Better Speech and Hearing Month · Inclusion · Interview

I’m Gonna Spend My Time This Way: A Conversation With Nick Blaemire

Collaboration is a universal key to success. This is a necessary skill for people of all ages. Whether you’re in work or school, completing a group project, putting on a play, or working with colleagues, you need to be able to successfully communicate and listen to the needs of each person contributing. This can be a challenge for many, including myself and my students, across a variety of settings. I recently had the opportunity to interview one of the most collaborative and creative personalities I’ve ever seen. Nick Blaemire has done so much–singing, writing, directing, acting–all the things my students want to do. Most recently, he starred in the Off-Broadway production of Tick, Tick…Boom! and The SpongeBob Musical, and released his album Ampersand this past February. We got into how the arts shape you as a kid and as an adult, how all of these mediums impact one’s daily life, and collaborating with others. Enjoy!

StageSLP: Which came first for you, music or theatre?

Nick: Theatre, definitely. I didn’t really find my way into music until i was 13 or 14.

S: What got you into theatre?

N: My parents, at first. They started me in theater classes when I was 3. But it meant everything to me. I was a sponge for it — the way I could disappear in telling a story, and disappear in the same way when I was watching one. Later, as I learned more about it, I learned how much life affirming energy existed there — and how the stories I was telling or watching were deepening my understanding of what it means to be a human.

S: What got you into singing?

N: My parents, again, loved musicals, and played them in the house when I was growing up. I remember around 11 or 12 wanting to be the Phantom of the Opera, because he was the cross-section of my two favorite things (and still two of my favorite things): musicals and comic books. But I didn’t really learn how to sing until I was a teenager, and didn’t learn how to sing well until my late teens. It takes a while for your voice, and your sense of style, to develop.

S: How do you overcome anxiety when you audition for or go onstage for a show every night?

N: It is still a battle, every time. When it comes to doing a show onstage, it gets easier because you have so many chances at it. But auditions are a constant challenge to see if I can get out of my own way and enjoy the act of playing someone else. I do a lot of stretching and breathing calmly, listening to pump up music beforehand, or a podcast if I need the opposite energy, and just trying to remember to keep my feet on the ground and focus on the character I’m talking or singing to. I keep in mind that the opinions of the people watching aren’t more important than the chance to really lose myself for a few minutes, or in the case of a show, a few hours. It’s a gift.

S: Were you involved in theatre in school or other activities?

N: I played baseball and football in high school, but I migrated full time to theater by the time I was a senior. I found I was getting my team mentalities from being in a cast, and the collaborative nature of theater suited me more than the almost military mentality that sports can have.

S: Did you have to keep your friends and your theatre friends separate?

N: No way! If they’re real friends, they don’t care what you do.

S: Did you ever feel like you didn’t fit in for any reason? How did you find your way into making friends?

N: Always. I still do, even though I really have found a community here in New York. But the reason I transferred schools between middle and high school was because I was getting made fun of so much in middle school. I just didn’t know how to be “cool,” and I’m still not exactly sure what that is. What I have gotten better at is being myself, and when I started being honest with myself about the way I wanted to spend time, friends just kind of showed off. I think I was giving off a more comfortable energy.

S: How do you go in and out of a character’s mindset?

N: It’s kind of an invisible portal, because when I’m onstage I feel like I’m half myself and half somebody else. I’m the pilot in the cockpit of the plane, navigating the machine of me in a technical sense, and then I’m trying my best to believe the lines that I’ve been hired to say emotionally. So it’s a balance — but when I’m onstage I’m not thinking about the rest of my life, the things I have to do when I get offstage, the people in my life, the outside world, unless it’s useful to telling the story. So in that way I really do leave my life for those couple hours. Then I get offstage, and by the time I’m in my dressing room and I check my phone, I’m back.

 

S: You’ve also been on the creative side of a musical. What did you learn from that experience?

N: So much. It’s taught me about how hard it is to make one of these things. From the production side, to the promotional side, to the side I love most, which is just telling a clear and compelling story. So many details, so many personalities and so many potential pitfalls must be navigated. But nothing feels better than when a moment works. I’m completely addicted to it, and it’s made me a much calmer, deeper, more curious person every time I get to work on a new show.

