The Human Connection · Interview · Broadway

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.

petite seat logo

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

 

Summer Speech

Retreating and Reading Every Treatise on the Shelf: Summer Reading

Summer reading can be a double-edged sword. Kids want to take a break from anything resemble academics (I get it), but I believe books are the fastest adn cheapest vacations we’ll ever have. Nothing can transport you faster into another life or another world entirely. Though this list isn’t extensive, I thought I’d share some of my favorite reads this year that relate to theatre.

  • Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini
    In my eager anticipation of the new production of the musical Be More Chill, I decided to get myself acquainted with its source material. As an avid bookworm, I thought this was a great read. As an educator, I think it gives interesting insights into the life of a high school student. It can be easy to forget how big and important everything feels in that stage of life, and I appreciated the reminder. It gave me a new perspective with which to approach my students. It’s very witty and well-written, and provides proof that what’s on the mind of the next generation is important and valid.
  • Drama High: The Incredible Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater by Michael Sokolove
    If you watched Rise last season, I would strongly encourage you to read this book. It provided the foundation for the television series, and an in-depth insight into the high school drama teacher behind it all. I had never wished to be in a class as much as I had wanted to be in Mr. Volpe’s classes. He may be one of the most passionate teachers I’ve ever read about, and he was completely committed to his students. We are given the very unique perspective of hearing about this teacher from his students at the time this book is being written, and from his former student, author Michael Sokolove. If you really want to know why arts education is important in our schools, read this book.
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany
    This was a re-read for me. Like anyone else, I can’t get tickets to this show, so for now it is living in my mind as I read it myself. If you’re ready to return to Hogwarts, I encourage you to find your way back through Tiffany’s work #KeepTheSecrets
  • Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning by Leslie Odom Jr.
    I don’t have the adequate vocabulary to express how much I enjoyed this book. I believe it should be required reading for all ages. This book has the perfect balance of validating the dream, the failure, the work, and the lessons learned. I’ve applied some of it’s messages to my elementary students, but that’s the beauty of this book. It’s applicable to all ages, areas of interest, careers, and phases of life.
  • Better Nate Than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle
    Another re-read for me! I love these books, and so do my students 11 and older. When I told them the next book in the series would be out in September, we all got excited about a summer re-read! Nate is a thirteen year old Broadway fanatic from Jankburg, Pennsylvania. His knowledge of Broadway flops never cease to amaze me. He and his best friend Libby devise a plan for Nate to attend an upcoming audition for a Broadway show. What happens next? Read the books to find out, you’ll enjoy every minute! This series has lent itself to a variety of speech room lessons, which leads me to my next summer read….
  • Life is Like a Musical: How to Live, Love, and Lead Like a Star by Tim Federle
    Oh, look! Tim Federle has two (technically three?) appearances on this list. This book was not only hysterical and one of my favorite reads this year, but it is a personal favorite overall. This book has resulted in both aha! moments and “we’ve all been there” moments, as told through theatre anecdotes from the author himself. In addition to author, Federle’s credentials include co-writing the animated feature Ferdinand, co-writing the Broadway musical adaptation of Tuck Everlasting, and has performed on Broadway in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Little Mermaid, and Billy Elliot: The Musical.

My challenge to you is to read something that resonates with you. Pick books you think you’ll enjoy, or books you never thought you’d read. Take the time to really understand the perspective of the author, subject, or main character. They are serving the story’s purpose for you to learn something new about the topic and yourself.

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

Broadway · Inclusion · Interview · Performances · The Human Connection

It’s A Bit Of A Dance: A Conversation with Stephanie Klemons

Recently, I’ve found myself wondering what goes into production roles I only know by title, especially those involved in dance. They’ve always seemed very involved, but I never quite understood what these jobs entailed. This was never clearer to me than when a former student asked me about them, and I surprised myself by not having an answer. This was the point where I decided I needed to talk to someone who knew this job firsthand. I have been following Stephanie Klemons’ career for about ten years now, and her work as a dance captain and associate choreographer has never ceased to amaze me. She and I spoke right after she made her directorial debut with In The Heights at The Kennedy Center. This woman is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever spoken with. When we began our conversation, my first question was not “How are you,” but “Where are you?” We discuss her many responsibilities, the difference between commercial work and theatre, and Katie’s Art Project.

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

Stephanie Klemons: Definitely dance. Theatre came into my life a lot later. I’ve always loved theatre. I saw Cats as a kid and I wanted to do be on Broadway. But dance was my passion. I’ve always been passionate about it. In high school, someone said I had a pretty nice voice, and that I should start taking voice lessons if I wanted to be in musical theatre. I double majored in college in dance in Genetics and Microbio Research and Dance, so I didn’t have a lot of time for singing.

S: Those are two very different majors, at least in title.

S: Yeah, they’re not as different as you’d think. The same part of my brain that problem solves my way through cancer research, that has to figure out a solution to a problem is the same way I look at solving problems and making decisions in the theatre. And for me, the same way I memorized organic chemistry is the same way I memorized things in theatre. Memory is memory. It’s definitely its own skill. I’ve always thought they were similar, the big difference was the people I was around. The way I had to communicate to scientists versus dancers—that’s how I honed my communication skills.

S: What is Katie’s Art Project?

