Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

The Spark of Creation: A Conversation with Stephen Schwartz

Did you know that hope and wonder have a sound? If you are one of my students, or one of many people who are familiar with Stephen Schwartz’ work, you are extremely familiar with it. The music and lyrics behind his work are sure to evoke emotion the second you begin listening. For me, I grew up singing songs he’d written, admittedly poorly, or quoting lyrics back and forth with my family. My students can identify a few composers by sound, and Stephen Schwartz is one of them.  I have many musically inclined students who wanted a composer’s perspective, and I thought it would help to round out their theatrical knowledge that they were absorbing through my speech sessions. I have been a lifelong fan of Stephen Schwartz’ work, from Pippin to Children of Eden, Hunchback to The Prince of Egypt, and of course Wicked. I don’t believe there’s a lyricist who has leant more to my vocabulary lessons or SAT word study, which I now get to pass on to my own students. We talk about how he became interested in composing, why learning the basics in any instrument is important, writing style, and so much more.

Stef: This blog of mine has become sort of a family affair, and I have to start by asking questions from my mother. I wouldn’t know your work if not for her. She wants to know how long it took you to write “What Is This Feeling,” and is it based on a sibling relationship?

Stephen: Actually, it’s funny she should ask that because it’s one of the songs I found most tricky. I had four versions of that songs over the course of the show before I figured it out. There was always going to be a song in which Elphaba and Glinda were responding to the idea of being roommates. Winnie Holzman, the book writer, had the idea of doing a falling in hate/hate at first sight song. Taking all of those love at first sight songs and rewriting them. It was not one of those songs that came instantaneously. I remember after my third version asking Joe Mantello if we needed that song there. The relationship isn’t really based on anything other than instantly falling in hate with someone. If you think about it, the clichés for love are similar— “What is this feeling? My face is flushing,” and so on, but instead of feeling love, they’re loathing each other.

S: Wow, that’s a really interesting backstory. She and I were convinced that was based on sibling rivalry.

S: No, that was Winnie’s idea about falling in hate. She had the idea and it ended up working out.

S: I am so excited to share wit my kids that songs take as many drafts as writing. I don’t think they realize that.

S: Writing a song for a musical is storytelling. Some songs come easily and some take longer.

S: The other thing my mother really wanted you to know is that she is extremely appreciative for your work with Children of Eden. My brother played the role of Father in a high school production, just as he was going off to college. She really appreciates you sharing the parent perspective in “The Hardest Part of Love,” especially as she was going through it. It was very timely for her.

S: Thank you. As parents we fear the empty nest, and that was a way of expressing it, whether or not it actually happens.

S: My students want to know how did you become interested in writing and composing for theatre?

I was always interested in music. Musical ability is genetic, and it’s something that tends to show up very early. My parents tell me that I used to ask them to play specific records as a toddler. When I was six, my parents had a friend who was a composer and he was working on a show. When we visited him, he’d play what he was working on for us, and my parents would then say that I’d go over to his piano and pick out what I heard him play. He suggested my parents put me into piano lessons, and that’s how that started. I knew at eight or nine that I wanted to write for the theatre after seeing one of his shows on Broadway.

S: How is it different for you when you’re collaborating with someone else, versus doing all of the work yourself?

S: It’s not really different in that the goal is the same. It’s storytelling using song. When I’m doing both music and lyrics, it’s maybe more fluid, and I’ll switch between mediums. These days when I’m collaborating, and mostly it’s with Alan Menken now, we still start with,” What’s the assignment? What story are we telling?” I try to come up with a title, because I think it helps with structuring the song. Alan will write music first and then I put words to it.

S: When you’re composing and writing lyrics, which comes first for you?

S: It really works fluidly and moves back and forth. Maybe I’ll write some lyrics or a chorus and that will suggest some chords. Sometimes it works in reverse of that order. It changes from song to song, there’s no set formula.

S: My students want to know if writing comes easy for you, and what happens when you get stuck?