S: How much of you do you bring to a character, and how much of your characters are what the writers wrote?

N: I’m not sure you can put a percentage on it. It’s different for every character. Your job as an actor is to figure out where every line comes from, why the character would say it, and to make it sound like you’re thinking of it in that moment onstage for the first time (even though you said or sang the same lines last night). It really is like the writing is a cup of water, and the actor is the sponge who soaks it up (no SpongeBob pun intended). But as I said, it’s to a different degree each time. In Spongebob, all I had to do was say the lines in the voice I created for Plankton, and a lot of the work took care of itself. In TICK TICK…BOOM!, which is a very naturalistic, sparse musical about Jonathan Larson, who wrote RENT, it was much more about me figuring out how to connect myself to every single line — even the ones that took me to an uncomfortable place.

S: You get to collaborate with a lot of other people. How do you pick who you work with, and how do you make sure you’re not the one doing all the work?

N: That’s hard. It’s all about who comes into your life, and how you feel when you’re with them. I’ve worked with people I was friends with first, like James Gardiner (who I wrote GLORY DAYS with), and people I’ve met in professional situations and found friendships with later, like Kyle Jarrow (who I write a lot of TV stuff with). I’ve also had some unsuccessful collaborations, where I made a snap judgment about someone being right for me who ultimately wasn’t. There’s truly no way to know. My advice would be to take a second, or even a weekend to really think about a collaboration before you commit to it; usually they last for a few years at least. Be as careful with your time as you can. It’s kind of like dating; at some point, you just have to jump!

S: When you were little, did you know this was what you were going to be?

N: I didn’t know but I hoped. And I’m still hoping. It’s an everyday battle to stay in this business. It’s a hard, weird business. The art is what gets me through, and I’m so happy I committed to it.

S: What advice would you give to your elementary school self?

N: Calm down. It’s gonna be all right.

S: Do you have a favorite song to perform that you’ve written or that you like? Also, do you have a song that gives you energy?

N: I love the song “She’s You,” which I wrote about my wife Ana. It has a ton of energy, and every time I sing it, it reminds me of all the things I love about her.

 

S: So far, what’s your most memorable music related or theatrical experience, either as an audience member or performer?

N: As a performer, it was doing TICK, TICK… BOOM! Off-Broadway this fall. I was emotionally moved and transported every time I did that show. And exhausted by it, but fulfilled in a way that nothing else has ever matched. As an audience member, the thing I loved deeply was a play by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins called An Octoroon. It’s an adaptation of an old civil war play about race, updated for 2016. And the echoes of how we’re still dealing with all the same things, and how important it is to accept each other, rang very true. It was also an exceptional visual production, with some amazing moments I’ll never forget. That’s the power of theater: to create an indentation in your brain, and your heart, that forever changes the way you see the world.

S: How do you take care of your voice when your singing or performing eight shows a week?

N: The best thing I can say about vocal health is to find a great voice teacher, see them as often as you can. During a time when you’re singing a lot, be very careful about dairy, peanut butter, chocolate, mint, tomato sauce, and other acidic coagulants. Drink a ton of water and tea, stretch, massage your face. Remember that your voice is a muscle, so like an athlete, you need to treat it like one. Be good to it, and it’ll be good to you.

S: I throw out weekly challenges to my students to encourage them to try new things–what would you challenge them to do?

N: Take a shot in the dark and write something. A play, an essay, a journal entry, a short film. You’ll be so surprised how many thoughts and feelings you have inside you, and how good it feels to get them down on the page. And even if you don’t want to be a writer, or don’t think you are one, it’s important to remember that you can create anytime you want. You don’t have to wait for someone to give you the opportunity.

I had Nick takeover this post’s challenge, and I can’t wait to see you all complete it. This was such a fun and honest interview, and I can’t thank him enough for it. Let’s use this as an example of a successful collaborative effort. I have been following his career for some time now, and his music is on regular rotation. I can’t wait to see what his next moves are. If I’m lucky, it’ll be seeing him as Plankton in SpongeBob The Musical.

