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

Inclusion · Interview · The Human Connection

It Was Red and Yellow and Green and Brown: A Conversation with Andrea Koehler

I have never really been someone who enjoyed art as a kid. I liked the creative aspect, and I liked to make things look pretty. Truth be told, the vision in my head rarely made it to the final product. However, I vividly remember loving to color and draw, up until around age eleven. I have no idea why I stopped. Fast forward to the last few years when adult coloring books became popular. I thought I’d give those a try, and all it did was stress me out—the designs were too intricate and all of a sudden there were too many colors to pick from. What if I messed up? How in the world was this supposed to be relaxing? I just didn’t understand. And then, at BroadwayCon 2018, I met Andrea Koehler of Coloring Broadway and The Coloring Project. Magically, I was hooked on coloring again. I found it engaging and relaxing, and –get this—ENJOYABLE. Andrea and I talked about many things during our conversation, but what I took away was why coloring works for me, mindful activities, and the combination of the creative and the collaborative involved in this project.

S: How did these coloring pages come to be?

A: My why behind these pages is the mindfulness component that can be found in musical lyrics. I’m very picky in which lyrics we choose to highlight. Obviously, it has its connection to Broadway, but the point isn’t to call out a single show. “Hello, Dolly!” is a great line, but there isn’t much meaning to ponder behind that particular statement (or is there?). The reason I love the coming together of mindfulness and musical theatre is that musical theatre gives you all of these wonderfully inspirational lyrics.

S: I agree. I like that they’re not show specific.

A: And you don’t have to know it’s from a show to know the line is meaningful. However, finding they lyrics was easier with some shows, and harder with others. For example, Hamilton was easier to create than SpongeBob because Hamilton’s lyrics are full of meaningful snippets that are more easily understood out of context. And I don’t want to get pigeon-holed. I want to cover the breadth of Broadway keeping the focus on the mindfulness of the lyrics. We currently have a list of most-requested shows to pull from in the future. The number one suggestion at BroadwayCon was The Great Comet. I have to balance what people want with what will be most popularly purchased from a business perspective. We want to create a 2017-2018 season coloring book or coloring set.

S: So, let me tell you, I am not a colorer, but your pages changed that! They relieved stress. And my friends laughed at me and said, “You did that? You don’t do art.” Now I have gone out and bought markers and pencils and I keep coloring!

A: May I suggest the extra fine Sharpies? They’re really good for coloring. My step-son asked if we could color with Sharpies one day and I caved, and now I will never go back.

S: Is there a right way to color?

A: No, there’s totally not. Use whatever you like to use. I want it to be easy for everyone. That’s actually why I currently make coloring pages. A book has lots of pages and there can be a pressure to complete all of the pages before you move on. With the collections we’ve made, you can pick and choose and change which pages you’re working on.

S: That is exactly the issue I had with deciding between some of your pages, and why I like the coloring pages. Is there a difference between Coloring Broadway and The Coloring Project?

A: Coloring Broadway came out of The Coloring Project. I have a 20-year background in training and development, and the last four-five years I spent doing leadership training and personal development in a corporate setting. That’s why I’m big on self-awareness. The only way we grow as a humanity is by understanding who we are and how we’re showing up to a situation. If we never look at how we function, we won’t grow individually or as a humanity (If we don’t know, we can’t grow :P). And then in April 2015, I picked up a coloring book. It was all I wanted to do for two weeks. I realized it was a tool, and for many things. Calming, creativity, and a way to create space for thought. Your brain has space to think when you’re coloring—you’re not getting any little red or beeping notifications, which can keep thoughts from being allowed to occur. It’s a tool for thinking and for focus. Our brains have been “untrained” from being able to focus and do deep work. We think about a zillion things at once. You listen better when you’re doodling or doing a non-cognitive activity – it keeps your “monkey mind” focused and allows you the space to listen or think.  Coloring is a non-cognitive activity. I created The Coloring Project to blend mindfulness as an activity with coloring. With The Coloring Project, I created a coloring book, The Power of Positive Coloring, that has a mindfulness activity that goes with each of the illustrations.  . It has prompts to get them thinking while they color,  something like, “While you’re coloring the word ‘Inspire’ think about what inspires you.”  Coloring Broadway happened because one of my illustrators and I both love Broadway. It’s a very niche audience, but it took on a life of its own.