S: Writing is not easy, I think, for anyone. There are bursts of inspiration and times when you hit a wall. You have to keep going and just get words on the page. Something to break the lock down. Stop and do something else—go outside, take a walk, something unrelated to the task so your unconscious mind can think freely. You don’t want to be at a computer, you want to be doing a physical activity. If it’s a day where I’m planning to write, I won’t start with my computer, or it ruins the flow for me.

S: Many of my students are in orchestra or band and are learning the basics and would rather just play what they want than learn what’s being taught. What would you say to them?

S: That’s how everyone feels, but the truth is you can do both! You can have time to play and explore—that’s valuable. But if you don’t do the basics and practice, you won’t get better. The more you master the tedious stuff, the more you can do what you want. This applies to practicing for anything, sports, arts, what have you.

S: How does it feel knowing you’ve shaped so many lives through your work, either in theatre, film, or both?

S: Obviously, there are reasons people become writers, and part of that is to be able to communicate. Knowing that in some cases that I have successfully communicated with someone, it’s very gratifying.

S: That’s what your work does, it communicates the message of the show very well. And I’ve used your work to teach vocabulary, social skills, you write very smart lyrics that lend themselves to these topics. I’ve had to be careful using Wicked, though, since some of those words aren’t real.

S: That’s something to explore with your students, too. Winnie brought up that the story takes place in Oz, which isn’t exactly the same as our world, so the language wouldn’t be exactly the same. She created these Ozisms that appear throughout the script, so I started incorporating them into my lyrics. The whole point of that was that it was understood that we weren’t in our world, we were in a different place.

S: And I get to use the Ozisms to have my students explore their creativity and define words on their own. Going back to “What Is This Feeling” and “I’m Not That Girl,” I’ve taught girls that it’s perfectly acceptable to be nice to each other, and to diffuse girl drama. Your songs tell stories and teach lessons at the same time.

S: Oh, that’s great!

S: Is there a difference in how you approach writing songs for film than theatre?

S: It’s pretty much the same. If I’m writing for film, I’m aware of the fact that it’s a motion picture, and that the characters aren’t standing still and singing. It’s all about storytelling through song.

S: I can tell you, the animation and music for Prince of Egypt felt like magic and so cohesive.

S: There was a lot of collaboration between myself, the people writing the screenplay, and the story artists. We aren’t always in the same room, and it’s a four-year process for something like that. There’s a lot of communication there.

S: Do you get any say when it comes to finding the vocal talent for the animated movies, because those were some spot-on choices.

S: In an animated picture, yes, I get some input. Sometimes the studio decides. But everyone has the same interest in making a good movie with voice actors who are going to deliver a solid final product.

S: I think Brian “Stokes” Mitchell was a brilliant choice for “Through Heavens Eyes”. It definitely impacts the way I hear and interpret the song. Did you have him in mind when you wrote the song?

S: No, but he’s brilliantly talented. I knew him and he was everyone’s first choice.

S: Your musical style is clearly influencing my students, who influenced you growing up?

S: I had a lot, and what people think of my style is an amalgamation of that. I played a lot of classical piano growing up, so Debussy, Beethoven sonatas, and Bach. I think there’s an influence from there. My parents had a lot of cast albums that I listened to, and also a lot of folk music I enjoyed. Then there’s The Beatles and the singer/songwriters from that era, through the eighties. It’s what I respond to that comes in my style of music.

S: My students want to know why you think arts education is important.

