week. In film, you create the moment in a day, generally. In theatre, that moment gets created every day, and it has to stay fresh. They are two different muscles. I’ve always been able to audition and do theatre-based jobs, but the energy for television is different. The needs for production are different.

S: That makes sense, since television has to turn its product out faster.

A: And in theatre, you get longer to turn out work so it’s more sustainable.

S: You’re also a choreographer. For you, what does performing do that choreographing doesn’t, and what does choreography do for you that performing doesn’t?

A: As a choreographer, choreographing is exploring and creating and telling a story. Whatever the intention of the outcome is, it’s getting to create. Dancing is euphoric in that no matter what you’re dancing, you will feel that joy just from finding your groove.

S: You’re currently playing Sven in Frozen on Broadway and, having just seen the show last March, you are a joy to watch. Now that you get to add puppeteer to your list of credits, what was it like to learn that skill?

A: First of all, Michael Curry needs to receive credit for designing this puppet. He’s brilliant—he builds everything in his shop in Oregon. The entire costume was custom-made to fit me. Michael was the one who figured out how to make it work, proportions, everything, by himself before I even got to try it out.

Half of learning the puppeteering was learning the mechanics. How does this costume work with my body? When I move my head, how much am I moving? How much do I need to move? A lot of it was exploring. The second half of that was me, as an actor, figuring out how reindeers react, eat, sleep, and move. I took all of my research on that and then studied my dog and how she interacts with people and coupled that together and that’s how I’ve created Sven. At first, this was just a fun challenge, and now it occurs to me that I’m actually a puppeteer.

Actually, I was reading another post of yours about nonverbal communication. I don’t speak throughout the entire show, and I think that’s what makes Sven powerful. I realized in Denver that I could control where people were looking onstage. I didn’t know what it looked like for so long. Once I saw what the effect of the puppet was onstage, I was able to help guide the story even more. I feel really connected to the little kids who are trying to figure me out. It is so much fun to be a part of that magic. I will say though, it’s kids between five and ten who have a really good idea on how Sven operates.

S: You and Olaf dictate where the audience is watching. It doesn’t matter who else is onstage. We had a great time that night.

A: Thank you.

S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do? Recent challenges have included having a technology free weekend, getting together with friends and creating something.

A: I love challenging people to get outside of what is familiar with them. I would challenge them to be still and find comfort in stillness and breath. Whenever I’m training or doing a role, I always say control your breath, control your body. If you can control your breath, you won’t feel awkward. You’ll feel focused through those two things. I think this keeps you authentic as a performer and as a person.
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I had so much fun with this conversation. Andrew was able to truly get across the physicality of this job to my students. He shared a truly unique perspective with my students and I that no one else would be able to share and encouraged more discussion among my students about what it takes to put on a show. My students struggled a bit with this challenge, but once they became more comfortable, found they really enjoyed the sense of calm that accompanied stillness.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

 

 

Broadway · Summer Speech · The Human Connection

Summertime: Summer Speech to Keep You Cool

August is a month that manages to move both quickly and slowly. As I start to think about what I need to do for the upcoming year, I’ve put together some activities that are especially fitting for the season. We’re going to use imaginative play and conversation skills to keep us cool and get ready for school. All of these are Broadway themed, because that made the activities more fun to create.

Vanilla Ice Cream Shop

This activity can be used for direction following, requesting, sequencing, or conversational skills. Make up a menu for an ice cream shop, or any store of your choosing. Go all out with markers and paper–make it as fancy or relaxed as you’d like. Make sure you greet your customer and politely ask them what they’d like. Feel free to make suggestions, or add commentary like “That sounds great!” or “What else would you like with that?” This activity also encourages appropriate conclusions to interactions with others.

Happiness is Metaphors

This activity has a focus on metaphors, but can be used with any figurative language. Make a list or poem about what is making you happy this summer using similes, metaphors, hyperbole, puns, or figurative language. Share your thoughts as a family and this creates not only a challenge for creativity but allows for a walk down memory lane for the summer. Speaking of which….

Memory Retelling

We all remember having to talk about our summer vacation on the first day of school. Why not make it a summer exercise. Do it as a family. Don’t limit it to this summer, go back as far as you want. Add details, use your five senses, compare and contrast your memory of the vent with a family member.

My Favorite Things School Year Anticipation Activity

Let’s look forward to the school year. Talk about what you’re most looking forward to. Make a list. Compare it to what you thought you’d enjoy from the year before. This targets grammatical structures and utterance length

Under The Sea Categorizing

Choose your favorite categories–movies, activities, foods, shows you’ve seen and see how many items you can name under that category. This can teach synonyms and antonyms implicitly, as well as comparing and contrasting.