S: I mean, give Broadway people something, and we will run with it.

A: Being at BroadwayCon was unreal. It was a great setting for us. We sold about half of what we brought with us, and we met with a bunch of different people and got great feedback. We’re already planning for next year.

S: That’s you and Tatro and Dr. Drama and other creators, right?

A: Yes! I love the Broadway makers. We’re a fun group.

S: I’m excited for whatever you come up with. I can’t believe I didn’t lead with this, but how did you get into theatre?

A: My mom was a ballerina and I grew up in dance. At 13, I quit dancing (self-esteem and body issues) and did all academics for my entire high school career. My friend group was friends with the theatre group at another high school and we pretty much followed them wherever they went. We saw their shows and sang all of the showtunes. That was my way in.  Another way of connecting to how I felt that wasn’t dancing.

S: Do you have an intended audience? Has it changed?

A: Broadway fans. Always Broadway fans, but there are multiple audiences. There’s kids, who are just starting to connect with theatre, and the teens in their fandoms, and the adults who want a souvenir. My audience is anyone who wants to extend their theatrical experience. You can buy a poster or a magnet and have nice memories, but through coloring, it can reconnect you to what moved you while you were in the theatre. And you get to create alongside what you know from the show with your own creative mentality.

S: Again, coloring wasn’t my thing until I saw your designs. What makes your designs different?

A: For the most part, the quotes that stand on their own. Everyone wants to hear the messages of the images. And our illustrator, Justine Fisher, has a wonderful sense of design and we tease out what the theme of the quote is. We match the theme of the quote to a design. My favorite one of hers is The Room Where It Happens. It’s not overly complex, and it holds meaning and is accomplishable in a short amount of time. The designs are created to be completed within 1-2 hours of beginning. I’ve made it take longer than that, but it can be done in a reasonable amount of time.

S: Does it start with the quote or the design?

A: Usually, it starts with the quote. Sometimes it starts with the music. When I brought up Hamilton, Justine hadn’t heard it yet. The emotion behind her experience listening is what drove her illustrations. She has an incredible ability to convey the message through different mediums within the visual realm.

S: For you as a creator, is there pressure on you for your pages to be liked, or do you just create what you enjoy?

A: It’s different since I’m not the illustrator. Justine and I will sit with the quote and talk it out. She has a different aesthetic than I do, and that’s where I find pressure. As long as she and I are pleased with it, I’m not terribly concerned.

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

A:  My challenge is to finish the statement, “I am.” Finish it in as many ways as you can. Explore all of the sides of that statement that apply to you. This is the beginning of self-awareness, which I am very passionate about. Learning about yourself and accepting all that you are is key. Take five minutes. If you can do that beyond five minutes, great, but start with five minutes.

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I am currently obsessed with Andrea’s Coloring Broadway pages, and message her every time I complete a new one. We had more fun than necessary during this interview, which is the best kind of fun. I’ve already taken her challenge, and it’s amazing to own the many things that I am. My students have begun to undertake this challenge, too, and are learning so much about themselves. It’s a joy to watch, and I can’t wait to hear how you all complete this exercise in comments. Because I know you totally need these coloring pages (and those to come), follow Andrea at @ColoringBWAY on Twitter and @coloringbroadway on Instagram. You can find her Etsy shop, The Coloring Project, with both Broadway and non-Broadway coloring options.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP

Inclusion · Interview

A World of Pure Imagination: A Conversation with Will Barrios of Tatro

One of the best parts of my job is getting to vicariously relive my childhood through the experiences of my students. The very best days are the ones that revolve around imaginative play. As a kid, I entertained myself endlessly with imaginative games I created. Now that I think back on it, they were less like games, and more like plays, in that I’d revisit the characters and their worlds daily. They had backstory and plot, and my friends were excellent collaborators. Will Barrios has created the limitless playset, Tatro. Through his product he is taking play to a whole new level by bringing us all back to the basics of using your imagination. I got to see this product at BroadwayCon, and as a speech pathologist I see endless possibilities for all of the goals my students are working on. Not only is it multi-function, but it’s lightweight, portable, and magnetic so the students (or I) won’t lose the pieces. Will and I talked about the creation of Tatro, the collaborative aspect of creating a playset that runs on the operator’s creativity, and the importance of play.