S: The key thing is that I feel that our society is lacking empathy. It shows up in all parts of life, politics, day to day behavior, everything. There is a lack of perspective taking, and that’s something we get from arts education. We get that from music and painting, not just performing. You have to question everything, and we lose out on that without arts education. On top of that, everyone is in their own echo chamber right now. Encountering and creating art forces you to overcome that. There’s a big focus on sports in our schools, and I enjoy playing sports, but that is the perspective of winners and losers. If there’s one thing we really don’t need more of right now, it’s that lense. Art isn’t about that

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

S: Exposure to the arts and other people’s lives and perspectives. Find a way to access that and learn about the world around you beyond what school can teach you in facts and STEM.  Talk about your observations and what that’s done for you. There’s a big world around you, go beyond the screen and notice it in different ways. Don’t necessarily eliminate anything, just go beyond it.
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I was over the moon when this conversation took place, and I’m still so fulfilled by this conversation. I am a very big fan of Stephen’s work, in case that isn’t obvious, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. My students gained a lot of insight about what goes into the process of composing a show, and the driving force of storytelling. They took a lot of comfort in knowing writing isn’t something that’s supposed to be easy. I look forward to taking on Stephen’s challenge by seeing more art that maybe I wouldn’t have exposed myself to in the first place. I look forward to hearing how my readers take on this challenge as well.

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

Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

Best Face Forward: A Conversation with Douglas Otero of Intermission Beauty

One of my favorite parts of any theatrical experience and even every day life is makeup I fell in love with makeup many times in my life: watching my mother put it on every morning and waiting for the day she’d let me have my own, getting ready for recitals, auditions, and shows, and discovering products I really love. Makeup can change my entire day and my entire mood. With that said, imagine how ecstatic I was to discover Intermission Beauty. If you’re new to this brand, it is a small business founded by Douglas Otero who has created a line of Broadway inspired makeup and skincare. And an extra bonus: they’re cruelty free. After watching my students begin to express themselves through makeup, while doing the same myself, I knew I had to talk to this line’s creator. We talk about how he got into theatre, what drew him to makeup, his cruelty-free philosophy and more!

Stef: How did you get into theatre and performing?

Douglas Otero: I got into theatre and performing during high school. I always had the performance bug, and used to put on magic shows for company that used to visit my family when I was little. In high school, I met the right people and an amazing music teacher who guided me along the way. I found my first voice teacher, one thing led to another, and I started auditioning for Broadway shows, theme parks, and cruise ships.

S: How was your interest in theatre connected to your makeup artistry?

D: I have always loved makeup. When I got tired of working as a waiter, I decided to free-lance as a makeup artist. When I was in shows, the girls would ask me to help them with their makeup, even if I was getting ready myself!

S: What inspired your line Intermission Beauty?

D: My love of Broadway mostly, but my love of animals and protecting them. That’s how the Broadway Diva series came to be.

S: Your line is cruelty free, which is important to myself and my students. Why did you choose to make your line cruelty free?

D: Again, my love for animals is huge. Ever since I was born and came home from the hospital, I had pets; dogs especially. I’ve seen a lot of what happens with animals and testing cosmetics I want that to be a thing of the past. Especially in this day and age with so many other ways of testing products.

S: How long does it take to match a name to a color, and which comes first?

D: There isn’t a particular time frame. It’s all inspiration and how much I may love a show.

IB2

S: What should people know about makeup artistry that they don’t already know?

D: That it isn’t really always what they see on a YouTube channel. Everyone is different and not everything works on everyone. You also have to be realistic about what you’re trying to achieve as a consumer or makeup user. Some make it harder than it is.

S: Creatively, what does makeup design do for you that performing didn’t, and what did performing do for you that makeup design doesn’t?

D: It’s actually not that different! Although I do miss being onstage, it’s pretty similar. I’m using art to create and put it out on display for everyone to see. Whether I’m working with a celebrity for a red-carpet event or creating a new shade, it’s being consumed by many people. I feel with the makeup, people are at least getting to take something with them that they’ll use and enjoy. Hopefully they end up coming back for more.

S: What would you want your consumers to know about Intermission Beauty or how the products are created that they may not already know?

D: That I’ve gone to great lengths to put out the best products I possibly can. Considering I’m a small business with no investors and creating everything on my own dime is something worth saying. I’m very proud to say that.

S: Would you encourage kids to explore their creativity through makeup design and theatre? How could they get involved?