S: Katie’s Art Project does a lot. Its objective is to connect professional working artists with children with life-threatening illnesses to create a lasting legacy through art. We’ve found that creating partnerships with specific hospitals has been the best route to take, three in New York and one in Chicago, currently. We pair children in those hospitals with artists. We’ve been taking on one project at a time and working with everyone’s schedules to put the project together. I saw a niche for this, and so I created it. There are music therapists who come in and work with the kids and Make-A-Wish can connect kids with their favorite artists, but I didn’t see anything like creatives coming in and creating music with these kids. It’s all about the process, and recording a song is just the icing on the cake.

S: How can I spread awareness of Katie’s Art Project?

Personal connections always help. We have an event on July 23rd called The Art Project, which is a pop-up gallery of both visual and performance art. All of the proceeds go to Katie’s Art Project. Last year, we were able to release our single, “Home” because of it. We’re hoping to make it even bigger this year.

S: You recently finished a production of In The Heights at Kennedy Center that you both directed and choreographed. What was that experience like for you?

S: We were originally supposed to go on earlier in the season, but I had the Philip company of Hamilton opening, so I moved us to the second spot in the series at Kennedy Center so I could be there for tech and opening. As a result of our schedule change, we started rehearsing on the ten-year anniversary of In The Heights, which got us a lot of attention, as did Tommy Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbeuhler stopping by. As it happened, we were there during March For Our Lives, and we got to lend our voice to that cause. In present times, doing a show like Heights was really important to me.

S: Since the creative team for the original production of this show was mostly male, what did you bring to your production as a woman?

S: Interestingly enough, that team was more female than Hamilton, because of Quiara Hudes. I don’t feel that Heights was quite so male because of her influence. She spoke to such nurturing themes, and Lin is the best at collaborating, and it just worked so well.  As a woman people respond differently to my reactions than they do to the guys.

S: You started in performing, what does performing do for you that choreographing doesn’t, and what does choreography do for you that performing does not?

S: Performing was my first love. Last summer I did In The Heights in Pittsburgh. I was missing that side of my life, and it was so fulfilling. It allowed me to say, “Hey, I can still do this.” Now that I’ve directed and choreographed a show, I really love it. I love setting a show and knowing that together I helped people achieve their best. I’ve been teaching for so long that it really makes sense to me now.

S: The amount of mental and physical energy that goes into being the associate choreographer for Hamilton is superhuman. With the amount of travel involved, how do you keep yourself grounded, and protect both your body and voice so you can do this job?

S: I have an unbelievable support system, and I don’t take that for granted. I make a point of taking care of myself, like going to the gym or the beach or taking walks. One of the stage managers in the Chicago company of Hamilton said I was pretty solid in my self-care. This was not the case when I started in Hamilton. When I eased up on myself, so did everyone around me. You have to realize you set a standard for everyone else around you, and you don’t want to set that bar impossibly high that even you cannot keep up.

S: It took me halfway into my first year in the schools to realize the same thing. I can’t hold my kids to as high a standard as I hold myself.

S: Yeah, the way you teach and where you teach from matters. If I teach from a place of excitement, the actors are usually excited. If I teach from a place of fear, they may be more apprehensive about what I’m asking them to do.

S: What is a dance captain and its responsibilities? What is an associate choreographer and its responsibilities?

S: Dance captain is hired on a performance contract, like all the other actors in the show. They can be a swing, they can be ensemble members. Most of the time, dance captains are off-stage swings because of the job requirement of giving notes. That’s easier to do when you’re not onstage. You also run auditions, and they perform. They’re magical people in this business who can deal with a lot of projects as once. It’s a lot of responsibility.

S: That’s super human.

S: It is super human. And people outside of this business don’t acknowledge it as much as it should be acknowledged. Associate choreographer is a little different. With Andy Blankenbeuhler, it can be him asking me to choreograph a few counts of eight after giving me a concept, or I’ll help him conceive the idea of a piece. When we’re setting the show, that’s when the associate choreographer teaches the entire show. They hire the dance captains and teach them how to give notes and when.

S: What are the different factors you consider when creating work for commercials than when you create for the stage?

S: It’s so different. For Hamilton, we talked about the workshop for a few years, then we did the workshop, more time passed and then we did the off-Broadway run, and later transferred to Broadway. Theatre takes years. Commercial world, the director, writer, or ad agency come up with an idea and what the story is for the commercial. By the time I’m brought on, it’s a few days of work, but is actually a lot easier for me. They don’t mess around with time in commercial work. Creating Hamilton took years. Creating the Eli Manning Super Bowl commercial took a few days. I knew what that needed to look like, I knew what the day looked like and I set myself up for success in our shooting schedule.

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

S: I think that there’s no substitute for hard work, but I think that people forget this. The world needs people to be engaged, and that requires you to be engaged in life for the majority of the time. I think we reward too easily, and that kids should do something to get the satisfaction of hard work. Unplug and make sure you’re aware of the world around you outside of social media.
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This was such a fun and informative conversation, and I can’t thank Stephanie Klemons enough for her time. To learn more about Katie’s Art Project, please check out their website. It’s a wonderful organization that I really believe in. I really value her challenge and will be taking it on along with my students. There’s no better time to take on such a challenge.

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