Newsies is arguably one of those shows that came into my life just when I needed it. I still blast that cast recording when I’m getting work done or put the filmed version on when I need a pick-me-up. This show just makes you inherently happy, and makes you want to get up and dance—especially if you’re also a dancer, like I am. I was so excited to talk to actor and choreographer Chaz Wolcott, who along with touring in Disney’s Newsies and the live taping of Disney’s Newsies, choreographs and teaches dance regularly. We talk about how he came into the theatre and dance worlds, what performing has done for him on and offstage, and the importance of taking care of yourself mentally and physically.
S: What got you into dance, and what made it stick for you?
C: My parents taught swing dancing, which is actually how they met, so they taught me the basics when I was in diapers. I think everyone spends much of their life looking for something that helps them cope with the world, a coping mechanism that helps explain the universe and make them understand the world around them. For me, I was lucky to find out at a very young age that dancing is the only thing that can really make me feel alive, and help me get through some of life’s tougher twists.
S: How did you get into theatre?
C: A director named Steven Anderson saw me dance at a competition and approached my mom telling her I had to audition for this play he was directing, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. My mom told him I didn’t act and she didn’t think I could do it, but he convinced her to let me audition. At my audition, he told her that I had the part, which was a pretty demanding role with tons of lines. I was only 8 and fell in love with the world of theatre immediately. I felt at home and like I had found the community I wanted to be a part of.
S: How did singing fit into performing for you?
C: Singing was the last of the three disciplines I found a love for, just because it was the last area I started training in. I always advise younger performers to work on the area that scares them the most, because it will always be your Achilles’ heel when trying to book a job, and you don’t want to think “I should’ve trained more!”
S: I got to see you in Newsies both on tour and in the live taping. What do you do to protect your voice?
C: Many of us travel with personal steamers, and use neti-pots when we start to get sick or congested. Touring can add another layer to that because you are constantly in different climates with different allergens, etc. I actually lost my voice and had to miss a few shows when we were in Chicago in winter, mainly because it was so dry and cold, I was dehydrated and not breathing well! It’s a constant worry for touring actors, especially with a show as vocally demanding as Newsies. Also, steer clear of extremely acidic foods (especially late at night), which can cause acid reflux and destroy your voice!
S: How do you make sure you’re performance ready in such a physically demanding show like Newsies?
C: WARMING UP. So many dancers skip over warming up (and cooling down), especially when they are young, but it is essential to train the body and keep your technique in tip-top shape. I have developed a 40-45 minute warm-up for classes I teach, that I do myself to warm myself up before a show. I also learned from touring that you must cross-train with other exercise, dancing, styles, etc. when doing a show for a long time, otherwise your body can be out of whack doing the same choreography every day for 2 years. So, I recommend trying to find classes to take or choreography to work on that would make your body move in a different way than it was on stage every night!
S: What do you want audiences to feel when they walk out of a performance after the
lights come back up?
C: I want them to feel disappointment that the lights came up and it is over! I think theatre, arts, and dance can be the escape many people need in our busy, stressful, dramatic lives. I love providing that to audiences in whatever show I am doing – so I want them to be so invested in the story and the art that they don’t want it to end!
S: What’s it like to be in a show with such a large following?
C: I can’t even put into words what the fans of Newsies mean to me. Some of the sweetest, most supportive people came into my life because of our little show, which I think makes sense because the show is so incredibly inspiring. I love that it has helped people find their voice, their strength, their passion. I love that it has inspired people to pursue careers in the arts. I love that it has opened up a national dialogue about fighting for the little guy. I have connected with so many fans on social media and at the stage doors, received countless gifts and letters and discussed life, careers, paths, plans and everything else you can imagine with these supporters. The Fansie community is a special one, and I love seeing them connect with each other and find their community. Like I said, finding a way to cope with life and its trials and tribulations is so necessary and I think the fansies have found the motivation they need in their own lives from the message of the show. I will say adjusting to having a lot of people following me on social media has been funny at times…remembering that anything posted on the internet will never go away, remembering that we are setting an example and need to use our platform wisely…. these are things I never had to think about before the show. I get a kick out of every time a Fansie shares a screenshot of some old video or something – they save everything!!! I also think it is important to share my personal beliefs and stand up for the values I am passionate about and share that with the fans. I believe they want to know how we feel as human beings, not just see pictures of us with other cast members drinking milkshakes. So, that realization (and the spirit of the show in general) has encouraged me to have a voice and stand up for causes and platforms I am passionate about publicly. I think it is important to fight for something in your life.