D: I’m all about allowing kids to express their inner creativity. It’s where they will really get to see what they do and don’t like. I was never forced to do anything and don’t think kids should be. If they want to take an art class, let them. If they want to take a dance class or a singing lesson, support them. At school, volunteering community theater, or if they’re old enough to work at a makeup counter or even do makeup for a community theatre or high school theatre—those are all great ways to get involved.

S: Every week I challenge my students to get outside of their comfort zone, what would you challenge them to do?

D: Stand up and sing a song for someone, or for a group. Do someone else’s makeup, or even your own. Similar to public speaking, not everyone is comfortable doing these things. If you want to be able to perform you should be able to get up and do it for a crowd. In the case of makeup, you need to be comfortable touching someone else’s face. Both are areas where you need to be outgoing, sure of yourself and your skills, and unafraid to get your hands dirty.
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I am really excited for my students to break out of their shell through Douglas Otero’s advice. This was a great conversation with a lot of insight into makeup design, and how creativity can be displayed in so many different ways. I can’t wait to see how my readers take on this challenge in comments!
In case it wasn’t already clear that I love this line, I currently own four lipsticks, two liquid lipsticks, and the lip scrub and balm are absolute staples in my makeup bag. Those last two are heaven, especially in fall and winter months. The next time you’re looking for makeup for your next production or a day-to-day look, check out Intermission Beauty at @IntermissionBeauty on Instagram, and you can purchase the products for your own collection at IntermissionBeauty.com. I personally am a repeat customer and love what he’s doing for the animals with these products.

 

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

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

Broadway · Interview · Performances · The Human Connection

Not Just A Simple Sponge: A Conversation with Ethan Slater

When I wasn’t being entertained by touring theatrical productions or the imaginary worlds I created in my head, I used to watch television with my brother. More often than not, television served as a source of plot and character ideas for stories we’d eventually act out and elaborate on for weeks at a time. My brother’s favorite cartoon was SpongeBob SquarePants. He had all of the merchandise, and even went as SpongeBob for Halloween. I always appreciated that the humor extended beyond age, and that it had something for everyone. Over a decade later, this cartoon has been adapted for the Broadway stage, and the second my brother and I found out, all we could say was “I’m ready! I’m ready!” adults or not. Ethan Slater, playing the titular role in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, has put his own take on this character, and I got to talk to him about the process of developing this character for the stage, how theatre and the arts shaped his upbringing, and more.

Stef the Stage SLP: What got you into theatre?

Ethan: That’s a tough question, surprisingly. I went to see theater with my family growing up in Washington D.C., and always loved it. When I was in school, I often did the class plays, or the after-school musicals. It wasn’t until high school that I realized how much I loved being a part of the theater, and my love for acting, writing, and singing grew. So, I would say, it was my teachers who got me into theater – from my parents to my high school director (shout out to Laura Rosberg) to my professors in college.

S: How much exposure did you have to the arts growing up outside of Washington D.C. with venues like The Kennedy Center and all of the performing arts institutions in the D.C. Metro area?

E: There is a lot of theater happening in D.C.! The two places I mostly went to see shows was the Shakespeare Theater Company and Arena Stage. But there are so many more incredible companies in and around the area, and they all do really interesting work. I personally loved seeing plays at Woolly Mammoth or Studio Theater. And those are all just in the city itself.

Another great thing about D.C. is the Smithsonian. There are so many museums with art, science, and history that are free and just a train ride away. We went to the museums a lot when I was a kid, but I started taking more advantage of them when I was in high school or visiting home from college. It’s a really fantastic way to expand one’s horizons, both as a human and as an artist.

S: You’ve been a part of developing SpongeBob before it came to Broadway. How long have you been with the show, and what is it like to help develop a character from so early on?

E: I’ve been with the show since May of 2012, which means I have had nearly 6 years to periodically return to and rework the character. I think the best part about living with a character for so long is that I have gotten to see what works and what doesn’t; where I am working too hard, and where I can breathe a little more. Each year I’ve been able to relax a little more into the role, and I think my show is much better for it.

