Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

Reindeers Are Better Than People: A Conversation with Andrew Pirozzi

There are many people who believe that working on Broadway is easy. They believe you perform one or two shows a day, that the rest of the day is free, and that it’s an easy career in relation to whatever it is they do. This has never been my mindset. I am always in awe of what it takes to pull off an eight-show week, especially in a musical. These are physically demanding feats of stamina, and no one showcases this better than Andrew Pirozzi, currently playing Sven in Disney’s Frozen. I had first seen him in the tour of Movin’ Out, and in various television appearances. In my endeavors to explain to my students that theatre is athletic, no one embodies this more. We talked about the differences between performing on stage and screen, what it’s like to become a puppeteer, and what it’s like to be a part of the theatre community.

Stef: Which came first for you, dance or theatre?

Andrew: Dance came first. I was four, I was the only boy, and it took about twenty minutes until I was enjoying myself. My parents were really good about fostering whatever it was I wanted to do. I played soccer, football, piano, French horn, you name it. I was dancing in multiple studios, doing the musical in school, and on the football team. My mom let me do anything and everything to get my energy out as a kid, and everything I was able to do was because of her.

S: I saw you in Movin’ Out on tour. What’s the difference for you in how you prepare to perform while also changing cities on a regular basis?

A: The hardest thing is the recovery time. You’d finish a show late at night, have to turn off the adrenaline, get up early to travel the next day, and be in one position for three to six hours on a bus. That was a really dance-heavy show, and every break we got we stretched. The most important thing about live theatre is keeping the integrity of the show, which can be challenging on the road.

S: Everything I’ve seen you in has required a heavily physical performance on your part. How do you take care of yourself to perform eight shows a week?

A: I don’t know why, but for some reason, physicality has kind of been my language. I will cross-train all of the major muscle groups. Outside of that, I will do yoga and Pilates and meditation work. And nutrition is huge for me, too. I balance everything.

S: My students and I want to thank you for helping to being more musicals to more people through Peter Pan Live. What’s the biggest difference between performing a musical onstage versus in front of a camera?

A: Repetition. When you perform in film, you have to be rehearsed to a point where you feel comfortable, but you have to be flexible enough to change your positioning to adjust for the cameras. You still have to respond and be present. For theatre, the difference is repetition over a span of time. You rehearse and refine something so specifically so it can be performed eight shows a week. In film, you create the moment in a day, generally. In theatre, that moment gets created every day, and it has to stay fresh. They are two different muscles. I’ve always been able to audition and do theatre-based jobs, but the energy for television is different. The needs for production are different.

S: That makes sense, since television has to turn its product out faster.

A: And in theatre, you get longer to turn out work so it’s more sustainable.

S: You’re also a choreographer. For you, what does performing do that choreographing doesn’t, and what does choreography do for you that performing doesn’t?

A: As a choreographer, choreographing is exploring and creating and telling a story. Whatever the intention of the outcome is, it’s getting to create. Dancing is euphoric in that no matter what you’re dancing, you will feel that joy just from finding your groove.

S: You’re currently playing Sven in Frozen on Broadway and, having just seen the show last March, you are a joy to watch. Now that you get to add puppeteer to your list of credits, what was it like to learn that skill?

A: First of all, Michael Curry needs to receive credit for designing this puppet. He’s brilliant—he builds everything in his shop in Oregon. The entire costume was custom-made to fit me. Michael was the one who figured out how to make it work, proportions, everything, by himself before I even got to try it out.

Half of learning the puppeteering was learning the mechanics. How does this costume work with my body? When I move my head, how much am I moving? How much do I need to move? A lot of it was exploring. The second half of that was me, as an actor, figuring out how reindeers react, eat, sleep, and move. I took all of my research on that and then studied my dog and how she interacts with people and coupled that together and that’s how I’ve created Sven. At first, this was just a fun challenge, and now it occurs to me that I’m actually a puppeteer.

Actually, I was reading another post of yours about nonverbal communication. I don’t speak throughout the entire show, and I think that’s what makes Sven powerful. I realized in Denver that I could control where people were looking onstage. I didn’t know what it looked like for so long. Once I saw what the effect of the puppet was onstage, I was able to help guide the story even more. I feel really connected to the little kids who are trying to figure me out. It is so much fun to be a part of that magic. I will say though, it’s kids between five and ten who have a really good idea on how Sven operates.

S: You and Olaf dictate where the audience is watching. It doesn’t matter who else is onstage. We had a great time that night.

A: Thank you.

S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do? Recent challenges have included having a technology free weekend, getting together with friends and creating something.

A: I love challenging people to get outside of what is familiar with them. I would challenge them to be still and find comfort in stillness and breath. Whenever I’m training or doing a role, I always say control your breath, control your body. If you can control your breath, you won’t feel awkward. You’ll feel focused through those two things. I think this keeps you authentic as a performer and as a person.
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I had so much fun with this conversation. Andrew was able to truly get across the physicality of this job to my students. He shared a truly unique perspective with my students and I that no one else would be able to share and encouraged more discussion among my students about what it takes to put on a show. My students struggled a bit with this challenge, but once they became more comfortable, found they really enjoyed the sense of calm that accompanied stillness.