I challenge you to come up with your own Broadway themed speech and language activities to keep you cool this summer.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

Interview · The Human Connection · Wise Words

You’ve Got to Be Loud: A Conversation with Lesli Margherita

It is no secret that I am a “quote” person. As someone who works with language, I am always seeking words that fit my current situation, whatever it may be. And when I don’t have the words I want, I’m very honest about it with my students. I’m not afraid of “I don’t know.” I’m not of the mindset that the adult in the room has to have all the answers, or that the adult has to act like an adult. If I’m not being as silly as my students, I must be having an off day. When I discovered Lesli Margherita on Twitter through her performance in Matilda on Broadway, my immediate thought was, “Oh! She gets it! It’s okay to be human, and positive, and to own who you are.” I immediately took her messages of being yourself and ruling your kingdom straight to the speech room. Over the years, my students have designed their own kingdoms, discovered what makes them unique, and learned about themselves. When I started this blog, I knew I had to talk to Queen Lesli, if only to thank her for all she has done for my many students over the years, and for myself. We talk about embracing who you are, performing, and what collaboration looks like for her.
Stef the StageSLP: How did you get into performing?

Lesli Margherita: I started dance when I was about 4. My Mom was a dancer, and I was so hyper the doctor thought it would be good for me to expend some energy. Dance was always my first love, and my ballet teacher was choreographing a production of Oliver, an asked me to audition not knowing if I sang or not. I didn’t either. I sang “Happy Birthday,” and was already a belter, ha.

S: You gave me life-changing advice by answering my question on your first episode of Theater People with Patrick Hinds. I am now the Supreme Ruler of my Speech Room. Frequently my students change their personalities to fit in with others, thinking that they’re too much. How did you come to adopt the position of being yourself?

L: It’s taken a really long time to accept who I am. I think that’s the case with most people. I have always acted like I was okay with who I was, even before I believed it- which I honestly think helped. Fake it ‘til you make it. It didn’t take until I was much older, and not caring so much to believe it. In my business, I’m constantly judged, so I had to learn to accept myself in order to be able to move forward with anything.

S: What inspired you to write Blu!? I’ve used that story so many times in my speech lessons.

L: I have always been interested in the underdog stories, the comebacks. I came across an article (I’m a proud nerd) about rare blue lobsters. It just clicked. I thought, “People think a blue lobster is odd, but it’s COOL”.

S: Congratulations on all three of your TV series. What have you learned from acting on both TV and stage that you can apply to your daily life?

L: To not be self-conscious. Especially in tv. The camera picks up everything, so I have to put it all out there, because if I don’t, the performance doesn’t ring true.

S: Many of my students and I got to see you in Matilda. As a former dancer and a current speech pathologist, I’m curious about how you took care of your voice and body for such a vocally and physically demanding role? 

L: That was a tough one. Loud remains the most difficult number I’ve ever had to do, stamina wise. I had to figure it out vocally first, really working on how to hit those crazy notes without hurting myself. It went for Mrs. Wormwood’s speaking voice as well. I had to learn how to do it without strain. After that, it went out the window once we learned the choreography, because I was just gasping for air. Our speech team had us get our stamina up, then went back to figure out how to support when I needed it. Off stage, I had to continue to do cardio and of course rest when I could. I was always tired!

S: Based on your social media presence, you seem to find the comedic timing in every situation. Did you always have that skill, and how would you encourage my students to do the same?

L: One of my favorite actresses Carrie Fisher always said “find the funny”. You have to. The alternative is awful. I always did, even as a kid. You have to laugh- so I guess it just comes from seeing the light side in every situation.

S: Collaboration is a school-wide goal where I work. As someone who is always collaborating with the community that comes together to form a theatrical piece, television show, or cabaret act, what would you recommend my students do to become effective collaborators?

L: I have had the same group of friends as my collaborators for 15 years. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. I think you have to remain open to everything, and really listen to other people’s suggestions, even if you think you don’t like them. You never know, just remain open.

S: How much of your characters are written on the page, and how much of your characters come from your own personality? How do you strike a balance between the material and yourself?

L: Part of me is in every character, but part of the fun is becoming someone else. I have to go from the page, that is the most important. I also never look at how someone else played a character before. It’s not important. That’s what makes a character mine.

S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?