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

Better Speech and Hearing Month · Vocabulary

We Love Words, We Love Spelling

Every speech pathologist has his or her own set of stories that come out of the speech room. Almost every time I have found it to be related to vocabulary. Last week was no exception. This month is the best reason to talk about spelling and vocabulary–thanks, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee! Before I talk about that interaction, I’m going to share some of my previous stories from the speech room.

One year, I had a student tell me “I put Green Bay on my macaroni and cheese because it tastes better.” After much debate on whether or not Green Bay is a city or seasoning (this was a real discussion in my speech room), he finally conceded that he meant Old Bay. This involved me finding images of Old Bay and pointing out his friend’s football jersey. Only for vocabulary’s sake will I debate a five-year-old.

Last year, a student asked me about “that show I’m always talking about.” Naturally, she was referring to Hamilton. She asked me what it was about, and followed with, “If he wasn’t a president, why is he on the ten dollar bill?” Yes, this was where it took everything for me not to start singing the opening number, but I explained to her he established our banking system. Once she agreed that this made sense, she says, “Oh so he was helping out when George Washington was our President in the 1600s.” This resulted in a history lesson, in which I was told I was wrong many times. Again, internet search to the rescue, because why believe me when there’s Google?

Last week, I was working on conversation building when a student asked me what my favorite geometry was. Confused by the question, I answered honestly and said that I didn’t like geometry, that it was too hard for me, and that I didn’t have a favorite. This was asked of me about five more times and I caved and said, “I guess triangles weren’t too difficult in geometry.” The other two students at the table responded with other mathematical answers. I, still finding the question odd, asked the student his own question. The answer I got? “I really like U.S. Geometry and how the country was formed from colonies to states.”

Like the other interactions, I wanted to laugh. The student isn’t old enough to have had explicit lessons on geography yet, but is very curious. He can tell you why Pluto is no longer a planet, teach you how to code like it’s as easy as naming shapes, and I fully expected a response like, “I really enjoy solving proofs.” Instead, I used this as a teachable moment, which I shared on Twitter. I picked up a white board and wrote:

Geometry = math
Geography = places/maps

The student listened as I explained this, and said, “Oh, I meant geography. That’s the word for talk about the globe and other countries. Whoops!” At this point, I told him my favorite piece of geographical information to research is human geography, and how people settled into different areas of the world.

For those of you wondering why my role is important in a student’s education, I am helping them to access the curriculum being taught in class. Through me they are better equipped and able to use the vocabulary taught during instruction appropriately, apply background knowledge, and use a variety of strategies for comprehension of academic material. I also taught the student that there is an exception to every rule, since the default was to lean on the prefixes of these vocabulary words. Mnemonic devices have always helped me, and I’m a visual learner, so this strategy came naturally to me in the moment. Let me know in the comments section what your go-to strategies are for teaching vocabulary.

This week’s challenge is to listen for teachable moments. If you are giving the lesson, think of encouraging ways it can be delivered and best understood by the listener. If you’re receiving the lesson, think outside the box about how to apply this lesson in other aspects of your life.

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

Better Speech and Hearing Month · Fluency · Inclusion

Hello, Dolly!

Growing up, I had an American Girl doll, like many other children. I chose the doll that looked similar to me, and accessories similar to my personality. My doll had a stage, a swan lake costume, dance warm-ups, clothes in my favorite colors, you name it. I treasured this doll because I found her to be similar to me. She still sits in my childhood closet.

Last week, American Girl debuted their Girl of the Year for 2017. Her name is Gabriela, and I’m not ashamed to say I am in love with her. She is a dancer, as I made my own doll to be, but this is built into her story. She’s very creative and enjoys writing poetry. This also resonated with my inner 12-year-old. What I adore most about this character is that she is a person who stutters. From what I can tell of her story, she is working on her public speaking for a good cause, and this is admittedly difficult for her. Yes, I will be buying the books for my speech room. Yes, I’ve already told my students about her. American Girl is using this doll to help so many children find and use their own voices, and to understand that they are not alone in what they experience when they speak. They’re also offering a perspective on disfluent speech for readers who may be unfamiliar with it. By doing this, they are helping to create an inclusive community.