S: This is going to be a lot of people’s first Broadway show, my students included. Does that affect your performance?

E: I wouldn’t say it affects my performance, but it certainly is something of which I am very proud to be a part of. I love meeting people at the stage door, kids and adults alike, for whom this was their first Broadway show. To which I often say: I hope it’s the first of many.

S: Do you remember the first Broadway show you saw that had a lasting impact on you?

E: I remember one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw, in the Palace Theater, starring my (now) good friend and castmate Curtis Holbrook: All Shook Up. Sharing the stage with him now is such a surreal and special feeling. But I really do remember watching shows, in D.C. and on Broadway, and thinking: “I hope I am good enough to do that one day.”

S: What is it like to adapt and inform a beloved character like SpongeBob?

E: It’s a total honor to play SpongeBob. Of course, I worry about doing the character justice since SpongeBob is beloved by so many, old and young. But there is something truly special about taking on a character that so many people know so well and making him my own. Because the same things that I see in SpongeBob, so many others do too. I am not alone in the beauty I see in SpongeBob’s optimism, neither are you; and we can bond over that.

S: I know that you also write for the stage. What does writing do for you that acting does not, and what does acting do for you that writing does not?

E: Writing is something that I control, in a lot of ways. I am my own boss when it comes to writing, and I get to tell the stories that are closest to my heart. There is more similarity, in my opinion, between writing and acting than there is a difference. Both are interpretive ventures – taking a situation, or a character, and representing it as only you can. Both are crafts that take years of trying and failing to get good at. I love being able to do both things and hope to continue to do so throughout my life.

S: Writing is a tricky subject for a lot of my students, who are fantastic at ideation and creating the story they want to tell in their minds, but have trouble translating those ideas to paper. Do you have any advice for them?

E: My advice is to start with structure. It’s an important place to begin your education, but it’s also an important place to begin most projects. And then, once you’ve started with the structure, finish a project. Get to the end of a first draft before you start editing. Writing, to me, is all about perseverance. You are never going to stop learning, so ACTIVELY keep learning. And you can’t write a second draft before you finish your first. So, finish the first draft.

I will say, if you don’t love something you wrote it does NOT mean you are a bad writer. It means you have a high standard. And that can be a really good thing.

S: What’s it like performing on Broadway alongside Lilli Cooper, one of your college friends? Is performing in a Broadway show drastically different from performing in school?

E: It is a thrill to perform with Lilli (and Danny, who has been with SpongeBob for 6 years alongside me). Performing professionally with someone is very similar to performing anywhere else in a lot of ways. You spend a lot of time together. You make a lot of jokes. You become close friends. And the closer you get offstage, the better your chemistry onstage. The big difference? This is our job, so we get to devote all of our energy to it. It’s a win-win.

S: SpongeBob is a very energetic and passionate character. How do you mentally, physically, and vocally prepare to exert that intense amount of energy eight shows a week?

E: I spend around 90 minutes warming up (SLOWLY) for each show. I stretch, and vocalize; get my heart rate up, and vocalize some more. At the end of the day, I am having so much fun with my castmates that it isn’t too hard to be energetic when I am playing SpongeBob, but it does affect the time I spend outside of the theater. I am very careful with what I eat, how much I talk, and how much energy I expend when not at the theater.

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

E: Write a ten-minute play and get your friends to read it. Having work read out loud is really difficult. But it’s important. And it not only helps the author but gives your friends a chance to flex their acting muscles. Another win-win!

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This conversation is one I cannot wait to share with my students. Getting to share Ethan’s value of both the arts and collaborating with friends are both lessons I can share with my students and help them build those values and friendships. His challenge of writing a play is a great exercise for my students; they can practice perspective taking skills, articulation, and writing and speaking grammatically correct sentences. My big takeaway from this conversation is to find the fun and run with it while embracing the challenges brought on by whatever we’re doing at the time. I can’t wait to see what my students and readers do with this challenge. Please let me know how they work in comments.