L: I don’t like change. It’s my downfall. I have to challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone every day. The only way I can do that is to say “why not?” If someone else doesn’t like you, or what you are saying- they aren’t your people. Also, who cares? I think it’s more about not caring so much about others opinions of you. Your opinion of yourself is the most important.
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As much as I love words, and however many I claim to know, I will never have enough to thank Lesli Margherita for everything she has shared with me. Be it through this interview, any of her performances, or this post she shared that I totally taped inside of a notebook in my speech room, I always learn so much from her. While editing, I listened to her solo album Rule Your Kingdom, because I am the Supreme Ruler of My Speech Room. My students are already familiar with the power of the word, “yet.” I can’t wait to see what they do with the phrase, “why not?” Even more, I’m looking forward to seeing what that phrase does for my readers and even myself. If you need more Lesli Margherita in your life, you can find her @QueenLesli across social media platforms.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

 

Inclusion · Summer Speech · The Human Connection

Those Kids Will Live and Breathe Right On The Page: Shows to Empower

I have always believed that shows of any kind, and art of any kind, can teach us anything. There are a few shows I believe came into my life when I needed the messages they provided. Since I believe summer is a great time to experience theatre (any time is a great time to experience theatre), but I find myself looking for motivation during the summer. I have compiled a list of musicals I believe all children and adults should see to empower themselves and expand their perspectives.

  • Newsies
    Newsies is one of the most empowering shows I’ve seen. It boasts about the power that the next generation has. That children have a right to be heard and we, as adults, should listen. When i saw this show in 2012, I left the theatre filled with such hope and believing that I could accomplish anything. All people should know this feeling.
  • Seussical
    Is there a show that better showcases the power of imagination? This work shows a diverse cast of characters and personalities, and allows its audience to experience the perspectives of others and a good deal of empathy as well. The lessons taught throughout this musical are important for those of all ages.
  • Wicked
    This is the first musical that taught me there is room enough for everyone. There is not a negative to being your own person. Each of us is unique, and our abilities should be celebrated, not dismissed. As a bit of an outsider myself, I loved how Elphaba learned to embrace her talents and her own identity,as did others. This is something I believe every child should learn.
  • Hairspray
    Inclusion is what we all want for our children, regardless of circumstance. We want all students to be equal in all aspects of life, and what better musical to teach such a lesson? It’s also a fantastic showing of self-confidence on the part of Tracy.
  • The Secret Garden
    This show is brilliant at sharing the message of bringing light where there is darkness. As I have my own work on choosing to be positive in tough situations, this show exemplifies how this can be done at any age and under any circumstance. It also shows the value of relationships across age and familial attachment, as well as a family unit working together to improve their situation.
  • Frozen
    The family first message in this production can’t be beat. The love between the sisters is palpable, and the strength of friendships, long-lasting or newly formed, is one of the most valuable supports we have.

My challenge to you this week is to look for ways to empower yoursel or your children. This can be through the arts, as a family, an activity of your choosing. Just take a moment to appreciate how strong you are. Let me know how you choose to do so in comments!

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

Interview · The Human Connection

Children and Art: A Conversation with Liz Schwarzwalder and Mindy Swidler of Petite Seat

I attended my first live theatrical performance at the age of three. I saw a touring production of Grease with my mother. The minute those lights went down and the show began, I sat on the edge of my booster seat, completely captivated by what I was experiencing, for the entire performance. How my mother determined whether or not this would be a successful venture for me at such a young age, I don’t know. She has since admitted that she didn’t want to miss the production herself. She had raised me on movie musicals and put me in dance classes and figured I’d enjoy it, and whatever I didn’t understand would go right over my head. She was right. I saw singing and dancing onstage and knew I didn’t want this show to end. To this day, I find it pretty brave that she took me at such a young age to attend to a full-length musical without knowing how her toddler would tolerate it.

It is for this reason I appreciate Petite Seat, a resource founded by two forward-thinking moms, that provides parents with key tips and info on taking their families to theatre and live performances. Liz Schwarzwalder and Mindy Swidler share age recommendations, scheduling tips, venue details such as stroller parking, and relevant show content notes that are so helpful when taking children to a live performance. When I learned about what these two women had created, I thought of how helpful my own mother would have found this information and had to reach out. We had a great conversation about the importance of taking children to live theatre, what this unique service offers, and so much more.

Stef: What got each of you interested in theatre?

Liz: As a kid I always loved theatre as a form of entertainment. Early on, I knew I wanted to be an important part of the show but performing wasn’t for me. I started doing stage management in high school and college, and that lead me to the business side of theatre, which I’ve been involved in from then on.

Mindy: My parents were really great about taking me to see live theatre, and those are some of my favorite childhood memories. My whole family would become obsessed with the cast recording from whatever we’d most recently seen. None of us were very musically inclined either, but I’ve always been a fan.

S: I get it. My way in was a combination of dance and my mother not wanting to give up something she loved, so she worked from the mindset of, “Whatever the kids understand in the show, they understand, and what they don’t won’t matter.”