This is not the first time this brand has been inclusive. They now offer the following for any doll: a diabetes care kit, hearing aids, a wheelchair, glasses, and crutches. My students have told me about Gabriela, that they want her, and that they identify with her. My students often feel underrepresented or overlooked, and the idea that people might understand them better through a toy amazes both them and me. I always loved dolls growing up, and I had more than my fair share, but I can assure you I’d have added Gabriela to my collection as soon as possible.

My challenge to you this week: think about ways you can foster an inclusive environment. This may involve speaking to new people at school or work, giving some people the benefit of the doubt when you feel slighted, providing a welcome distraction for someone who might need a break from their every day lives, or anything else you can do to include someone from beyond your usual social circle. Who knows what kind of relationships this could foster–try it and see what comes of it.

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

 

Better Speech and Hearing Month · Vocabulary

Everybody Says Don’t!

In the spirit of Better Speech and Hearing Month, I’d like to highlight some words I don’t allow in my speech room. I’m working on eliminating them from my own vocabulary in everyday conversation. Now, if you work in this field, and even if you don’t, you may know that words have power. This is true, but I’d like to change this to communication has power. Words only have power if you give them  intention and meaning. In grad school, we’re taught about morphology, the smallest unit of language containing meaning, and that the only meaningful language is that born out of intent. Because language is so powerful, I’d like to talk about some every day words and phrases that have no place in my speech room.

  1. “Just.”  As an adverb, according to Merriam-Webster, it means “simply; only; no more than.” This word annoys me, disgusts me, and yet I use it all the time. It is a personal goal of mine to erase it from my vocabulary. This word undermines all that we do, have done, and will do. To preface ANYTHING with this word automatically decreases the value of whatever follows. Examples: “Just another IEP.” “Just another day.” “Just another student.” I have so many issues with this use of this word. Everything we get to do, say, see, experience–they’re all novel, with their own value. I promise you someone in whatever experience you’re currently in values that experience in some way. Using this word to describe said experience is demeaning. To my fellow speech pathologists: How many times have we heard, “It’s just one speech session, can’t he miss today?” No. Because our job and the student’s progress is important. Because an IEP is a legal document dictating a student’s service provision. And how much have you liked being called “just” a speech pathologist? Right–all we do is observe, assess, diagnose, treat, take notes, write progress reports, write IEPs, create goals, make learning engaging, and make the world more accessible among hundreds of other things I am forgetting to include at this moment. Also, no IEP meeting is “just” an IEP meeting. They’re all important, with valuable material to discuss and share with the team, the family, the administrator–you name it. Suffice it to say, we do not use this word in the speech room. My students and myself are more than “just.” See also: “little” as an adverb, “only” as an adverb.
  2. “I’m sorry.” Okay, this phrase has a caveat. This is allowed in the speech room when used to serve as an apology when one person has wronged another. Outside of this use, it’s not permitted in my speech room. This is personally one of my goals for 2017–stop apologizing for myself. People that know me tell me to stop using this phrase on an almost daily basis. I am encouraging my students and friends to do the same. I have found myself and my students time and again apologizing for things that 1) they genuinely aren’t sorry for and 2) personality traits that they shouldn’t be apologizing for. When used appropriately this phrase is absolutely acceptable in the speech room. When I use it to apologize for an action that is a part of my personality or when a student does so, I ask them why. Why do we find it necessary to apologize for something that has created no harm or offense? I’ve noticed my students use it when asking for help, and that makes them feel that asking for help is wrong. We all know this is not the case. I’m fortunate enough to have a support system that calls me out when I apologize for being myself, and I do the same for my students. Be unapologetically you. You are the only you this world has, and there is absolutely no reason to apologize for your personality. Will you fit  in with everyone? No. Should you apologize for this? Absolutely not.
  3. “For.”For wasn’t even on my radar until my most recent guest on the blog, John McGinty, pointed it out. “For is a dangerous word. It means you’re beneath them.” Think about it–when you say “I’m here for you,” you generally mean you’re supporting someone. The goal, I’ve found, in supporting others is helping them carry their weight, or helping them get to where they need to be. Instead, I say “I support you no matter what,” “I’m in your corner,” and “I’m with you on this one.” This way, you are equal to the other person while maintaining that you support them, their needs, and their accomplishments. For my students, I tell them “I’m here to be on your team.” They know we’re equal, and that the playing field is a level one. Neither one of us is any less than the other, and we’re both working towards mastering a goal together.

