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

Broadway · Performances · The Human Connection

Give My Regards to Broadway: What I’ve Learned from the 2017-18 Broadway Season

Every time I get to participate in live theatre as an audience member, I walk away with new lessons learned, new perspectives, and new ideas to bring into the speech room. With the Tonys a week away, and knowing the audience is the real winner since we get to experience something so unique, I’ve decided to list what I’ve learned from the shows I’ve seen from the 2017-18 Broadway season.

  • SpongeBob SquarePants
    This show taught me that I need to access joy more in my everyday life. I brought it back into the speech room immediately. Yes, I will always make a plan, no it will not always work, and yes, I can find the joy in the chaos. I was also able to bring back the message of keeping oneself informed and speaking up for what you believe in. Though I always teach this to my students, using the cast album gave both my students and I a new way to access an idea we’ve been working at for some time now.
  • Frozen
    Above all, love, compassion, and empathy. While watching this show, the weight of love in the room–between cast members onstage, parents and children in the audience–was so present. The message of the importance of being you, exactly the way you are. I came back with a lesson ready for my students: “I love the way I am because ____________________.”. This was one of my favorite lessons of the year. I got to see how my kids were proud of themselves and why. Sometimes educators forget that students are people with thoughts and feelings. Just because they’re young does not mean they should be discounted in any capacity. This also allowed them to feel free to ask me what I was proud of myself for and see how similar adults and children can be in this regard.
  • Mean Girls
    The anthem, “I’d Rather Be Me” (though not speech room friendly) rang true. Ironically, it was around this time that some drama was stirring up between some students, and gave me a new plan on how to address some of these issues. No, trust falls were not involved, but honest expression was used. Through collaboration with parents and staff, all issues were resolved and all is well. This also opened the discussion in pragmatics of what is a friend/acquaintance/best friend and how are they similar and different?
  • Carousel
    I’ve written about this in a previous post, but Carousel taught me the value of perspective. To listen for the feedback my kids were giving me about lessons, what they enjoyed, what they didn’t. I got to think about therapy through the mind of a child, and what my effect was on each of them. I reminded them that I’m always here for them regardless of the issue, and that they will always have my support.

This week, I challenge my students and readers to let me know what lessons they’ve learned from a performance they’ve seen or been involved in. What did you learn, and how has it impacted you?

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

Autism Awareness · Broadway · The Human Connection

You’ll Never Walk Alone: Carousel and Autism Spectrum Disorder

I can’t believe it’s already April, which means it’s Autism Awareness month. For the record, it is always Autism Awareness month in my speech room, but for this month, we get a bit more of the spotlight. I choose to use this time to show how the recent revival of Carousel taught me to better understand my students on the spectrum.

The show is a story about two truly different individuals that even the whole town considers to be quirky. This made me think of the way my students are seen by the people in their lives who may not understand everything about their worlds. It takes a lot for me to step outside of the world in which I view my kids, so this can be tricky. My kids can be viewed from obsessive to single-minded, talkative to mute, docile to aggressive. Like Julie, currently played by Jessie Mueller, I view all of my students as beautiful.

There is a reason for every behavior and action my students show me. Not all communication is verbal, and I find their expressions beautiful. Stepping into their worlds for as long as they’ll allow me is a gift. I cherish it every minute I work with them. I’ve learned more from these children than I’ll learn from most adults. I learn about the beauty of numbers, technology, and verbal and nonverbal communication between children. The reciprocity and value and strength of words is all theirs, and from the simplest requests to the most complex explanations, I get to view it all. I get to understand them, and this is not a gift afforded to all.

This week, I challenge you to learn something about yourself or someone else by experiencing something new.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP

Broadway · Inclusion · Interview · The Human Connection · Wise Words

Make Them Hear You: A Conversation With Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

Growing up dancing, an integral part of my life was music. When I knew I needed to get emotion out or truly dig down deep and express myself, music was what let me find myself through dance. Stories got told and feelings were freed–joy, sorrow, what have you–through no better musical style than that of musical theatre. There are many great writer-composer duos, but there are truly none that have struck a chord in me such that Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have over the years.