Stef: How did you get into theatre?

Will: I was in a production of Where the Wild Things Are in preschool. As it turns out, I ended up going through the entire rehearsal process and not being able to perform in the production because my aunt came to visit us the same weekend. If you were to ask my mother, she’d probably say I went after theatre to take back the experience of missing my first performance. I didn’t really revisit theatre again until I was nine and auditioned for Godspell. The cast was all ages and it was the first show that showed me that this is what theatre does—it creates these bonds and communities and after that I just wanted to do it again and again. Since then, I’ve always been extremely creative by nature.

S: How does being a theatre fan turn into creating a playset?

W: I was homeschooled for my seventh-grade year, and I was still doing shows around town. But more than being a theatre kid, I was just a creative kid.  As a creative kid, I was always creating shows at home. I’d build set pieces and bring them home. I made sets and put on shows for my parents. I did it until my parents said I couldn’t do it in the house anymore, and so I built a theatre in the garage. I had risers and a green room and sets, and I got to do this with my friends. I needed a way to make this smaller, so I could be creative in the house in addition to what I had set up in the garage. One day I was watching a show on television about magnets, and I thought, “What if I did that but with characters as magnets with a magnetic floor?” So, I got some cardboard and cut out a proscenium hole with a magnetic floor and made the characters. Tatro is the durable, reproduceable version of what that was.

S: So, dedication and drive has always been part of your DNA, huh?

W: I guess you could call it that, but it’s the joy of creating. I ended up going to design school in New York. For me, it’s the joy of creating. That’s what Tatro’s centered around. I want to give that back so kids can create in any way possible without instructions.

S: This is all how your materials got chosen, magnets over Velcro and the like?

W: Well yeah. I was thinking of a couple different materials and I came across magnets. They’re durable over time and I went with it and stayed with it.

S: I love it. I love that it is simple play that is accessible to everyone. Everything is so technology-based now, I have students who are learning how to code. My tech knowledge is not that advanced. Those same kids still come to me with “I have this grand idea, check it out, but I can’t do it. I’d never get it right.” I’ve found with a lot of kids, fear of failure can be a deterrent from even beginning a project. You’ve stuck with this for so long. What would you say to my students?

W: I have a really good friend who has a great mind for business. We were talking about my process. I mentioned failure to him, and he said, “You never fail; you pivot.” And it changed everything. You don’t fail, you pivot. You try something else when the first thing doesn’t work out and eventually you’ll figure it out. How do you eradicate the fear? You ask questions and ask for feedback and move in that direction.

S: We’ve had conversations about what this product would look like in a speech therapy session, and you shared that you worked on articulation in speech therapy as a kid, and without thinking I was able to find three different ways to use Tatro to target articulation goals. I know you’ve been talking with other health professionals and other theatre-branded creators. Who is your target audience for Tatro?

W: So, I was a creative kid, and I thought if I loved this, so would other creative kids. That was my initial market. I found that this could be a very narrow audience and wanted to see how to expand it. What’s interesting was I had psychologists, parents, and even educators come out of the woodwork with interest, which allowed for a larger audience beyond the creative kids. Right now, I’m finding parents and therapists are very interested in Tatro, which is great.

S: I really do think it’s a product for everyone.  All of that said, how do you feel about Tatro being used for therapeutic purposes?

W:  I have always thought that it had a lot of potential in talking with different professionals. I get the feedback of its durability and scalability and I didn’t realize how important that was. It’s doing what I wanted in the beginning, which is working without limits and boundaries. You can have different settings and characters and create any world, which allows an uninhibited, unlimited amount of imagination.

S: I think it’s a great tool. As someone who would use it for language, I can see it being used for turn taking, perspective sharing, social skills, language comprehension…really, I can do so much with this one playset that I can with a lot of my materials. The creation of this seems like a huge undertaking, is it all you or are you working with a team?