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

Backstage · Broadway · The Human Connection

In Dire Need of Assistance: A Conversation with Kimmie Mark

As much as I love the show I get to see onstage every time I attend a performance, I often wonder about the full production happening backstage. As my passion for theatre has grown, I’ve found myself wanting to know more about choices made in design, how things are timed, how the show gets done by the team behind the performers. When I was explaining to my students that there’s more to a show than what you see, and we discussed this further, I knew I had to talk to someone who lived this lifestyle. Enter Kimmie Mark, who is the dresser for Aaron Burr and George Washington at Hamilton: An American Musical on Broadway. I loved learning about how a show works from the perspective of someone backstage and getting to expose my students to all sides of the creative career paths.

 

Stef the StageSLP: How did you get into theatre?

Kimmie: Actually, quite by accident, I was a sophomore in college, majoring in ‘Early Childhood Education’, in hopes to become a Kindergarten teacher and luckily the school I was attending had sophomores begin student teaching (as opposed to most schools which waited till the students were juniors), so off I went to meet my class at the end of their school day.  I walked into absolute chaos.  There were about 20 children all approximately 5 years old in different sections of the room some groups chasing each other, screaming & screeching, some who must have just finished eating chocolate cupcakes covered in frosting, some crying, some throwing toys at others, and I knew in a matter of seconds that I did NOT want to have a career that involved little children.  I walked out of there and went directly to the main office and explained I needed to switch majors.

My school at the time was predominately a school for future teachers, so I had no option other than to switch schools.  Going into a new school as a junior meant I had to enter already having a major, so I sat down with a fairly chunky book of all my new school’s available majors, starting with ‘A’ and got all the way to the end where there were 2 left, “theater” and “women’s studies”. Not being sure what “women’s studies” were, I choose “theater!”  Obviously, this is not a usual way for people to come across their dream profession, and though I honestly cannot think of any other realistic career I would enjoy more, nor better suited for. I completely lucked into this, but it does prove that the career you think you may want, even half way through college, doesn’t mean that’s the one you will end up having or even that you were meant to have. Search till it feels right for you, even if it takes a while!

S: What made you choose to pursue a creative career behind the curtain instead of onstage?

K: This one’s easy, I’m pretty shy and hate taking center stage in any type of group, even if it’s only 4-5 people, being center of attention or speaking to crowds is not something that I would ever enjoy doing.

S: What exactly does a dresser do?

K: The chain of command goes like this: The Director hires a Costume Designer, who hires a Wardrobe Supervisor, who in turn hires all the dressers to run the show, laundry and stitching people, and dayworkers to come in during the day to prep all the costumes, and eventually swings for all these positions.  The Dresser, once hired, gets assigned an actor, or group of actors and that stays the same for the life of the show. An actor in a starring role can request a dresser that they’ve worked with before, or simply put that dresser in their contract, to ensure they will have that dresser.

Before Tech Week begins, the dresser will be responsible for checking their actor’s costume list and checking them in as they arrive from the costume shops making them.  They help the actor set up their dressing room and set up general ideas of where costume changes will take place during the run of the shows. This is based on the paperwork you receive from your Supervisor with the breakdown of which actors change when, how much time they have, and where they exit and enter the stage. This is the fun part for me, it’s a huge puzzle and everyone’s pieces have to fit together.  Tech week is when you see if your version of how and where the changes will happen gets worked out. The dresser works closely with the other dressers and the crew guys to work out if quick change booths need to be constructed, where hooks need to be hung up, excess lights are needed, shelves built and hung, chairs and mirrors need to be purchased etc.

Once tech week is complete and the show is ‘set’, the Dresser is from then on responsible when they get to the theater each day, one hour before half hour each performance, to unlock the dressing room, bring them show laundry, check all the costumes that need to be in the room, then preset all your actors costumes around the theater, fill all their water bottles, make sure they have sweat and shower towels, load the mics into the mix belts, and be set up by half hour when the actors are required to arrive and then start getting them ready as needed.