Ragtime has such a grip on my heart that I know it will never let me go, Anastasia fills me with such joy and wonder that I never want to leave that world, and Little Dancer, which was shown at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., is a show that truly needs to reach more audiences. It is the music of theirs I relate to most–once a dancer always a dancer.

Just before I worked up the nerve to ask for this interview, a dear friend of mine and I started texting the lyrics to School House Rock back and forth because Lynn Ahrens wrote them! That’s right, the same material I use to create therapy lessons for my students are the ones that help my friends and me remember facts we learned in school. This interaction is one I’ll not soon forget, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Stage SLP: What got you interested in theatre?

Lynn Ahrens: The first Broadway show I saw was Fiddler on the Roof, and it made me very interested in the art of telling stories in song. Years later I took a musical theater workshop, and the idea of actually writing for the theater took hold.

Stephen Flaherty: I’d been playing the piano since I was seven but what really got me interested in music for the theater was when I saw a touring production of the musical Godspell when I was twelve. I knew I had to be a part of that magic. That same year I wrote my first music for the theater: additional underscoring for my school’s production of Peter Pan.

S: For my students, editing can be really tough. So can finding the main idea or summarizing. Many of my students are working on these skills in speech and wanted to know how this translates into writing lyrics?

A: Lyric writing is all about editing, and each song needs to be concise. The classic song form is AABA—which means A) set up a premise or idea, A2) expand on that same idea, B) Develop the idea in a different direction and then A3) wrap up the idea. Not every song has this form, but it’s a good place to start, and a good way to think about organizing ideas. Maybe the simple AABA format will be of help to your students in organizing and building on their ideas. And of course, every word needs to count and be as clear and colorful as possible.

S: Do you have any advice for how to get beyond frustration when you’re brainstorming or get stuck?

A: Your mind is always busy solving problems. Sometimes you just need to take a break from what you’re trying to solve, and give your brain some breathing space to sort it out. Go to the library. Talk a walk. Take a nap. Let you mind wander. Do not go to your iPhone or Computer.

F: Yes. “Change the channel”: Take a walk (WITHOUT your cell phone), go to a park, go to a museum. Any of these may spark something or help you look at what you are working on with new eyes. And always carry what you need to capture your ideas when they do come, so you can quickly record it and remember that spark of inspiration.

S: You have written the lyrics to so many wonderful shows. Some of the most powerful lyrics I’ve ever heard, are those of yours in Ragtime. This is one of the shows I firmly believe had a hand in molding my upbringing. Can you talk about what that process and experience was like for you?

A: This would take a book to describe. Suffice to say, it was a wonderful collaborative experience, and once we sorted out how the many story strands could be organized, the writing came quickly. I think the first draft was done in about 6 months. The novel is written in a very declarative style, without a lot of dialogue, but I found the lyrics “in between the lines” –in other words, in what the characters didn’t say.

S: I have seen Anastasia twice now and another visit to the Broadhurst is certainly not out of the question. Why did you feel the need to come back to this particular work and add to it?

A: We always thought we could expand and deepen the story if we were given the chance, and when producers came to us to adapt the film for the stage we leaped at the chance. We’ve been able to make the story more adult, more complex, we’ve eliminated a couple of the most cartoony characters and have created a more realistic antagonist. The show is more historically accurate than the animated movie, too, and we got to write a slew of terrific new songs for characters who never really got to sing in the original.

F: There was a deeper story to tell. In an animated film you can only go so far and so deep. With film, you’re not the captain of the ship; the producer is. We knew there was more to discover about our characters and had a strong desire to bring the story back to its original historical roots. Luckily, the film company agreed, and we were able to go forward. It’s certainly been a journey!

S: I was extremely fortunate to get to see Little Dancer at The Kennedy Center. I found theatre through dance, and this show is my favorite of the nearly eighty I’ve seen so far. What drew you to this project?

A:I had always admired Degas’ Little Dancer sculpture, but for some reason I suddenly began to wonder about the girl who posed for it—who was she? What was her story? I did some research and found out the few known facts about her and her family, and then decided to weave those facts into a fiction, set in the colorful backstage world of the French ballet.