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

 

 

Interview · The Human Connection · Wise Words

You’ve Got to Be Loud: A Conversation with Lesli Margherita

It is no secret that I am a “quote” person. As someone who works with language, I am always seeking words that fit my current situation, whatever it may be. And when I don’t have the words I want, I’m very honest about it with my students. I’m not afraid of “I don’t know.” I’m not of the mindset that the adult in the room has to have all the answers, or that the adult has to act like an adult. If I’m not being as silly as my students, I must be having an off day. When I discovered Lesli Margherita on Twitter through her performance in Matilda on Broadway, my immediate thought was, “Oh! She gets it! It’s okay to be human, and positive, and to own who you are.” I immediately took her messages of being yourself and ruling your kingdom straight to the speech room. Over the years, my students have designed their own kingdoms, discovered what makes them unique, and learned about themselves. When I started this blog, I knew I had to talk to Queen Lesli, if only to thank her for all she has done for my many students over the years, and for myself. We talk about embracing who you are, performing, and what collaboration looks like for her.
Stef the StageSLP: How did you get into performing?

Lesli Margherita: I started dance when I was about 4. My Mom was a dancer, and I was so hyper the doctor thought it would be good for me to expend some energy. Dance was always my first love, and my ballet teacher was choreographing a production of Oliver, an asked me to audition not knowing if I sang or not. I didn’t either. I sang “Happy Birthday,” and was already a belter, ha.

S: You gave me life-changing advice by answering my question on your first episode of Theater People with Patrick Hinds. I am now the Supreme Ruler of my Speech Room. Frequently my students change their personalities to fit in with others, thinking that they’re too much. How did you come to adopt the position of being yourself?

L: It’s taken a really long time to accept who I am. I think that’s the case with most people. I have always acted like I was okay with who I was, even before I believed it- which I honestly think helped. Fake it ‘til you make it. It didn’t take until I was much older, and not caring so much to believe it. In my business, I’m constantly judged, so I had to learn to accept myself in order to be able to move forward with anything.

S: What inspired you to write Blu!? I’ve used that story so many times in my speech lessons.

L: I have always been interested in the underdog stories, the comebacks. I came across an article (I’m a proud nerd) about rare blue lobsters. It just clicked. I thought, “People think a blue lobster is odd, but it’s COOL”.

S: Congratulations on all three of your TV series. What have you learned from acting on both TV and stage that you can apply to your daily life?

L: To not be self-conscious. Especially in tv. The camera picks up everything, so I have to put it all out there, because if I don’t, the performance doesn’t ring true.

S: Many of my students and I got to see you in Matilda. As a former dancer and a current speech pathologist, I’m curious about how you took care of your voice and body for such a vocally and physically demanding role? 

L: That was a tough one. Loud remains the most difficult number I’ve ever had to do, stamina wise. I had to figure it out vocally first, really working on how to hit those crazy notes without hurting myself. It went for Mrs. Wormwood’s speaking voice as well. I had to learn how to do it without strain. After that, it went out the window once we learned the choreography, because I was just gasping for air. Our speech team had us get our stamina up, then went back to figure out how to support when I needed it. Off stage, I had to continue to do cardio and of course rest when I could. I was always tired!

S: Based on your social media presence, you seem to find the comedic timing in every situation. Did you always have that skill, and how would you encourage my students to do the same?

L: One of my favorite actresses Carrie Fisher always said “find the funny”. You have to. The alternative is awful. I always did, even as a kid. You have to laugh- so I guess it just comes from seeing the light side in every situation.

S: Collaboration is a school-wide goal where I work. As someone who is always collaborating with the community that comes together to form a theatrical piece, television show, or cabaret act, what would you recommend my students do to become effective collaborators?

L: I have had the same group of friends as my collaborators for 15 years. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. I think you have to remain open to everything, and really listen to other people’s suggestions, even if you think you don’t like them. You never know, just remain open.

S: How much of your characters are written on the page, and how much of your characters come from your own personality? How do you strike a balance between the material and yourself?

L: Part of me is in every character, but part of the fun is becoming someone else. I have to go from the page, that is the most important. I also never look at how someone else played a character before. It’s not important. That’s what makes a character mine.

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

L: I don’t like change. It’s my downfall. I have to challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone every day. The only way I can do that is to say “why not?” If someone else doesn’t like you, or what you are saying- they aren’t your people. Also, who cares? I think it’s more about not caring so much about others opinions of you. Your opinion of yourself is the most important.
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As much as I love words, and however many I claim to know, I will never have enough to thank Lesli Margherita for everything she has shared with me. Be it through this interview, any of her performances, or this post she shared that I totally taped inside of a notebook in my speech room, I always learn so much from her. While editing, I listened to her solo album Rule Your Kingdom, because I am the Supreme Ruler of My Speech Room. My students are already familiar with the power of the word, “yet.” I can’t wait to see what they do with the phrase, “why not?” Even more, I’m looking forward to seeing what that phrase does for my readers and even myself. If you need more Lesli Margherita in your life, you can find her @QueenLesli across social media platforms.