W: Aside from me, I work with an illustrator, a product design firm. There are very specific components of the product that their skill set matches. I also have a lot of really awesome people in various fields—education, health professions—who are so passionate about the product, and I’m reaching out to them for feedback and as product ambassadors.

S: So, what does collaboration look like for you?

W: Really clear communication. As our conversations continue about the development of the product, and in four months we’d come up with a proposal that went from a design to manufacturing. As we kept talking, patience and clarity of message and really listening to each other made this process so smooth. It’s been an amazing experience so far.

S: Sounds like everyone involved is learning from each other.

W: Yeah! The key is really our abilities to listen and hear each other in all aspects of development. The team has stuck with me as much as I’ve stuck with them. As tedious as this can get, they’ve been so supportive every step of the way.

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

W: Do something that scares you. As simple as it is, what scares you? Talking to someone you don’t know yet? Go talk to them. What’s the worst that could happen? Get creative. Embrace the moment of feeling scared and be aware of feeling scared. You will come out of it, and there is growth in experiencing that feeling and in coming out of that feeling.

 

In case you couldn’t tell, I could not be more excited about Tatro and what it’s going to open up for kids’ creativity. I have already pre-ordered mine and I know it will be the perfect addition to my therapeutic tools. To learn more about Tatro, and even pre-order your own, click here. Preorders are open once a month and are announced on Instagram at @tatrotoy and on Facebook at Facebook.com/tatrotoy. What started out as one of Will’s creative endeavors as a child is going to give so much back to even more children, and I am so excited to watch that happen.  Will and I are both very eager to hear how this challenge goes for all of you, so please let us know in comments.

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

 

Inclusion · Lesson Plans · The Human Connection

How Do You Measure A Year: One Year Active, and One Active Year!

1B7CF3B5-FFAB-4CAE-8769-CFBB90464A0ETwo years ago today, I saw a show called Hamilton: An American Musical, and left the theatre wondering what I would create as a legacy to leave behind. I knew I was reaching my students and their families, but I wanted to do more. I felt incredibly limited. I spent a lot of my time wondering what else I could do? Who else could I reach? And how would I do it?

In January of 2017, I attended the second annual BroadwayCon in New York City and got to see what so many artists were creating. I heard so many messages of encouragement, almost as if it was the mantra of the convention. Create what’s in your head, and you’ll figure it out. I had been sitting on the idea of this blog for a year at that point, and needed something new to focus my creative energy on. After seeking the advice of a few key people immediately following that weekend, I knew I had to create this space.

On March 29th, 2017, I acted. I took to my computer and decided to expand my speech community the only way I knew how: through theatre. Theatre has always been my home, my family, no matter where I’ve been in life. I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t care, either. I knew I was going to share my ideas and lessons, and if I did it right, I’d reach families beyond the four walls of my speech room. I’d reach educators and families and other children and give them the community I had always loved. Initially, it would be my take on everything within my practice as an SLP, with spotlights on lesson plans and my therapeutic approach. I was even ambitious enough to post twice weekly, though I quickly learned with my caseload that just wasn’t manageable, and went back to my weekly posts.

This year on the blog has been a rollercoaster for me. I’d go from great feelings of accomplishment, to many moments of doubt, reminding my students along the way that adults don’t always have it all figured out. Most of those moments included wondering why anyone I was reaching out to would want to talk with me. Never EVER doubt the theatre community–they will ALWAYS surprise you. I have gotten to talk to heroes of mine, many people I admire, and have had some of the most kind and honest conversations I’ve ever been fortunate enough to participate in. I adore this community and every time I edit an interview, I’m reminded even more of why that holds true. Thank you to all of you who have been so generous with your time. My gratitude is truly beyond words.

My students and I have gained so much from all of your knowledge, and I hope, dear readers, that this is also true for you. It is my wish that you’ve learned something, challenged yourself, or just become more open to hearing someone’s story. If you’re anything like me, you;ve learned to throw your mental script out the window and just listen. Thank you for joining me, sticking with me, and supporting me.

Cheers to an amazing first year, and my challenge to you is to create that idea that’s in your head. You never know where it’ll take you.