F: Thank you! As a composer I wanted to write more for the dance world, and we both wanted to work with Susan Stroman, who was central to the creation of this piece. Lynn came up with the central idea: The story of this young ballerina who would inspire a great work of art becoming, in many ways, the most famous dancer in the world. We are still working on the show, focusing the story and deepening the central relationship between Marie and Degas.

S: You also wrote the book for Little Dancer. For those who may not know, what is the difference between writing the book and the lyrics?

A: Lyrics are the words that are sung in a musical. Book is the scene by scene structure of the musical, and all the spoken words in those scenes.

S: Is there a future for Little Dancer so more people can be as amazed by it as I was and continue to be?

F: There is a future. We are in discussions currently about another regional production with its sights on Broadway. So…fingers crossed!

A: We hope it will come to Broadway at some point in the next year and a half.

S: What inspires you to write?

A: Life, literature, music…the world at large.

F: Many things inspire me to write. I tend to be curious by nature. I think you need that quality to be a writer or composer. Inspiration is everywhere, you just need to open your eyes, ears, and heart and dare to look.

S: We have a school-wide goal of collaboration, and you two are well known for your partnership together. What is it like working consistently with the same partner?

A: It takes patience, kindness, a sense of humor and a willingness to forgive. We are also very honest with one another.

F: Over time, you change as both individuals and writing partners. That’s one of the things that makes it all interesting. We both cultivate our own interests, and that allows us to bring new things to our collaborative process. You have to develop trust and know that you can pursue and try any idea without the fear of it not being “good enough,” without fear of failure. Once you have that freedom with a partner you are able to really fly.

S: Do you have any advice for my students on how to be a productive partner in collaborative work?

A: Keep an open mind, listen to their ideas, and rather than saying “I don’t like that idea, try saying: “Maybe not that, but that gives me another idea. How about this?” Try to build on each other’s ideas.

F: Yes. It’s all about trust, support, and honesty. And knowing that criticism, when it is good criticism, making your piece and yourself the best it—and you—can be. Honesty coupled with kindness is key.

S: You got to write for School House Rock, and I can tell you that I use your lyrics with my students in grammar lessons frequently. What is it like to have lyrics that have such a life of their own that adults who heard them as kids still quote your lyrics?

A: It’s very gratifying and also very weird.

S:  Once On This Island is being revived this season! What is it like to see new casts bring new life to your work?

A: It’s very exciting to see your work sung by new actors, and interpreted differently by new directors. Theater is a live medium, so it’s never the same twice. That’s what keeps it interesting.

F:  New casts bring new ideas and takes on characters. Everyone is different and unique. In this revival, we have adapted some of the material to fit these actors and their voices perfectly. We’re tailoring the music to fit them the way a tailor would fit someone with a new suit. It’s thrilling to see this production take on a whole new life, and I’m excited about bringing the show to a whole new generation of theatre-goers.

S: What is the difference between writing from the perspective of pure fiction, as is the case in Seussical, a period piece as in Ragtime, or a mixture of both like Anastasia? Does one genre come more easily to you than another?

A: I’m inspired by stories, worlds, and the characters who live in those worlds. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s fictional or not, as long as it feels like it wants to leap into song. That means that whatever the project, it needs to have built-in emotions and drama. I try never to repeat place or time in my shows.

F: No, although I had to do much more research both musically and historically for Anastasia and Ragtime. Seussical, for me, was about play and the love of language and sound. I got to become a kid again, which was great fun, especially since I was turning 40 at the time!

S: What should audiences know about the work that goes into writing the lyrics for a show that they may not realize?

A: Every song has about a million decisions per square inch. What is the rhyme scheme going to be? What is the idea? What does the character sound like—are they educated? Do they have an accent? Where are they from? What are the details of their life? Is the lyric going to be dense and heavily rhymed or simple and direct? That long note is going to require an open vowel sound. The actor is going to need to take a breath somewhere. I could go on and on. And if you think about all the details in one song, think about all the details in a whole show, from lights to costumes to sets to wigs to makeup to sound…. It’s mind boggling.