S: Do you have any tips for breath support while singing and dancing?
C: Yikes! I think it is something we all work on all the time. I think practice is the best path to success. Many of us practice those things separately when we should be practicing them together to improve stamina and ability. I have actually been thinking a lot about how no one offers a class in NYC where you must do both simultaneously. Hmmm…
S: As a teacher at Broadway Dance Center and a Broadway performer, do you still take
C: I do! As often as I can! I have been teaching a lot at BDC, so I definitely find myself fatigued from dancing in my own classes, but class is so important. I still take my own class as if I am a student, and add to that the pressure of all the students watching you – it helps me stay in shape! But, I do believe taking class from other artists is key to staying artistically open, flexible and smart. The best artists are the 80-year-old actors who still take class multiple times per week. No one is ever perfect, and you can learn something from every single teacher out there.
S: How do you create your choreography? Music first? Steps first? Idea first? Improv?
C: It varies. I usually have to be inspired by the music first, which usually sparks a
story, which I then create the steps to tell that story. As a choreographer, you’re often not afforded the luxury of that order, so many times you MUST choreograph to certain music designated for the show or piece, to tell a specific story. So, one must be flexible and realize that creativity must be able to flow in any order. It’s challenging but also very exciting to try to use the body to tell a story. It sounds simple, but it can be so complex and challenging to convey a message with only the dancing.
S: What have you learned from dance that you wouldn’t have learned from another
activity that can be applied to your daily life?
C: I think dance helps you to “step out of your shell” more than your average career. I get up in front of thousands of people and tell a story with my body. I am not particularly confident, but I have to fake a confidence in that situation. I think the ability to step on to a stage (or even in a class) and put yourself out there builds courage, confidence, self esteem and leadership abilities. In every walk of life, you have to put yourself out there, so training as a dancer helps you get over the “stage fright” side of things like that, and even find enjoyment in those jitters.
S: What does choreographing do for you that dancing others’ choreography does not, and what does dancing others’ work do for you that choreographing does not?
C: I have found such joy in creating choreography. As a dancer, you are not always in tune with the choreography you are performing, even as mightily as you may try. But, being the creator of the choreography you can create whatever accents, rhythm and storytelling devices you want, which is really refreshing! I have actually never felt as nervous as I do when my choreography is being performed, it is oddly exciting. You’d think being on stage would be more terrifying, but somehow sitting in the audience watching my work being performed is even more nerve-wracking. On the other hand, as a dancer, it is liberating to not have to worry about every single thing on stage like a
choreographer does, but just focus on your personal contribution to the piece. It’s that ability to let go and narrowly focus that makes a dance/scene successful – when every artist on stage is narrowly focused on successfully conveying their story, the whole piece sparkles (and the jittery choreographer in the audience smiles)! Right now, I am enjoying an amazing balance of dancing and directing/choreographing and it is so exciting to bounce back and forth and experience the joys in both sides of this art form.
S: How do you switch your perspective from yourself to a character and back over the course of a show?
C: It’s funny – I teach my students a very simple trick I came up with. Obviously, in rehearsals and development of a show, you need much deeper character study and research and exploration, but once the show and character are in your body, I recommend saying one word (in your head) that describes the emotion you should be having in the piece you are about to perform to focus your energy and remind yourself what you are doing, and to put the backstage antics that may have just happened on the back burner of your brain. I think this simple tool can help remind an actor of the exploration they have done on the character and the work they put in to prepare for this scene, and forces them to be in the moment and not take the situation for granted by fooling around or not being in the scene the second they step foot on stage. Of course,
this is something we all aspire to, I am definitely not perfect. But, I think having the goal of telling the story and being in the moment every single time you step on stage is the best goal to have.