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

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

Tap Your Troubles Away: A Conversation With Chris Rice

Tap was a household staple in my childhood. I was either trying to learn how to do it, watching the greats perform it in the Golden Age of film, or watching my mom and Bubby literally dance around the house. When I was dancing, my mom picked up tap again, and can still dance circles around anyone my age—triple time steps, pullbacks, wings, you name it. She got that from her mother, who was a Rockette for a year. Then there was me, who could not figure tap out for her life. I worked hard at it for seven years before moving on to other dance styles in which mistakes weren’t audible or visible, but it’s still one of my favorite styles to watch. Chris Rice, most recently in Broadway’s Book of Mormon, made tap popular again by posting a video of he and his friends dancing to “Cups” from Pitch Perfect, which only started an entire #Tappy movement! Chris has such a delightful energy when he’s performing, you can’t help but grin from ear to ear. I got to talk to him about his creative process, perspective taking, and collaborating with others. Enjoy!

Stef the StageSLP: Which came first for you, dance or theatre, and how did you discover each?

Chris Rice: When I was a kid, my older sister went to ballet every week. My mom used to take me along and try to entertain me while my sister was dancing. Eventually, I started watching her in her class and would dance around the lobby area on my own. My mom thought she could enroll me and see how I took to dancing in a class setting. I really enjoyed it. My church also presented a large, Broadway-style musical every year. I auditioned as a child dancer and was cast at a pretty young age. Dance and storytelling have gone together ever since then!

S: I got to see you perform in Book of Mormon, which is still one of the most unique theatrical experiences I’ve ever seen. What was it like to be a part of something so well-known and sought-after?

C: It was a complete dream come true. I grew up as a musical-loving kid in Oklahoma who always dreamed of performing on Broadway. It has always been my passion. Being able to look back at that wide-eyed, enthusiastic kid and say “You did it” is a pretty special thing. Being a part of such a major production for such an extended amount of time was unlike anything I have done in my career. The crowds were insane and the show never had a performance where it wasn’t sold out in my entire run with the show. That is pretty spectacular.

S: What did you learn from being a part of such a show?

C: I learned so many things from being a part of The Book of Mormon. It was my first time performing on Broadway in New York City. I learned so many things about how a show is run and maintained and also how it is the responsibility of the actor to keep the material fresh and exciting for every single audience.

My job in the show is called a “swing” which means I understudy more than one role. I covered 7 different roles in The Book of Mormon and had to be ready to go on for any one of them at a moment’s notice. This taught me self-discipline, it taught me to trust myself, and it taught me how to be prepared.

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

C: I don’t usually get nervous to perform on stage anymore. It may happen occasionally, but usually when you open a stage show, you have had enough rehearsal to feel prepared.

Auditions still make me nervous for some reason. Maybe it is the fact that I don’t get to become a character and I have to be myself in the room. Don’t get me wrong; I am comfortable in my own skin. But perhaps it is easier to jump into a role because the work is done for you. The script and score of a musical lead you through the story. They set up the world of the character. In auditions, you are yourself and then you must jump into the world of a character in the middle of their journey. Something about this allows my nerves to creep in.

I think preparation is the key to eliminating or minimizing nervousness. If you have done the work and are prepared, you know you can do it. You have sung the song before and you have rehearsed the material enough so it is now in your body. Once you have done it enough, your confidence will grow and you’ll feel secure in what you are bringing to the table.

S: My students are working on perspective taking and point of view. How do you find your way into a character? Do you have any suggestions for my students for understanding someone else’s perspective?

C: I think some importance advice that someone gave me for this subject was that “Everyone is the hero of their own story.” What this means is that no character thinks of himself as the villain. Each character is only doing what they think is right. Jafar in Aladdin doesn’t think “I am a bad guy for wanting to become the Sultan of Agrabah” but from an audience’s perspective, there are usually “good guys” and “bad guys” and Jafar would clearly fit into the “bad guy” category. It is the job of the actor to get to a place where they can motivate the actions of every character honestly. You have to put yourself in the world of the character and think “What has this character gone through so far in their life to make them have these view points and to make them want the things they want?” This is the first step of bringing any character to life.