F: I consider myself a dramatist first and tell stories through music. Story, character, and inner emotional life of that character always dictates the music, its tone, rhythm, and tempo. Once I can fully visualize and understand the character in that moment I can begin to write music.

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

F: Exactly that: Go to the place that excites you without necessarily knowing how you will pull it off. Being scared is not a negative and can lead you to wonderful things. Oh, the thinks you can think!

A: Get together, find a story—could be a fairytale, a personal story, someone’s favorite book, anything—and try writing a musical together.
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“Oh the thinks you can think!” indeed! If you had asked me if I ever thought I’d get to learn about some of my favorite pieces of art from those who gave them life, I would have laughed. I grew up listening to, feeling, and poorly singing the work of this dynamic duo, and am happy to say that, though some things change with age, that’s not one of them! This interview is one of my most insightful to date. I love hearing the creative perspective that, all too often, goes untold. Through this process, I’ve been challenged to look at my own writing differently, as well as viewing my students’ perspectives through a different lens. I am very excited to see what my students and I will create from theses challenges and the wisdom Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty so generously shared, and look forward to hearing your takes on the challenges in comments.

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

 

Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection · Wise Words

Somebody’s Got Your Back: A Conversation With Chad Beguelin

Since I was small, Aladdin has always been my favorite Disney movie. This remains true to this day. So much so that whenever my father sees something with Princess Jasmine on it, he buys it for his adult daughter. There may or may not be a box of Princess Jasmine cereal in my pantry. When Aladdin was announced as a stage musical, my dad and I could not buy tickets fast enough. Like anyone else who loves something, I was protective of the material I loved, but equally excited to see how this work would be adapted for the stage and the theatrical changes made. Many of my students have come back to me to tell me they’ve seen the show, and wanted to know what I knew about “all the things that weren’t in the movie.” It only made sense for me to reach out to Chad Beguelin, who wrote the book and lyrics of the stage musical. Here’s our conversation!

S: What got you interested in theatre?

C: My parents took me to see a community theater production of “Oliver!” when I was a kid. I was immediately transported and knew right then that I wanted to be involved with live theater. I had no idea that you could actually make a career out of it at that point, I just knew I wanted to be around the magic of theater.

S: What drew you into writing for theatre versus performing?

C: I originally went to NYU as an actor. I quickly realized that I wasn’t that good. There were so many talented actors in my class and I just wasn’t one of them. In high school, I had written skits for our annual variety show. I decided at NYU to take a class in playwriting. I was encouraged by my professor to pursue a double major in Drama and Dramatic Writing. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed on and got my Masters in Dramatic Writing at NYU.

S: For my students, editing can be really tough. So can finding the main idea or summarizing. Many of my students are working on these skills in speech and wanted to know how this translates into writing lyrics?

C: When you’re writing words to music, you are limited to how many syllables you can use. This means that you have to pack as much meaning into each word as you can. It forces you to edit the writing down to the bare essence. There is a duet for Aladdin and Jasmine in Act One where they dream of escaping their lives. An earlier version of the song was called “Just A Dream Away”. I quickly realized that it was too vague. What does that mean? I rewrote the song and it became “A Million Miles Away”. That was something much more tangible for an audience to understand. Aladdin and Jasmine literally want to run “a million miles away” from their day-to-day lives. This became a theme that I could build upon throughout the song. “We’ll join a caravan tonight!” or “Maybe we’ll journey on the sea!” So finding a main idea is crucial in lyric writing, as is editing thoughts down to their essence. I’m constantly asking myself, “What is the point of this song?” Finding the main idea makes it easier to elaborate.

S: What is the difference between writing the book of a show and writing lyrics?

C: The book of the show is the script or all of the spoken words. The lyrics are all of the words that are sung. There is a lot of freedom when you’re writing the book because you aren’t limited to words that fit a musical phrase. However, the goal of writing lyrics or a line of dialogue are the same. Everything said or sung should either advance the plot or reveal character – or in the best-case scenario, do both!

 

S: Do you have any advice for how to get beyond frustration when you’re brainstorming or get stuck?