During the show the dresser is responsible for all their quick changes, and for making sure their actors are dressed and on time for all their entrances.  At the end of the show, we make sure all costumes are cleared from set and collect show laundry as well as any costumes that may get washed daily to bring to the laundry person. At this point your dressing duties are complete. However, if you are a Star Dresser, your after-show duties may include anything from bringing your actors guests to the dressing room, helping entertain their guests, collecting the actors dinner on a 2-show day or maybe running errands for them between shows.  As Alan Cumming’s long-time dresser, after each evening show my dressing duties change into bar-tending duties and I bar tend to all his guests, mixing drinks and making soda waters! I’ve made and served drinks to many, many famous people, most notably (to me) Paul McCartney and Jessica Lange to Green Day and many TV stars that I watch weekly!

S: You have multiple actors playing the parts you’re dressing. Is it a different process for each actor, or is it all based on character?

K: It’s basically the same for each actor, the timing and location of the changes cannot be changed, as well as the time slot assigned to each character to get into mics and wigs. What they can change are little personal things, like if they want a different temperature water during the show, some like cold, some hot, some a mix.

S: What should audience members know about a dresser’s job?

K: One thing I hear most from people when I say I am a dresser on Broadway is “oh you must get to see all the shows!”  This couldn’t be more inaccurate!  Since most shows play at the same time, Broadway workers hardly ever get to see other shows.  If I wanted to see another show, it would require me to request a night off with no pay, and I would have to purchase a ticket to the other show just like any other person.  We do not get any special discounts to buy tickets to other shows.  In fact, backstage workers never even get to see the show they are working on!  We go to the rehearsal studio the day before the actors move into the theater and watch a run through of the show there, in a plain white room, with no costumes, sets, lighting or band.  It’s just the actors in sweats with one single piano.  We get an idea of the show, and this is the only time we see the show.

S: Do dressers have understudies?

K: Yes!  We call them ‘swings’ and once a show officially Opens, each dresser is required to type up their show track and submit it to the Supervisor which will be given to the dresser swing when they come in to learn our track.  A swing will stay with the dresser for 3 performances, the 1st evening following along with the notes, watching and asking questions, the 2nd evening doing all of the pre-sets and activities that don’t involve the actors directly, and the 3rd evening doing it basically on their own with the dresser following closely and only jumping in when necessary.  After the swing has trained on a track for 3 shows, they are then ‘on call’ for whenever the dresser may need a day off for any reason.

It’s common on a long running show like Hamilton for each dresser to have 2 or more trained swings at any time since we cannot have a vacant dresser slot and run the show.  Most swing dressers learn many tracks on more than one show at a time.  They only get paid when they are physically filling in on or learning a track, so to make ends meet they will learn a few tracks on several different shows.  This cuts down on their availability for any one show at a time, which is why it’s safest for each dresser to have several swings at a time.

S: Is there anything we’d be surprised to know about working backstage?

K: They may be surprised to realize we are usually right off stage, like mere inches out of view. All of the backstage crew is.  There’s usually a stage manager, several crew/prop guys, several wardrobe crew and a hair person.  The backstage staff and choreography is usually just as full and specifically timed as what’s going on onstage.

S: What is the most enjoyable and most challenging parts of the job?

K: I’d say the most enjoyable part of my job is the sense of family that comes from being part of a show, whether between myself and my actor or between the others on the wardrobe crew or the whole company.  It’s very much a team, and even though there may be some people you aren’t especially close with you know everyone in the building has each other’s backs no matter what.  The most challenging part of my job is keeping focus at all times.  It’s easy in a long run to lose focus during the run of the show when you know your cues so well you feel you could do them asleep. However, a dresser or any member of the company who is backstage, must always remain alert because it is a live show, and at any moment your actor, or any of them could come running off stage with a costume malfunction or needing anything from a tissue to a missing prop, or with an injury.  Most of the time the shows run smoothly as planned of course, but this makes it all the harder to remain focused.

S: What is your most memorable theatrical experience either through work or as an audience member?