S: How did the #Tappy series come about?

C: I was actually sitting backstage at the Book of Mormon on Broadway and listening to the song Cups on the Pitch Perfect movie soundtrack. At the time, people were posting videos of them performing the song while creating the drum beat with cups and their hands. I wondered if anyone had done a video using tap sounds instead. I looked around online and couldn’t find anything so I was inspired to do it myself.

A few weeks later, I recorded my friends and myself performing the choreography and uploaded it on YouTube. Within 24 hours, we had 55 thousand views and within 8 days we had a million hits! The success of this video inspired me to continue choreographing and creating.

My second video was to the hit song “Happy”. We created the hashtag #Tappy and the Tappy series was born!

S: Collaborating is a district-wide goal for my students. How do you choose who you want to collaborate with in your #Tappy series? Do you have any tips for them?

C: I think the performing business is all about who you know. I started casting my videos by thinking “Who do I know that is talented and great to work with?” Life is too short for egos. You don’t want to work with someone who is going to take up the very limited rehearsal time with unnecessary drama so being a kind, collected, and respectful human being can help your career in addition to making your life more focused.

Moving on to future tap videos, I decided to “reach for the stars” and ask people who I only dreamed of performing with! Always try! I asked some big-time stars who were unable to participate due to contractual limitations, but others have said yes! I’ve had the opportunity to sing duets and to tap alongside some people who I have admired in the business for years! They could have all said no, but I asked anyway. You never know who will be willing to collaborate with you, so I say go for it!

On that note, please always be respectful of the time of your collaborators. Have a set (realistic) schedule, show up early, be prepared, and make the experience easy and great for them.

S: I’ve watched all of your videos multiple times and your joy when dancing is just contagious. Is that something you developed through dance, or are you just a genuinely enthusiastic person?

C: Without sounding like a jerk, I think I am a genuinely enthusiastic person. That said, dance elevates my joy in a way that I can’t quite describe. Dancing, and tapping specifically, brings a lot of happiness to me. I always admired dancers and definitely was not one myself. I had to work hard to even pass as a “mover”. Now, I am thankful I am in a place where I can perform while dancing and let my own personality shine through while also doing the correct steps with my feet.

S: What have you learned from acting that you can apply to your daily life?

C: Identify what you want, what your obstacles are, and make a plan of how to surpass them to arrive at your goal. That applies to a scene, a song, and to life.

S: What have you learned from dancing and choreographing that you apply to your daily life?

C: Spatial awareness is a huge lesson that the dance world has taught me. I can’t stand when I am in line for something and someone is breathing down my neck in line behind me or when someone cuts you off and is completely unaware of their body and the space you two share. Personal space is something we need to all become aware of and pay attention to in life and dancing and choreographing has helped me do so.

S: What does choreographing do for you that dancing does not, and what does dancing do for you creatively that choreographing does not?

C: If you have a performers’ heart and soul, then nothing feels better than performing a dance yourself. It amplifies the most courageous and passionate parts of yourself and allows you to escape into a higher level of being for a few moments. There is nothing like it.

Choreographing is always a fun process but it is definitely more of an intellectual one than performing. You have a vision of a final product in mind and it is your job to hammer away at all of the extra rock until you have nothing but the beautiful sculpture in front of you. It takes a lot of thought. Do I need this section? Does this help the overall number? It can be a lot of work, but also a lot of fun! It is satisfying to see the finished product.

S: When you were younger, did you know you wanted to be a performer?

C: Without a doubt, I always knew I loved performing. When I was a young kid, everyone told me I was going to be a movie star because I was so theatrical so that was my plan. I figured I would grow up and then start being in films… simple right? I did not know you could make a living as a performer on stage until my mom took me to the national tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for my birthday. I was turning 13, I believe, and when I saw the magic that was happening on stage, I thought to myself “I have to do this.” I started asking questions and learned these actors made a living performing in musicals and in that moment, my plans to be a movie star were thrown out and my dream of being a performer on Broadway was born.

S: What is your most memorable experience either seeing a show or performing in a show?

C: I have been fortunate enough to see some really special productions that have challenged the way I think, inspired me, uplifted me, and moved me. It is hard to pick just one because so many of these wonderful shows have touched me in different ways.

As a teen and into my college years, whenever I would see a Broadway show or tour, I would head to the stage door to meet the actors as they exited the theatre. I have boxes of Playbills signed by the actors and pictures with them at the stage door from my years of seeing shows as a young theatre enthusiast. Some of my most special moments after performing in a show have been meeting young theatre fans at the stage door. It is so fulfilling to hear their stories and answer their questions. It is always a very “full circle” moment for me. I am happy to give back and to help inspire the next generation of performers just as the actors who I met at the stage door inspired me!

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

C: I would encourage them to spend a day (or week) attempting to listen more. Practice being a good listener. Don’t misunderstand me and think I mean you must be a mute for a week. I simply mean listen to hear and understand and don’t listen to respond. Try not cutting off others to respond and let them finish or expand upon their thoughts. You might learn something.
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I thoroughly enjoyed learning so much from Chris, and really hope my students take his challenge to heart. There’s something so powerful about listening to hear; it’s so grounding and makes you really pay attention to the words being shared with you. I’m taking this challenge on personally, and can’t wait to see how my readers do with it in comments. If you haven’t seen his #Tappy series on YouTube, please do yourself a favor and go watch it. My personal favorite is “The Boogie Woogie Candyman of Company B,” since my Bubby sang “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” all the time when I was growing up, and used to teach me tap lessons in my parents’ foyer while she sang.  It will instantly brighten your day and make you grin—I’m certain it’s impossible to watch these videos without smiling.

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

Broadway · Inclusion · The Human Connection

Celebrate You to Elevate You: Takeaways From BroadwayCon 2018

4C65AD15-D004-47EC-86FB-7C7D90F9E02F.jpegWhen I attended BroadwayCon 2017, I had no idea what to expect. I enjoyed every minute of it. I met people I’d listened to and watched, gotten photographs and autographs with them, and even took classes with them. I walked out with the theme of “create what you want to create.”

This year, I got to do all of those wonderful things a second time, but I found something better than that this year. I found real connectivity. I spent time with people whom I’ve met throughout the year and over a myriad of circumstances. All of this is very well documented, but the best moments of my time weren’t. I met my friends and made new ones in theirs. I made new connections over projects I find exciting. I shared what I love with my best friend who accompanied me. I was present.

One of the highlights of my time was getting to see so many people and thank them for their support, contributions, and time spent towards interviews, edits, and scheduling for this blog. I will never have enough words to express my gratitude to ANY of these wonderful people.

This year’s convention had a different theme, or at least I found a new takeaway. This year, I came away with the following:

“You are capable of accomplishing whatever it is you’re setting out to exactly as the person you are. You don’t have to wait or change yourself. You don’t have to be well-known. Just be you, and share what you have with this world, since no one else can.”

Wait, really? This is something I personally struggle with and know my students do, too. Hearing it so many times this weekend stuck with me. From Christy Altomare at the stage door, to the cast of In The Heights, to all of the podcasters I love and admire, to Lesli Margherita at Sunday Church—yes, this really happened , and I am a convert now—this message was spread all across the convention. All I had to do was walk around and see people who, simply because it is who they are, succeed in what they wanted to succeed in. By being true to themselves. And I found this so extremely empowering.

Am I going to run away to Broadway because I love it? No, because I adore my students. It is my path in life to be a Broadway-loving speech pathologist. To get creative and bring what I love in both of these worlds together, for the enjoyment of my students and myself. But hearing over the course of the weekend that it’s okay to want and do both? That I don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) put in a box and neither do my students was very eye opening. Again, this wasn’t new information exactly, but I saw it everywhere I looked this weekend.

As exhausted as I am from a very full, very gratifying BroadwayCon, I get to bring all I learned to the speech room. I get to approach the year with this theme, along with stories of my weekend.

I don’t have a challenge for you in this bonus post, but I pass on the encouragement to be you. The world only gets one of you—share with the world the best you you can be, whatever that means to you. And I am going to try and remember to always do the same.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

—Stef the StageSLP