S: As a performer, it’s your job to collaborate with others and work as a team. What advice can you give to my students on that?
C: BE NICE. The people who work are the nice people because people want to work with them, they want to collaborate with them, they want to be stuck in rehearsals with them 10 hours per day. I’ve worked with some people all over the nice spectrum, and can honestly say I think being nice is more important than being talented.
S: Do you have any suggestions on how to be a productive member of a team?
C: Listen and be patient. This isn’t war or politics. It’s musical theatre. Enjoy the process. Try something you know isn’t going to work. Stay in your lane! (I have a hard time with that one sometimes. But, it is important to realize that you are one cog in a very large wheel. Even if you are trying to be helpful, you may just be making the situation more difficult.) So, do YOUR job and let others do theirs. Don’t give people notes unless you’re the dance captain or something. Don’t correct other people. Don’t step on toes. Just do your job and try to do it to the best of your abilities EVEN IF someone else’s mistakes makes it harder. Again, be nice. Be patient. Don’t get too caught up in what is “right” – just go with the flow and learn to love rehearsals and changes and notes. Be flexible.
S: How did you develop your teaching style?
C: I attended Oklahoma City University, which offers incredible training in dance pedagogy – the art of teaching dance. I gained a lot of insight and perspective on how to construct dance classes and be encouraging and obtain results from my courses at OCU. But, also through admiration. I, myself, love taking class. I see what makes people respond to every teacher I take with and study it. Figuring out what makes people love someone’s class, style, choreography or show is part of figuring out what style you want to have when teaching, rehearsing, choreographing or directing. I see what I like, what others like and try to tailor my own leadership as a choreographer or teacher to fit what I think works best. I have had the privilege of being a student of some fabulous and inspiring teachers my whole life, so I definitely try to make my teaching style a mixture of all my favorite teachers’ qualities.
S: What’s your most memorable performing experience, either onstage or as an audience member?
C: Filming the Newsies movie was and will always be one of the most exhilarating nights of my entire life. The audience was SO excited and gave us so much encouragement and support. It was so moving. I cried so many times when I came offstage. It was one of those experiences that everyone in the room will never forget.
S: Every week I give my readers and students a challenge and encourage them to try new things. What would you challenge them to do?
C: Stare at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself 10 things you love about yourself. Do it seriously. We spend SO MUCH TIME trying to improve ourselves and fix things about ourselves, and SO MUCH TIME getting told we aren’t good enough, tall enough, smart enough, young enough, skinny enough or whatever enough….but we are ENOUGH. So I think some self-love is a good way to reteach your brain that you are worthy of compliments and love. Look, we are all capable of way more than we are today. We are all capable of way more than we will be tomorrow. But, we are also capable of loving ourselves while working through that process with high aims. It’s okay to be working on improving yourself and your abilities. Secret: you will never be the best at anything. There will always be someone better, so don’t be so hard on yourself because when all those NOs come in, you have to love yourself enough to look in the mirror and say YES. And show up tomorrow for more work. The more you say YES to yourself, the more likely someone will agree with you some day. But you have to say yes to yourself first.
I am so grateful to have been able to interview Chaz. Staying in my lane is certainly something I need to work on, and everything he discussed in terms of dance resonated with me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, once a dancer, ALWAYS a dancer. I can’t wait to give this challenge to my students and see how you all take to it in the comments. I know I look forward to it. When I was dancing, it was always easy to criticize myself in the mirror—that’s why it was there, after, all, to correct yourself. Those thoughts don’t always leave just because you’re not standing in front of the mirror in the studio anymore. I thoroughly enjoyed the positivity that came pouring out of this interview, and I hope you did too!
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef that StageSLP