Are there words you take issue with? What did I leave out? Let me know in comments. I challenge you to go at least twenty four hours without using these words with these meanings.

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

Better Speech and Hearing Month · Inclusion · Interview

A Topsy Turvy Conversation with John McGinty

To start off Better Speech and Hearing Month, I was fortunate enough to talk to an actor and person I greatly admire. John McGinty is an actor who happens to be Deaf. He learned American Sign Language in college, and continues to use it today. After having this conversation with him, I can personally vouch for the fact that he’s an all-around great person. He shared so much with me about his recent performance in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, what it was like for him growing up, and his positive messages on self-advocacy and moving beyond labels.

StageSLP: What drew you into theatre initially?

John: I remember when I went to London with my Grandma and we saw Phantom of the Opera. I was around nine or ten. At the time, there was no caption, no interpreter, nothing. Even though I didn’t understand the whole story, visually, through the costumes and the story and their aura, I was so attracted to that. Then, I didn’t think it was what I wanted to do, but I grew up with a desire to see different theatre. Then I went to Clarke School for the Deaf at 12. One of the teachers noticed that my confidence was horrible, and this teacher wanted me to join the drama club. I said it wasn’t my thing, I wanted to play sports. Finally, I went in and I played the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. It became an addiction to theatre, and my self-esteem, confidence, everything increased. It was more for my health and my socialization. I didn’t think it would eventually be a career. I actually studied finance at Northeast college. My first professional job was with Deaf West Theatre with Pippin. That’s where I started to realize that’s what I wanted to do rather than a 9-5 job.

S: That’s a great way in! Everyone has their own way in. You were just in Hunchback of Notre Dame and it’s one of my favorite stories. From the clips I’ve seen online, it looks like you’re the only actor signing.

J: I was the only Deaf actor in the show. Some of the other actors also signed in the show. In the original text by Victor Hugo, Quasimodo goes deaf from ringing the bells.

S: Did they make that a part of the storyline?

J: There are a lot of themes in the story. Society thinks that the majority rules, and it’s not worth communicating with the minority groups. It takes one other human to give strength to another person. You can find your strength to become part of the whole, we’re all equals. That’s our message in the show.

S: That’s an incredible message. Wow!

J: You know, a lot of people don’t know how I got into the show. When I saw the casting call breakdown, I said “okay, why not?” Originally, they were looking for a hearing actor. My agent was very helpful and supportive throughout the process of me pursuing this particular role. I emailed the director and asked if he’d be open to seeing an actor who happens to be Deaf. Fortunately, he had experience working with actors who were Deaf, but not within a musical. The creative team, who was very open, said, “He’s an actor like anybody else.” The first run of the production only had a rehearsal process of nine days.

S: Oh my gosh. You are a superhero. Nine days? That’s insane.

J: Well, the hearing actors had to learn to speak it in nine days, I had to learn to sign it in nine days. Everyone was in the same boat as me. What was important for me was to open the barriers so that the next generation doesn’t feel so oppressed. If I can do it, you can do it too.

S: I can’t express how much it means to me to hear you say that. The hardest thing to explain to someone who doesn’t get it is that there’s something beyond the label attached to you. That’s something I am working on in the school and that’s something you’re championing as well.

J: It doesn’t happen overnight. I think it takes a lot of support. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I realize it is okay to ask for help. I still ask for help, regardless. It doesn’t matter what age, gender, there are no rules within the book. Throw the book out. a individual has our own desire for how we want things to go. It doesn’t happen overnight, but don’t be afraid to ask for help.

S: Is it hard for you to transition in and out of the characters you play?

J: Yes and no. Within my profession, the idea is you leave work at work. I’ve had two roles I’ve had a hard time detaching from. It’s common when you go to work, you leave work at work and not bring it home. I try to do this, but it can be challenging. These parts have been easy for me to connect to; I’ve been isolated. I know what it’s like to live in a world where we don’t speak the same language. So I’m able to bring that onto the stage and it’s tough, but I keep reminding myself all of the good things that happened in my life. And if I didn’t go through those negative experiences, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be lying if I said I go home after work, and I’m good.