K: I think my most memorable experience through work must be back when I was on my first show, the 1998 revival of Cabaret, dressing Alan Cumming, and it was his last weekend. He had been with the show for about a year and a half, and everyone was very sad he was leaving, so to keep the mood light and happy (a dresser’s job!) I got permission from the Wardrobe Supervisor to wear one of Alan’s understudy’s costumes, and change along with him as the show progressed, so we were always wearing matching outfits!

While waiting backstage with him for Act 2 to start, (in matching black teddy, short black wig, beret, black tights, and my own matching black boots) all of a sudden when the music started he grabbed my hand and said “don’t look around, just run straight across the stage to the other side” and pushed me out on stage ahead of him!  It was a scene where ‘The Emcee’  (Alan’s part) is dressed identically to the 6 ensemble girls on stage and they all run out and scramble around in circles, so as to hide the fact that ‘The Emcee’ is in the mix, before doing a Rockette style kick line, I ran out, and as instructed ran in a straight line across to exit the other side, however as I got closer to the other side there was a light tree on full power with bright red lights, and I couldn’t see an inch in front of me, so I left the stage like a blind person, slowly inching forward with both hands stretched out in front of me!! It was definitely memorable!

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

K: I would tell myself not to get to upset or caught up in the day to day happenings, I hardly remember anything from elementary school. Just try and be kind to everyone, even the ‘un-cool’ kids, actually especially them, they need it most and to just always be yourself. There’s a quote from Dr. Seuss I enjoy: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” (but don’t use that as an excuse to be mean to anyone!)

S: Would you encourage kids to pursue creative endeavors backstage? How would you recommend they go about it?

K: I would definitely say it’s a worthwhile career to peruse.  Especially to those who, like me, are not morning people or cannot see themselves sitting behind a desk each day.  It’s a very social job, also very physical, so helps keep you in shape, and being Union is a very secure career.  On the other hand, while your specific job at a show is secure, there is no telling how long that particular show will run, so you have to have the proper mindset to accept that at any moment, sometimes with little warning, your entire company may end…. usually with 1-2 weeks’ notice.  You can contact the local Union house for the backstage specialty you are interested in, each has their own (wardrobe, hair + makeup, props/crew, stage management, even house staff and ushers!) and find out their requirements for joining.  They vary greatly!

S: Working backstage as a dresser means you have to be able to work closely with the actors and other dressers. This is clearly a creative and collaborative process among you all–how do you all work together and make sure everyone is doing their part?

This mostly gets worked out during tech week, as far as what everyone’s part is, and that includes everyone in the building, from the dayworkers in wardrobe who must prep the costumes and make them ready for the show, to the backstage crew who are setting costumes, set pieces, checking lights and mics, to the actors who have to show up certain places during the show at very specific times.  Once everyone’s assigned tasks are set, it’s Stage Managements job to make sure everyone is doing their part correctly.  If someone misses a cue or a swing forgets something Stage Management will usually catch it, or at least be told about it, then that person will be called to explain themselves.  As a team member, you never want to be the one who forgot something because everyone will know!

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

K: I would say try something you’ve never done, but don’t think you like, such as an activity or even just eating a new food item.  So many things that I like I never thought I would and if I hadn’t tried it I would be missing out!  You might even find a new hobby you enjoy!

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I cannot thank Kimmie enough for answering my students and my questions. This was such a thorough explanation of not only her role as a member of the backstage team of a show, but how her role connects with all of the other backstage roles. It is extremely evident to me that, while Kimmie might not have been cut out for Kindergarten where I feel comfortable with my students, I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel in her role. This was such a fun perspective to view a performance through, and my students and I have learned so much. As if Kimmie’s many responsibilities as a dresser aren’t enough, she also advocates for and helps raise money for the New Jersey Freedom Farm, which you can support here. In addition to supporting the animals and organization, she raffles off one-of-a-kind prizes on her Instagram account, @dunkinscout. I look forward to my students taking on her challenge and hope to see my readers’ responses in comments.

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