C: If it’s possible, I always find it’s helpful to talk it out with another person. It’s great to bounce ideas off of someone else. If I’m by myself, I will actually talk to myself as I pace the room. “Why isn’t this working? If there another angle that I’m missing?” It sounds crazy, but I need to pace and talk out loud.

S: You’ve gotten to work on both The Wedding Singer, Elf, and Aladdin, all of which were adapted from film. What is the most exciting and challenging part of contributing to projects that may already have a strong fan base?

C: It’s important to give the audience the big moments from the movie that they are expecting. However, it would do no good to just put a carbon copy of the movie onstage. People would just watch the movie if they wanted a straightforward adaptation. So there’s always a tricky line that has to be negotiated. The key is to create something that honors the movie, but is its own creation.

S: What inspires you to write?

C: As a professional writer, I’m given deadlines by producers and have to honor them. This means that even if I’m not entirely inspired to write, I have to find a way to become inspired. Thankfully, writing musicals is a collaborative process. I usually get inspired while talking to my co-writers or the director of a project. We spend a lot of time as a group discussing song ideas or how scenes should build. This makes it much easier when it’s time to sit down and do the actual writing.

S: In terms of theatre, you are considered part of the creative team. Do you have any advice for my students on how to be a productive partner in collaborative work?

C: I am extremely supportive of the other people on the creative team. You have to create a safe space where people can say what they think are dumb ideas, because dumb ideas usually lead to good ones. We all try to encourage one another and we also are very respectful even when we disagree. When someone comes up with a good idea, everyone wins. It doesn’t matter who came up with what, it matters that the show is successful. So we are quick to praise one another and delicate with our criticisms. This creates an environment where we can trust one another and come up with a bunch of ideas, both bad and good.

S: You got to write for Aladdin, which is such a beloved Disney film, and my personal favorite. Was it as magical for you to help create and add to the theatrical experience as it is for the audiences to watch?

C: The development process was actually very difficult and daunting. We had two “out of town tryouts” where we performed the show outside of New York to gauge audience responses and perfect the show. The tryout right before Broadway was in Toronto and the critics trashed the show. It was very hard to figure out why they disliked the production so much. We had to rethink and rewrite almost the entire show. It was a very difficult time, but we had to dissect what wasn’t working and why. Thankfully, when the show got to Broadway the reviews were great and the audiences where cheering. But we had to do a ton of work between Toronto and Broadway.

S: For Aladdin, were you encouraged to use the movie or other source material inspiration?

C: The movie was a launching pad for the script and score of the musical. However, there were several songs that were written for the movie that got cut before it was released. The composer, Alan Menken, wanted me to incorporate as many of those cut songs into the stage version of the show. So it was my job to figure out how to make those songs work. This meant adding new characters and reshaping the story line to fit them into the show.

S: What is it like to have lyrics that have such a life of their own that adults and children can recite them?

C: It’s very exciting when we’re listening to Sirius radio in the car and a song I wrote the lyrics for comes on. That’s very surreal.

S: What should audiences know about the work that goes into writing the lyrics for a show that they may not realize?

C: Lyrics are very tricky. They have to rhyme, but the audience shouldn’t anticipate the rhyme. And when words are being sung, the writer has to make sure that the correct stress is on the right syllable.

S: My students love to be creative in their own way, which may or may not include performing. Would you encourage them to explore the creative/backstage aspect of theatre?

C: I’d encourage anyone interested in theater to get involved in any aspect of putting on a show. When I was a kid, I didn’t get cast in a community theater production of “My Fair Lady”. That didn’t stop me. I volunteered to work backstage and had a blast. I also made a bunch of new friends. It was a great experience.

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

C: I would say write something and share it with someone you trust. It’s a cliché, but the old saying “writing is rewriting” is very true. Share something you’ve written and discuss it with that person. It will make you look at what you’ve written in a whole new light.

As a theatre-goer and fan, I learned so much from this discussion, and am so grateful to Chad for agreeing to share his knowledge with me. I absolutely love everything about the stage production, especially “A Million Miles Away.” My students share my passion for this show and were so excited to get writing advice from the man who worked on a stage production that’s left them awestruck. I can’t wait for them to take on this challenge, and their classroom teachers will appreciate it too!

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