S: So how do you shift your perspective?

J: One sentence: Things will get better. Give them time. You can’t say oh you have to have a better day. They can’t do that. Everyone has their own process and you just have to trust that things will get better. I was very passive aggressive growing up, and I’d get too defensive. I tried to find balance and I learned what worked best for me. Life is too short.

S: What was school like for you? Did you always have the support you needed?

J: Over the course of my education, I was in 6 different schools. My first language was American Sign Language (ASL), I went to a signing Pre-K-Kindergarten program. Then I went to a school with an oral/aural approach with a focus on speaking and listening skills through 4th grade. From there, I went to a private school with no support—no signing, no interpreting. In 5th grade I transferred to Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts. I’m originally from Cleveland, so I lived there with all of the other students. That was the best time of my life because we had one sense of community. We were all Deaf, we could empathize with all of our needs, we were one big family. It only went up to 9th grade, so at the end of freshman year, I had to go back to Cleveland. Back home, I was the only kid in school who was Deaf. I had an interpreter. The amount of lip-reading required in a school day wore me out. The best part of high school was when I was allowed to study away and go on the road and perform. We all need to find what’s best for ourselves, that’s the bottom line. There’s a lot I’d change but I’d go through it again because it got me where I am today.

S: That’s so many academic transitions with that many different levels of support. That’s a lot on you. That’s commendable.

J: Thank you, but I am so thankful for my family. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what today would look like.

S: I agree. There is no support system like someone’s family.

J: It’s interesting. Some people aren’t sure how to self-advocate. It’s okay to advocate for yourself, and it’s hard to figure out how much to do this. I include myself in this. In this profession, when I’ve been offered to try something, I ask if it’s okay if I can have an ASL interpreter. Sometimes, when they get that email, the offer has been rescinded. Should I keep quiet for the sake of my career or do I speak up? You have to speak up for what you need and not worry about what other people think. Analyze each situation and think about the conclusion if you do speak up, and its impact on you and the world.

S: See, this is why I really am not a fan of labels. We’re all people with our own abilities and have different ways of accessing the world. My students really just want to shake off whatever label has been assigned to them. What would you say to them?

J: I don’t believe in labels either. That label becomes constant and I’m careful about how I identify myself. The press likes to call me the Deaf actor, because they think it’s empowering enough for who I am. My personal belief is that I’m just an actor who happens to be Deaf. If I didn’t, people would assume I can only play the Deaf character. People have asked me “Who are you?” Did I have to pick one word to define me? Am I male? Deaf? White? So now when people ask me, I use my name, and I have a lot of layers within me. I encourage the people with other abilities to find their allies and see them as human. For example, no one with Autism is the same as another person with Autism. It’s a spectrum. If you’ve met one person, you’ve met one person. You want to be within the community. Whether it’s at home, or at work or in your free time. You want to be with the people who want to be with you and not for them. “For” is a dangerous word, meaning you’re beneath them. You just have to move on and leave the people that you feel aren’t a fit for you alone and keep moving forward through life.

S: Exactly. What are you up to now?

J: This summer, I’m going back with Berkshire Theatre Group to do Children of a Lesser G-D directed by Kenny Leon. I will probably be reprising my role in Hunchback in Seattle in the summer of 2018.
John is a great actor, and I’m so glad I got to talk to him about the arts and what school was like for him. I hope this has encouraged you to go check out some of John’s work.

I educate others about my profession all year long. If I had any say, I’d change the name of this month to be more inclusive. When we think of language as a society, we think of speaking. As a speech pathologist, I think of it as communication by any means. This includes sign language, comprehension and use of nonverbal pragmatic skills, picture exchange, assistive technology–you name it. All of these have their own rules for meaning, content, and use. My knowledge of American Sign Language is limited to the one class I took in college, but I think it’s a beautiful language, and I love it’s structure. It gets to the point much faster than English in its grammatical structure, which I think would serve many of my students well. Here is my challenge to you: consider the different languages you use every day–I promise you use more than one. Pay attention to how you code-switch, or change how you speak, between conversational partners. Watch your nonverbal language too–folded arms, eyerolls, slouching–all of these body positions convey a meaning to the person receiving the message. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn about yourself.

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