L: What was it that stuck out for you as a kid from these experiences?

S: The story stuck out for me. If I had questions about what I saw, they got answered. Nothing really occurred to me as “for kids” or “not for kids.” Storylines were always what I connected to most.
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Most shows do age-gate their shows now with a recommended age for the youngest audience member. What made you want to expand on this?

L: One of the early thoughts and realizations we had was that we had to take the age recommendation a step further. Say the age recommendation is six. No two kids are the same, and my six-year-old may react differently from other six-year-olds, so we looked at why the recommendation was set. Is it scary and loud? Is it the content? Is it just a longer show? And that’s a reaction that’s different for every kid, too.

M: Liz and I met at a Broadway Babies class with our daughters and we started talking about our theatre interests and how important we thought it was to expose kids at a young age. We started to notice questions about family theatre on the mom boards we were involved in, and we realized we actually had a lot of the answers and frequently responded to these questions individually. We had the opportunity to demystify and take the stress out of live performances for families and bring all of the information together:  ticketing information, stroller accommodations, run time, why the age recommendations were set, and so on. Our social media channels expand on our experiences, and our website is a more structured version of this.

S: I remember my brother thinking the set in Wicked was scary, I see your point.

L: I recently revisited that show. It can be scary for kids!

S: Are your children involved in theatre in any capacity?

L: As our dates to the shows! My children love seeing all types of live performances. I think my six-year-old son has an equal appreciation for a Broadway show as he does for a puppet show in the park

M: We haven’t done a Broadway show yet with my three-year-old daughter, but she loves everything else we’ve seen.

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S: How is using your site with the insight you provide different from other sources (ticketing websites, concierge, etc.)?

M: We bring our own experiences to light to help families out. We make it a point to tour the venues when we can and go through the logistics of buying tickets, selecting seating and so on. It’s all about managing the expectation so parents can be prepared to have the best experience possible.

S: That would’ve helped my mom with many Barney Live and Disney on Ice performances.

L: Yes, that’s why we don’t limit what we do to theatre. We do the arena and live shows, too. Knowing logistics about how early to arrive and how those shows operate can be very different from other experiences. Having that information ahead of time helps in the planning for the event.

S: Why do you think it’s important for children to see live theatre?

M: Exposing kids at a young age can establish an interest in the arts. The more positive the experience, the better, and that’s what we’re trying to create. And of course, there’s a family bonding aspect to it as well. It allows for some amazing dialogue, especially with the younger ones. There’s just nothing like sitting in a live performance and experiencing a show. You’re connected to the moment, and that’s an invaluable lesson for kids to learn these days.

S: What is your most memorable experience with a show?

L:  For me, it was the final performance of Beauty and The Beast on Broadway. I was working for Disney at the time the show closed, and it was one of those moments I’ll never forget. It’s the most amount of energy I’d felt between the cast and audience I’ve ever experienced before or since.

M: I had just moved to New York and my friend and I went to see Movin’ Out.  I felt so connected to the stage, and it was mesmerizing. It’s very different from most theatrical experiences, and it was the moment I realized that I’d get to be involved in theatre as long as I’m here and as long as I wanted to be.

S: What is your most memorable experience with a show with your children?

M: This past fall I took her to see The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It was more traditional, stadium seating, and it was done through puppets. The lights dimmed and I watched her, not the stage. I had tears watching her experience a book she knew come to life on stage. To her, it was magical. She was very respectful and thanked us for taking her to the show. I knew I was creating a memory for her and that was something we’d be able to share forever.

S: What should people know about your site that they may not already know?

L: We have four ways to stay in touch with us. Our website is one, and we update it regularly. Our Instagram and Facebook accounts, @petiteseat, are where we communicate daily with our audience. And we are also more than happy to put together personalized ideas for families thinking about seeing a show, by email, at info@petiteseat.com.
S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. This can be anything from writing a play to making a new friend to putting technology away for a day. What would you challenge them to do?

M: Relative to theatre: pick a show outside of your usual taste. When I think about my favorite nights and experiences, they’re plays, which is not usually my cup of tea. It’s important to remember that you can see the work you love, but it can be the stuff outside of your comfort zone that’s the most thought-provoking.
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I had the best time talking with Liz and Mindy. This is one of the smartest services I’ve ever heard of and have been recommending it to the families I work with. Now that it’s summer and school is out, I can’t think of a better way to spend a day than at the theatre. If you’re trying to decide on what to see, please utilize this resource. You can follow Liz and Mindy on Instagram at @Petiteseat, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PetiteSeat/  their website petiteseat.com, or email them directly at info@petiteseat.com. I personally feel that they give the most objective perspective and think about a million things that wouldn’t occur to me independently.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP