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

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

Talk About Seizin’ The Day: A Conversation with Chaz Wolcott

Newsies is arguably one of those shows that came into my life just when I needed it. I still blast that cast recording when I’m getting work done or put the filmed version on when I need a pick-me-up. This show just makes you inherently happy, and makes you want to get up and dance—especially if you’re also a dancer, like I am. I was so excited to talk to  actor and choreographer Chaz Wolcott, who along with touring in Disney’s Newsies and the live taping of Disney’s Newsies, choreographs and teaches dance regularly. We talk about how he came into the theatre and dance worlds, what performing has done for him on and offstage, and the importance of taking care of yourself mentally and physically.

S: What got you into dance, and what made it stick for you?
C: My parents taught swing dancing, which is actually how they met, so they taught me the basics when I was in diapers. I think everyone spends much of their life looking for something that helps them cope with the world, a coping mechanism that helps explain the universe and make them understand the world around them. For me, I was lucky to find out at a very young age that dancing is the only thing that can really make me feel alive, and help me get through some of life’s tougher twists.
S: How did you get into theatre?
C: A director named Steven Anderson saw me dance at a competition and approached my mom telling her I had to audition for this play he was directing, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. My mom told him I didn’t act and she didn’t think I could do it, but he convinced her to let me audition. At my audition, he told her that I had the part, which was a pretty demanding role with tons of lines. I was only 8 and fell in love with the world of theatre immediately. I felt at home and like I had found the community I wanted to be a part of.
S: How did singing fit into performing for you?
C:  Singing was the last of the three disciplines I found a love for, just because it was the last area I started training in. I always advise younger performers to work on the area that scares them the most, because it will always be your Achilles’ heel when trying to book a job, and you don’t want to think “I should’ve trained more!”
S: I got to see you in Newsies both on tour and in the live taping. What do you do to protect your voice?
C:  Many of us travel with personal steamers, and use neti-pots when we start to get sick or congested. Touring can add another layer to that because you are constantly in different climates with different allergens, etc. I actually lost my voice and had to miss a few shows when we were in Chicago in winter, mainly because it was so dry and cold, I was dehydrated and not breathing well! It’s a constant worry for touring actors, especially with a show as vocally demanding as Newsies. Also, steer clear of extremely acidic foods (especially late at night), which can cause acid reflux and destroy your voice!
S: How do you make sure you’re performance ready in such a physically demanding show like Newsies?
C: WARMING UP. So many dancers skip over warming up (and cooling down), especially when they are young, but it is essential to train the body and keep your technique in tip-top shape. I have developed a 40-45 minute warm-up for classes I teach, that I do myself to warm myself up before a show. I also learned from touring that you must cross-train with other exercise, dancing, styles, etc. when doing a show for a long time, otherwise your body can be out of whack doing the same choreography every day for 2 years. So, I recommend trying to find classes to take or choreography to work on that would make your body move in a different way than it was on stage every night!
S: What do you want audiences to feel when they walk out of a performance after the
lights come back up?

C: I want them to feel disappointment that the lights came up and it is over! I think theatre, arts, and dance can be the escape many people need in our busy, stressful, dramatic lives. I love providing that to audiences in whatever show I am doing – so I want them to be so invested in the story and the art that they don’t want it to end!
S: What’s it like to be in a show with such a large following?
C: I can’t even put into words what the fans of Newsies mean to me. Some of the sweetest, most supportive people came into my life because of our little show, which I think makes sense because the show is so incredibly inspiring. I love that it has helped people find their voice, their strength, their passion. I love that it has inspired people to pursue careers in the arts. I love that it has opened up a national dialogue about fighting for the little guy. I have connected with so many fans on social media and at the stage doors, received countless gifts and letters and discussed life, careers, paths, plans and everything else you can imagine with these supporters. The Fansie community is a special one, and I love seeing them connect with each other and find their community. Like I said, finding a way to cope with life and its trials and tribulations is so necessary and I think the fansies have found the motivation they need in their own lives from the message of the show. I will say adjusting to having a lot of people following me on social media has been funny at times…remembering that anything posted on the internet will never go away, remembering that we are setting an example and need to use our platform wisely…. these are things I never had to think about before the show. I get a kick out of every time a Fansie shares a screenshot of some old video or something – they save everything!!! I also think it is important to share my personal beliefs and stand up for the values I am passionate about and share that with the fans. I believe they want to know how we feel as human beings, not just see pictures of us with other cast members drinking milkshakes. So, that realization (and the spirit of the show in general) has encouraged me to have a voice and stand up for causes and platforms I am passionate about publicly. I think it is important to fight for something in your life.
S: Do you have any tips for breath support while singing and dancing?
C: Yikes! I think it is something we all work on all the time. I think practice is the best path to success. Many of us practice those things separately when we should be practicing them together to improve stamina and ability. I have actually been thinking a lot about how no one offers a class in NYC where you must do both simultaneously. Hmmm…

S: As a teacher at Broadway Dance Center and a Broadway performer, do you still take
class?

C: I do! As often as I can! I have been teaching a lot at BDC, so I definitely find myself fatigued from dancing in my own classes, but class is so important. I still take my own class as if I am a student, and add to that the pressure of all the students watching you – it helps me stay in shape! But, I do believe taking class from other artists is key to staying artistically open, flexible and smart. The best artists are the 80-year-old actors who still take class multiple times per week. No one is ever perfect, and you can learn something from every single teacher out there.
S: How do you create your choreography? Music first? Steps first? Idea first? Improv?
C: It varies. I usually have to be inspired by the music first, which usually sparks a
story, which I then create the steps to tell that story. As a choreographer, you’re often not afforded the luxury of that order, so many times you MUST choreograph to certain music designated for the show or piece, to tell a specific story. So, one must be flexible and realize that creativity must be able to flow in any order. It’s challenging but also very exciting to try to use the body to tell a story. It sounds simple, but it can be so complex and challenging to convey a message with only the dancing.
S: What have you learned from dance that you wouldn’t have learned from another
activity that can be applied to your daily life?

C: I think dance helps you to “step out of your shell” more than your average career. I get up in front of thousands of people and tell a story with my body. I am not particularly confident, but I have to fake a confidence in that situation. I think the ability to step on to a stage (or even in a class) and put yourself out there builds courage, confidence, self esteem and leadership abilities. In every walk of life, you have to put yourself out there, so training as a dancer helps you get over the “stage fright” side of things like that, and even find enjoyment in those jitters.

S: What does choreographing do for you that dancing others’ choreography does not, and what does dancing others’ work do for you that choreographing does not?
C: I have found such joy in creating choreography. As a dancer, you are not always in tune with the choreography you are performing, even as mightily as you may try. But, being the creator of the choreography you can create whatever accents, rhythm and storytelling devices you want, which is really refreshing! I have actually never felt as nervous as I do when my choreography is being performed, it is oddly exciting. You’d think being on stage would be more terrifying, but somehow sitting in the audience watching my work being performed is even more nerve-wracking. On the other hand, as a dancer, it is liberating to not have to worry about every single thing on stage like a
choreographer does, but just focus on your personal contribution to the piece. It’s that ability to let go and narrowly focus that makes a dance/scene successful – when every artist on stage is narrowly focused on successfully conveying their story, the whole piece sparkles (and the jittery choreographer in the audience smiles)! Right now, I am enjoying an amazing balance of dancing and directing/choreographing and it is so exciting to bounce back and forth and experience the joys in both sides of this art form.
S: How do you switch your perspective from yourself to a character and back over the course of a show?
C: It’s funny – I teach my students a very simple trick I came up with. Obviously, in rehearsals and development of a show, you need much deeper character study and research and exploration, but once the show and character are in your body, I recommend saying one word (in your head) that describes the emotion you should be having in the piece you are about to perform to focus your energy and remind yourself what you are doing, and to put the backstage antics that may have just happened on the back burner of your brain. I think this simple tool can help remind an actor of the exploration they have done on the character and the work they put in to prepare for this scene, and forces them to be in the moment and not take the situation for granted by fooling around or not being in the scene the second they step foot on stage. Of course,
this is something we all aspire to, I am definitely not perfect. But, I think having the goal of telling the story and being in the moment every single time you step on stage is the best goal to have.
S: As a performer, it’s your job to collaborate with others and work as a team. What advice can you give to my students on that?
C: BE NICE. The people who work are the nice people because people want to work with them, they want to collaborate with them, they want to be stuck in rehearsals with them 10 hours per day. I’ve worked with some people all over the nice spectrum, and can honestly say I think being nice is more important than being talented.
S: Do you have any suggestions on how to be a productive member of a team?
C: Listen and be patient. This isn’t war or politics. It’s musical theatre. Enjoy the process. Try something you know isn’t going to work. Stay in your lane! (I have a hard time with that one sometimes. But, it is important to realize that you are one cog in a very large wheel. Even if you are trying to be helpful, you may just be making the situation more difficult.) So, do YOUR job and let others do theirs. Don’t give people notes unless you’re the dance captain or something. Don’t correct other people. Don’t step on toes. Just do your job and try to do it to the best of your abilities EVEN IF someone else’s mistakes makes it harder. Again, be nice. Be patient. Don’t get too caught up in what is “right” – just go with the flow and learn to love rehearsals and changes and notes. Be flexible.

S: How did you develop your teaching style?
C:  I attended Oklahoma City University, which offers incredible training in dance pedagogy – the art of teaching dance. I gained a lot of insight and perspective on how to construct dance classes and be encouraging and obtain results from my courses at OCU. But, also through admiration. I, myself, love taking class. I see what makes people respond to every teacher I take with and study it. Figuring out what makes people love someone’s class, style, choreography or show is part of figuring out what style you want to have when teaching, rehearsing, choreographing or directing. I see what I like, what others like and try to tailor my own leadership as a choreographer or teacher to fit what I think works best. I have had the privilege of being a student of some fabulous and inspiring teachers my whole life, so I definitely try to make my teaching style a mixture of all my favorite teachers’ qualities.
S: What’s your most memorable performing experience, either onstage or as an audience member?
C: Filming the Newsies movie was and will always be one of the most exhilarating nights of my entire life. The audience was SO excited and gave us so much encouragement and support. It was so moving. I cried so many times when I came offstage. It was one of those experiences that everyone in the room will never forget.
S: Every week I give my readers and students a challenge and encourage them to try new things. What would you challenge them to do?
C: Stare at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself 10 things you love about yourself. Do it seriously. We spend SO MUCH TIME trying to improve ourselves and fix things about ourselves, and SO MUCH TIME getting told we aren’t good enough, tall enough, smart enough, young enough, skinny enough or whatever enough….but we are ENOUGH. So I think some self-love is a good way to reteach your brain that you are worthy of compliments and love. Look, we are all capable of way more than we are today. We are all capable of way more than we will be tomorrow. But, we are also capable of loving ourselves while working through that process with high aims. It’s okay to be working on improving yourself and your abilities. Secret: you will never be the best at anything. There will always be someone better, so don’t be so hard on yourself because when all those NOs come in, you have to love yourself enough to look in the mirror and say YES. And show up tomorrow for more work. The more you say YES to yourself, the more likely someone will agree with you some day. But you have to say yes to yourself first.

I am so grateful to have been able to interview Chaz. Staying in my lane is certainly something I need to work on, and everything he discussed in terms of dance resonated with me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, once a dancer, ALWAYS a dancer. I can’t wait to give this challenge to my students and see how you all take to it in the comments. I know I look forward to it. When I was dancing, it was always easy to criticize myself in the mirror—that’s why it was there, after, all, to correct yourself. Those thoughts don’t always leave just because you’re not standing in front of the mirror in the studio anymore. I thoroughly enjoyed the positivity that came pouring out of this interview, and I hope you did too!

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

Inclusion, Interview, Performances, The Human Connection, Wise Words

I Started The Story: A Conversation with Jeremy Basescu

FAs a kid, my favorite way to play would be to run around with my friends and we’d all collaborate on a story. It was probably from something we saw on television, but we’d keep the characters and make up our own plot. It was a lot of “What happens if ______ instead of ________?” I now know it’s something I continue to do when discussing my favorite books, television, and theatrical experiences with my friends. It never occurred to me, in all of my imaginative play, to actually write the story down, and follow the arc of it to completion. These were ideas that generally ended when recess did, unresolved and frequently forgotten. Thanks to Laura Heywood’s appreciation for Story Pirates, an organization which takes children’s ideas from the page to the stage, I got to see what seeing an idea through to resolution would look like. I spoke with Jeremy Basescu, a Producing Director for Story Pirates about their different programs, accessibility to all students, and how this process instills a love of writing stories in the students it reaches.

S: How did you get into theatre?

J: I got two degrees in playwriting, and I got to be a working playwright in New York for a few years. From there I had gotten into directing. I’ve loved theatre since I was a kid. What excites me the most is theatre that jumps off the stage at you. There’s something about theatre coming to life that was really appealing, and I got to experience that in a couple theatre companies in New York. One day, I took an internship in grad school with Story Pirates at what we call an “After Dark” show, and ten years later, I’m still attending those shows. There’s something magical in the way that the stories come to life onstage, and the energy of the performance is so precise and exciting, you can’t help but be drawn in by these kids’ stories.

S: I agree. I love it when theatre makes you engage with the world. How did Story Pirates come about?

J: I came into it about 3 years in. There were several Northwestern graduates who happened to be around when this came together, that had all performed in a student group in college. They’d learned a technique of taking kids’ stories and turning them into sketches and songs, and wanted to do it professionally and across the country. The question came about ‘How do you come up with a name that if a child heard it, they’d be interested?’ If you told a kid “I work for Creative Writing Incorporated,” they may not be interested. If you told them you worked for “Striking Viking Story Pirates” they’re going to want to know what that is. So that’s still our name on a lot of documentation, but we’ve been officially been calling ourselves Story Pirates for a while now. We are taking the buried treasure that is kids’ ideas and words, stealing it, and turning their ideas into stories that keeps them invested in writing stories.

S: When did Story Pirates come about?

J: Story Pirates started in 2004. We had done some work with P.S. 154 before that, but officially began in 2004.

S: Is there an age limit to this program?

J: Initially, it was a K-5 assembly. Very early on, we started doing things like Pre-K classes, birthday parties, and were getting interest from schools that went into the upper grades. We taught improv classes with high school and college, professional development for teachers. Our programs have really grown; we still have the assembly we started with, but we also do year-long workshops with schools as the students write their stories.

S: Elementary school is my demographic!

J: We love working with that age, because we’ve found that the kids aren’t afraid to be silly and creative. We’ve also found that, if you can get the kids interested at a young age in writing, it can stick with them as they grow up and go through school, and we love to see that.

S: From what I’ve seen, you guys are primarily based in New York and Los Angeles, do you travel?

J: We work with about 300 schools each year, mostly in those areas or around those areas. We also go to performing arts centers across the country and visit 15-30 national venues a year. We also have a podcast and a couple books coming out, so we’re starting to be able to reach a lot more kids beyond where we can physically go.

S: So, how does the program work?

J: Every program is different, and there’s a big range.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as an assembly or two, where we perform stories from kids across the country.  Sometimes we spend a few months with a school, starting with an assembly, going into the classroom to run creative writing workshops, and ending with a big culminating show that features new stories by the kids in the school.  We love to surprise the kids whose stories we’re performing, and get a huge cheer from all of their friends and teachers when we announce their names, just before we perform eh story for the very first time.  But our favorite part, actually, is that we get to give each and every kid author a personal, handwritten note that says how much we loved the story.  We make sure every kid gets one, whether we perform the story or not.  It’s called Story Love, and it’s one of the most important things we do.

S: The fact that you recognize each student is amazing. I’m sure the kids love it.

J: We have amazing volunteers from all over who help us with this, from fraternities and sororities and big companies to daily volunteers who just want to help us do this.

S: What does this look like in terms of accessibility for students who don’t get the story-writing process?

J: Those are the challenges we really find motivating. Sometimes we only have an assembly, and that’s it.  We want that to be as multi-sensory and appealing as possible. If we get to come back, we work with the teachers and make sure they have whatever they need to make the process clear and simple. When we’re in the classroom, we meet with the teachers ahead of time and ask about the needs in the room, and we work our curriculum around those needs. For example, if we were working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, we consult with people who can help us with that, and we will fit our plan around them.

S: How do you work with special populations like students on the autism spectrum who can be very literal and have more difficulty with perspective taking?

J: We like to get the kids on their feet and make it as experiential as possible. We want them to create characters, and they might do it physically. How would that character walk? Talk? And we find that making it about acting makes it more natural for the students to understand. When choosing the stories we perform, our directors choose 5 out of the 150 submissions we get, and more often than not, the stories chosen aren’t necessarily from your general education population. And the directors don’t know which kids have which needs. We’re constantly asked, ‘How did you know to pick that student’s work?’ and we can honestly say we chose it because it was creative and it inspired us.

S: Collaboration isn’t always easy for kids. How do you get them to work collaboratively within your programming?

J: In the room, that’s about making it a part of the process. We explain you may have great ideas and tons of them, and you can totally write that story, but we’re writing as a group and we’re going to make sure all ideas get equal weight and will somehow get contributed into what we’re doing. Most of the time, we’re not performing a story verbatim. Words become songs and dialogue. We ask the kids afterwards if that’s their story, and we’re frequently told it isn’t exactly but that we understood the student’s story. We want to honor the author’s intention always.

S: That has to be the most rewarding thing to hear.

J: It is. We tell them it’s their story, and we just turned it into a performance. To hear we understood them, there’s nothing like it.

S: I was speaking with our mutual friend Laura Heywood, who first introduced me to your program. She gave me a great idea for a question to ask you: How has becoming a parent changed your perspective on the programming?

J: I have two kids, a second grader and a three-year-old. In one sense, not at all, and that’s in the sense that the performances are still as clear and funny and important as they’ve always been to me. Where it’s changed is reading the kids’ stories and seeing the work the kids are doing with us, and how we’re affecting the kids. For my seven-year-old, I now see how she is developing her linguistic and thought processes, and sometimes I read something so similar to something she’d do or something drastically oppositional to something she’d write. I get to see what’s similar across ages and what’s different. I didn’t have that frame of reference before.

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

J: I’d challenge them to write a story. Write an original story entirely from their own imaginations. That may be something that comes easy, that may be something that is a step by step process. Start with a character. Who are they? What do they want? And see where that story takes you.
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I really enjoyed speaking with Jeremy and learning more about Story Pirates. You can learn more about them at storypirates.com.  And as if that wasn’t enough, they have a book  coming out in March!

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I am very much looking forward to what my students create. Their curiosity and wonder never ceases to amaze me, and only creativity can come from this exercise. Let me know what you decided you write in comments—I can’t wait to see where your imagination took you!

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

 

Autism Awareness, Inclusion, Interview, Performances, The Human Connection

Are We or Are We Unique: A Conversation with Nava Silton of Addy & Uno

The greatest perk of my job is getting to experience the world from each student’s perspective. While completing one task, I can learn the annoyance of scissors for someone with fine motor difficulties, the frustration of complex multistep directions from a student working on language comprehension, and how uncomfortable obstacle course items can feel to a student with sensory sensitivities. I learn the value of slant boards, checklists, and Velcro. I learn how to engage all of the senses by watching my students learn, each in their unique way. Nava Silton, creator of Real Abilities and the recent off-Broadway production of Addy & Uno, has created a world where children with a variety of abilities can feel included and accepted. I got to speak with her about her work, her educational materials, and how to make theatre a comfortable experience for everyone who attended.

StageSLP: How did you become interested in theatre?

Nava: I have always been enamored by theater and the beautiful way in which music can reveal characters’ inner worlds. I acted a bit in high school, but mostly enjoy watching others take the stage.

S: What is your background with individuals with disabilities?

N: I have two exceptional nephews on the autism spectrum. I graduated Cornell a year early and I spent (what would have been my senior year) living with my dear sister, whose son had just been diagnosed with autism. I was deeply impacted by the pervasive impact of autism on her whole family and when I asked her, what is the most difficult aspect of this disorder for you, she responded: “The fact that children flock to my other kids and they treat Elie (my son with autism) like he’s part of the wallpaper.” I was devastated by that notion. Devastated enough to take up the charge of determining what intervention would be most efficacious at fostering the sensitivity and interest of typical children towards children with disabilities. After working at Nickelodeon before grad school and at Sesame during my Psych Ph.D. Program, I decided to use the disseminable medium of media to convey these messages to kids. I started off with storyboarded episodes of an animated children’s television program, then moved onto comics based on schools’ interest and then most recently to the stage with Addy & Uno.

S: Addy and Uno are more than an off-Broadway show, they’re also part of a comic book series! What can you tell us about that series?

N: While schools loved the initial storyboarded episodes of the show, they said: “We’re schools, we’d love to see these important stories in book format.” Very soon after, with the help of some wonderful students, I pursued writing a comic book series, with 10 distinct comics and two instructional manuals for teachers. These were immediately popular in schools and beyond the popularity, I was delighted to find how much students’ perceptions, attitudes and intentions towards children with disabilities changed from pre to post-testing of the full comic series. This has been beyond encouraging and thrilling. Comic books are available at http://www.realabilities.com.

S: Was the series’ primary goal to be for the individuals, the caregivers and educators, or all readers regardless of who they are?

N: The goal of the series is to teach typical children and their families about the realities of disabilities, while also focusing on a strengths-based perspective. I want children to recognize that children with disabilities are children first, with wonderful strengths, interests and abilities. They happen to also have disabilities and/or struggles, just like each one of us. Moreover, the series was created so that individuals with disabilities could see themselves reflected favorably in-print or on the canvas. Based on the research findings and a large amount of audience feedback, we feel very encouraged that we have achieved these goals.

S: Can you tell me about the characters, and how they came to be?

N: Uno was my first character, since he was deeply inspired by my two nephews on the spectrum. Uno presents with poor eye contact, a general discomfort and struggle with social interaction and sensory integration issues, but he is brilliant at math and spatial orientation. Melody has low vision, but she has perfect pitch, melody and rhythm. RJ (Rolly) has a physical impairment, but his strong arms and athletic skills come in very handy for his team. Seemore has a hearing impairment and uses some sign language, but he can “see more,” he has wonderful insight and peripheral vision. Finally, Addy has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She gets easily distracted and hyped up, but she is hilarious, gregarious and highly creative. Hence, each character has a disability, but wonderful gifts, as well.

S: Across all of your characters, how did you avoid falling into stereotypes, and how would you further educate that no two individuals with any disability present identically?

N: We think it’s very important for our audience to recognize that all disabilities fall on a spectrum of some sort. We try to subtly allude to this in the comic book series, in the show and in our debriefing sessions with students.

S: Why did you choose to express your theatrical production through puppets?

N: The research shows that puppets can often have a therapeutic effect on children. Animation can be very cost-prohibitive and the idea of using puppets in a novel way for this purpose became immediately appealing. I felt that puppets might help children better adjust to complex lessons about disabilities and bullying in a comfortable fashion.

S: From what I gathered, this show is about inclusion from the plot itself to audience participation, can you tell me about why you thought this was important?

N: Each individual with a disability has wonderful gifts to share with the world. Even if an individual does not have the ability to express their knowledge via verbal ability, there are a whole lot of wonderful things to explore in each and every child. I want typical children to have positive expectancies of their friends with disabilities, to recognize their special gifts and to take an interest in interacting with and getting to know them. Children with disabilities are at least two to three times more likely to be bullied than their typical peers. More than ever, we need to appreciate our peers, to look out for them and to celebrate them.

S: The students I work with may not be familiar with the usual theatrical experience, is yours different from other theatrical experiences?

N: We offered a trigger list and tried to be as sensory-friendly as possible. We also tried to keep the show to 50 minutes to ensure children could actively attend throughout the whole show.

S: Your characters, like my students, are very multidimensional. How did you come to tell their stories through comics and theatre and song? Was one medium easier to adapt to than another?

N: Each medium has been able to delve into another beautiful feature of these characters’ lives. The comics are a fun source of adventure and kindness. The musical allows us to dig deeper into the raw emotions, struggles and victories of each character.

S: What is the biggest takeaway you want all audience members or readers to feel or learn at the end of their experience?

N: Take the time to recognize and celebrate the beautiful gifts of your peers. Each individual in this world has unique gifts and it’s up to us to investigate and to determine what those gifts are. Bullying might offer you a superficial high, but kindness, empathy and being good to others will have the most enduring impact on you and on those who are fortunate enough to benefit from your goodness.

S: How would you encourage inclusion among student-student relationships, teacher-student relationships, and even adult-child relationships?

N: There are so many incredible models of inclusion out there in the literature and in real-life school settings. I think it’s very important for teachers, parents and students alike to have strong positive expectancies/expectations of what their students and/or peers with disabilities are capable of. Bracket out the labels and get to know the unique strengths and gifts of each peer, student or child with a disability.

S: What was the most memorable moment both in creating and performing this show?

N: I have really enjoyed seeing the sensitivity of the actors, who play all the characters, especially the characters with disabilities. The actors give their all and they allow these characters, who have been in my head for so long, to come to life on the canvas. I have also really enjoyed hearing the actors share their inner voices via Bonnie Gleicher’s beautiful music and lyrics.

S: Is there any opportunity for this show to be shared more widely in the future?

N: Yes, two wonderful producers have just optioned the show for an open-ended Off-Broadway run on Theatre Row on 42nd and 9th Avenue.  Tickets are available at: http://www.addyanduno.com. The show will officially open on November 4, 2017! We also have dozens of schools all over the country, who have reached out in the hopes of a tour. We will keep you posted!

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

N: I would challenge them to a day of kindness and compassion. No matter what the situation, you must act kind, you must be patient with your neighbors or peers, you must recognize the beauty and benefit of even the most challenging situations. It feels “nice to be nice!” We should all get to feel that wonderful feeling more often.

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What I love about the characters Nava has created is that I can see parts of my students in each of them. I love the therapy materials, and they’re a hot commodity in my speech room. I strongly encourage you to check out RealAbilities.com and to explore what she’s created. I truly hope to see this production soon! It’s currently playing Off Broadway and being enjoyed by many audiences. I hope you be among them soon. I look forward to everyone taking on a day of kindness and compassion. It’s something we would all benefit from.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP

 

Broadway, Inclusion, Lesson Plans, The Human Connection, Wise Words

We’re Right Behind Each Other #Fearless: A Lesson Inspired by Mandy Gonzalez

Mandy Gonzalez, of Hamilton, In The Heights, and Wicked fame, released her debut album in October, Fearless. She is known as the “Fearless Squad Mother,” and encourages all of us members of her #FearlessSquad to come together and be fearless. The interesting part about this is that she doesn’t mean to never experience the emotion of fear. Her intention is that it’s completely acceptable to feel fear, but to find the way to face fear and quite literally fear less.

The first time I heard this song, I knew I had to make a lesson plan from it. I wanted to use this opportunity to educate my students on self-esteem in the speech room. I began my lesson by asking my students if they could tell me what fearless means. Some of them gave me a definition. Some of them told me they didn’t know. I explained to them that to me, being fearless means being unafraid to try something new. I asked them first how they were fearless in their daily lives; at home, with their families, in the classroom. I then narrowed it down to a specific question: How are you fearless in the speech room?

The students met me with always feeling safe in the speech room, and that they didn’t have to be brave in here. So I asked them, what makes you feel brave in the speech room? I was met with so many fantastic answers, that my students and I turned it into a poster. And because I’d never have my students do something I wouldn’t do, I added to the poster myself. Below is the outcome of my lesson, which is now hanging on the wall in the speech room.

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Thank you, Mandy Gonzalez, for inspiring my students and myself.  If you haven’t picked her album up yet, what are you waiting for? My challenge for the week is for you to write down the ways that you are fearless. I can’t wait to see what makes you fearless in comments!

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

Articulation, Broadway, Inclusion, Interview, The Human Connection, Wise Words

Can Your Friends Do This: A Conversation With James Monroe Iglehart

Have you ever seen a performance in which you’re completely blown away by one specific performer? The performances that really make you pay attention to what they say and do and track them onstage. When it’s over, the only thought your brain can come up with is “How did they do that?” That’s what it’s like to watch James Monroe Iglehart shine onstage. I have been fortunate enough to see him in both Memphis and Aladdin. He is currently starring in Hamilton as Lafayette/Jefferson, and from what I hear, he is nailing this role. When he’s not busy onstage, he sharing onstage mishaps and jokes with his friends on social media. His energy is infectious, and we got to chat about work/play balance, the theatre community, staying intelligible and maintaining vocal health in some of the most vocally and physically challenging roles on Broadway. Enjoy

S: I have to start by asking, did Susan Egan call to congratulate you when you won the Tony for playing the Genie in Aladdin?

JMI: She did. She sure did. She was right, and she did call me.

S: My dad and I came to see that show the week it opened, and we loved it. She and I were there on the same night. There is nothing about that show that I didn’t love. It’s still my favorite Disney movie. There was so much Disney royalty in that theatre.

JMI: It was such a trip for her to come see the show and to talk to her. I’m such a fan. because not only is she Broadway’s Belle, but she’s Megara from Hercules. She is amazing.

S: She and I were talking and she started reciting some of Meg’s lines and I had to remind myself, in that moment of “I can’t believe this is happening,” that I can’t lose my mind over this, because we had only just started talking. It was an extremely cool thing to hear.

JMI: I get it. That’s exactly what it’s like. To hear my favorite Disney legends talk is such a trip. To hear Jonathan Freeman as Jafar and to get to work with him was something else. I would impersonate him to him, which was crazy! I would tease him, it was great!

S: It was amazing to see my childhood nightmare-inducing villain onstage. He IS Jafar. Just him.

S: I am just going to jump in on “Guns and Ships”, which you get to perform every night in Hamilton. Every speech-language pathologist wants to know how this song works. This is what we go to school for, and if we can understand it, we can teach are kids who have a difficult time speaking clearly how you all do it. How did you learn it?

JMI: Well the first thing I learned is that, with the French accent, they roll their Rs and they don’t use Hs. I learned the lyrics first. I had to go over the whole script and take out the Hs and the Rs, I didn’t realize how many Rs and Hs I was saying. Then I went back and put the French accent on it. I’ve had people who are native French speakers tell me that my French accent is really good. I’m very proud of it. Daveed Diggs and I talked about it for a long time.

S: I’m serious, if you knew how many of us were trying to dissect this, because it really should make sense to us. We can’t turn off speech brain, it doesn’t happen.

JMI: Once you get the rap, then add the accent, it’s about being understood. I ran it by my wife multiple times asking her, “Can you understand me? Can you understand me because it’s clear or because you know what I’m saying?” You have to have that feedback.

S: Yeah, I record my kids and ask them if they can understand themselves or if they just remember what they said. That’s their feedback.

S: Everything I’ve seen you in, and in your current role in Hamilton, you have always had such an infectious personality. How much of that is you, and how much of that’s what’s written?

JMI: It’s my personality. That’s what I enjoy doing, bringing as much of myself to the show as possible. With Hamilton, I knew I couldn’t do what Daveed does. Our styles are different. Daveed told me to do my thing. And it works. This is the second time I’ve stepped into a role people have called “iconic,” and both times I’ve been given the space to bring myself to both roles.

S: What’s it like being told repeatedly how big these roles are?

JMI: The fun part is people telling you, as if you don’t know what you signed up for, but the challenge is, “What can I bring to this?” The Genie and Goofy are my favorite Disney characters. I had to do that role. With Hamilton, I wanted a challenge. I auditioned the way I would do it, and if they liked it, great. And they did. What I get to bring is my baritone voice, where all the other male leads are tenors. So Jefferson now sounds very different. And it’s so much fun to play both roles every night.

S: My students and I want to ask you about Burr’s Corner. They’re so impressed that you’d share a mistake and own them on social media. They want to know how you build that confidence.

JMI: We find it hysterical. We know Hamilton has a strong social media presence. We enjoy people knowing how the show works, because people want to know what the onstage mishaps look like. It was created by Brandon Victor Dixon while playing Aaron Burr. We all went with it. Other shows do it too to explain mishaps now. When someone messes up, most of the time the audience doesn’t know it, but if they do catch it, we can explain it in our own comical way. We know exactly what was supposed to happen. It’s our way of explaining it. Messing up is a part of life. You’re gonna make mistakes. You may as well learn from them and laugh at them as well. So, you got up in class and said the wrong thing; it’s fine, it’s funny. Be able to laugh at yourself. We enjoy laughing at ourselves because it’s funny. Enjoy it and have fun with it.

S: The rule in the speech room is that you have to be able to laugh at yourself. We don’t take ourselves seriously.

S: I feel like I’d be able to recognize your voice anywhere after Memphis and Aladdin. How do you take care of it, especially in these shows with these big performance numbers, or Hamilton which is just going a mile a minute for over 2 hours?

JMI: I learned that one of the best things for your voice is sleep. I’ve realized that with microphones, you don’t have to project too much. I can belt with the best of them, and I can be loud, but the reason Jefferson speaks in a lower register is partially to protect my voice. I make sure I warm up before and after the show, and I’m pretty chill once I’m home for the night. I also have a wonderful voice teacher who helps me.

S: What is the work/play balance between you all—we’ve seen the pranks and scaring each other on social media! Especially with scaring Nik Walker.

JMI: We play for a living. It’s recess for a living, but we have to take it seriously. Have fun with the job. In high school, I scared people for fun. That was what I did. Now keep in mind, I’m scared of everyone. I watch horror movies only in my own home where I can scream at whatever happens because I’m loud and it’s scary. I’m so aware, because I’m looking for it, of people trying to scare me. The fun part is, Nik has been trying to get me back since the forst time. I have now scared him officially on social media seven times. The best part about last night was he saw me, he caught me, and he made the fatal mistake of turning his back on me. I’m fully expecting to get it back, though. And I think Don Daryl Rivera will help Nik. Because I scared Don Daryl Rivera for three years over at Aladdin.

S: Was it you who inspired LJ to do it?

JMI: Yes. That was my doing. Because once I left, DDR didn’t have anyone to scare. And you have to have fun in your job. Especially when you’re doing a serious show like Hamilton, you have to have some levity. Did you hear about the fly incident?

S: Yes, you told that story on The Hamilcast.

JMI: It happened again! Same scene, this time with Daniel Breaker. He said the same thing happened in Chicago. Same audience reaction. We did our best not to break, and we didn’t stop rapping. Turns out, flies are attracted to shiny things, and when you’re bald, the light reflects off of your head. Same scene, same place.

S: Since I’m already talking about The Hamilcast, you brought this up when you spoke with Gillian. I didn’t know how much I needed you and Lesli Margherita to do something together. Can that please happen?

JMI: We want it to happen. We’d have to be onstage together. We wouldn’t be able to follow each other. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it’s going to be fun.

S: You guys were onstage at different times at BroadwayCon.

JMI: BroadwayCon was the best time. That is something that’s just gonna keep getting better and bigger every year, because everyone is going to want to be a part of it if they’re not already.

S: Have you always been really good at rebounding from onstage mishaps or was that learned?

JMI: I’d been doing that since I was a kid. I did improv and you have to be able to bounce back since I was a little kid. With freestyling too, you can pretty much get out of any situation if you’re thinking fast on your feet. That’s what improv and freestyling is.

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

JMI: I’d challenge them to do what they’re procrastinating doing. What they want to do, but they say they don’t have time to do. Make the time and see what happens. After they try the thing, they’ll actually know how they feel about whatever they’re putting off to later.

S: I can’t wait to share that with my kids. They’ll all learn something from it, especially the kids who don’t love hearing “no.” I’m so grateful I was raised being told no.

JMI: What’s interesting is the real world doesn’t say “yes” all the time. And I’ve also learned your parents aren’t intelligent until you get older. When you’re a kid you know everything. The older you get the smarter your parents get. And your feelings as a kid are certainly valid, because they’re yours, but we all learn as we grow up that our parents know what they’re talking about.
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I had so much fun with this conversation, and a lot of it reminded me of how I found my love for theatre initially and why I continue to love it. It’s the people who make you lean in, take note, and take action on what you really believe in. I am eager to see what my students stop procrastinating on, what I myself stop procrastinating…that’s a never-ending list, and what you all decide to do next. I will be here cheering you on every step of the way.

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

 

 

Articulation, Fluency, Inclusion, Language Comprehension, Pragmatics and Social Skills, The Human Connection, Vocabulary

Superboy and the Invisible Girl: Lessons for All

As we all grow up, most of us realize that most superheroes don’t wear capes. True as it may be, it’s still fun to pretend! Over the summer, I developed some themes to support the mentality in my district: All Means All. My first venture in lesson theming was superheroes. Best part–if I have a group of kids working on a variety of skills, I can use the same theme for all of the students.

Superhero Articulation:

Have the kids write down a list of as many words as they can think of containing their speech sound and set a timer. When the timer goes off, pencils down.  Each child is now a superhero whose name includes their target sound or sounds. Using the lists they made, go around the table and have each child describe their superhero using the words they generated. At the end of the session, have the students act out a skit working together using their sounds to save the world–or the speech room, whichever comes first! This was a real hit with my students, and it works for all ages. Let them be silly and have fun with it while they give their best effort practicing their targets. Bonus points if you also take on a sound of your own!

Superhero Sequencing:

In this activity, the student is in charge! Let them make up a superhero for you or another student to portray, and a story to go along with your character. The student must tell your story using sequential and transition words (first, next, then, after, finally) as you act out the story. Here’s the catch: the student has to use the sequence correctly and appropriately in order for the other person to act the action out. Don’t stop the story, or you have to start over from the beginning! See how many times you can get from beginning to end!

Superhero Language Comprehension:

Have the students choose a superhero and give them some time to write down what they know about this character. When they’re done, they share what they’ve written with the other students in the group. The student sharing is given 3 index cards with the following questions written on them: “What is the main idea?” “What are three key details?” “What do you think will happen next?” The reader asks these questions of the other students, and is responsible for the correct answer. Give them creative liberties to make it multiple choice, use a lifeline, etc. This encourages teamwork, which leads me to….

Superhero Social Skills:

Have two students at a time act out superheroes they’ve made up. It’s up to them to figure out how to work together to save the speech room/school/world. Let their imaginations run wild and see how many different ways the students can work together. If your students are up for some healthy competition, see who can come up with the most examples of teamwork.

Superhero Grammar:

Let the students create their own superheroes, and one at a time, tell you their stories. Depending on your target, these stories can happen in the past, present or future. Similar to sequencing, don’t stop the story! Keep it going with correct subject-verb-object structure, noun-verb agreement, and appropriate sentence length. Get creative and have fun!

My challenge for my readers and students is twofold this week. Part 1. See how many of these superhero themed activities you can complete. Part 2. Accept yourself for the superhero that you already are. You don’t need a cape to be super, and it costs nothing to be kind, collaborative, or creative. Let me know which activities worked for you, and if you’d like to see more of my thematic series. Do you have any suggestions or additions? I’d love to hear them in comments or by email!

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