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

 

Interview · The Human Connection

Children and Art: A Conversation with Liz Schwarzwalder and Mindy Swidler of Petite Seat

I attended my first live theatrical performance at the age of three. I saw a touring production of Grease with my mother. The minute those lights went down and the show began, I sat on the edge of my booster seat, completely captivated by what I was experiencing, for the entire performance. How my mother determined whether or not this would be a successful venture for me at such a young age, I don’t know. She has since admitted that she didn’t want to miss the production herself. She had raised me on movie musicals and put me in dance classes and figured I’d enjoy it, and whatever I didn’t understand would go right over my head. She was right. I saw singing and dancing onstage and knew I didn’t want this show to end. To this day, I find it pretty brave that she took me at such a young age to attend to a full-length musical without knowing how her toddler would tolerate it.

It is for this reason I appreciate Petite Seat, a resource founded by two forward-thinking moms, that provides parents with key tips and info on taking their families to theatre and live performances. Liz Schwarzwalder and Mindy Swidler share age recommendations, scheduling tips, venue details such as stroller parking, and relevant show content notes that are so helpful when taking children to a live performance. When I learned about what these two women had created, I thought of how helpful my own mother would have found this information and had to reach out. We had a great conversation about the importance of taking children to live theatre, what this unique service offers, and so much more.

Stef: What got each of you interested in theatre?

Liz: As a kid I always loved theatre as a form of entertainment. Early on, I knew I wanted to be an important part of the show but performing wasn’t for me. I started doing stage management in high school and college, and that lead me to the business side of theatre, which I’ve been involved in from then on.

Mindy: My parents were really great about taking me to see live theatre, and those are some of my favorite childhood memories. My whole family would become obsessed with the cast recording from whatever we’d most recently seen. None of us were very musically inclined either, but I’ve always been a fan.

S: I get it. My way in was a combination of dance and my mother not wanting to give up something she loved, so she worked from the mindset of, “Whatever the kids understand in the show, they understand, and what they don’t won’t matter.”

L: What was it that stuck out for you as a kid from these experiences?

S: The story stuck out for me. If I had questions about what I saw, they got answered. Nothing really occurred to me as “for kids” or “not for kids.” Storylines were always what I connected to most.
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Most shows do age-gate their shows now with a recommended age for the youngest audience member. What made you want to expand on this?

L: One of the early thoughts and realizations we had was that we had to take the age recommendation a step further. Say the age recommendation is six. No two kids are the same, and my six-year-old may react differently from other six-year-olds, so we looked at why the recommendation was set. Is it scary and loud? Is it the content? Is it just a longer show? And that’s a reaction that’s different for every kid, too.

M: Liz and I met at a Broadway Babies class with our daughters and we started talking about our theatre interests and how important we thought it was to expose kids at a young age. We started to notice questions about family theatre on the mom boards we were involved in, and we realized we actually had a lot of the answers and frequently responded to these questions individually. We had the opportunity to demystify and take the stress out of live performances for families and bring all of the information together:  ticketing information, stroller accommodations, run time, why the age recommendations were set, and so on. Our social media channels expand on our experiences, and our website is a more structured version of this.

S: I remember my brother thinking the set in Wicked was scary, I see your point.

L: I recently revisited that show. It can be scary for kids!

S: Are your children involved in theatre in any capacity?

L: As our dates to the shows! My children love seeing all types of live performances. I think my six-year-old son has an equal appreciation for a Broadway show as he does for a puppet show in the park

M: We haven’t done a Broadway show yet with my three-year-old daughter, but she loves everything else we’ve seen.

petite seat logo

S: How is using your site with the insight you provide different from other sources (ticketing websites, concierge, etc.)?

M: We bring our own experiences to light to help families out. We make it a point to tour the venues when we can and go through the logistics of buying tickets, selecting seating and so on. It’s all about managing the expectation so parents can be prepared to have the best experience possible.

S: That would’ve helped my mom with many Barney Live and Disney on Ice performances.

L: Yes, that’s why we don’t limit what we do to theatre. We do the arena and live shows, too. Knowing logistics about how early to arrive and how those shows operate can be very different from other experiences. Having that information ahead of time helps in the planning for the event.

S: Why do you think it’s important for children to see live theatre?

M: Exposing kids at a young age can establish an interest in the arts. The more positive the experience, the better, and that’s what we’re trying to create. And of course, there’s a family bonding aspect to it as well. It allows for some amazing dialogue, especially with the younger ones. There’s just nothing like sitting in a live performance and experiencing a show. You’re connected to the moment, and that’s an invaluable lesson for kids to learn these days.

S: What is your most memorable experience with a show?

L:  For me, it was the final performance of Beauty and The Beast on Broadway. I was working for Disney at the time the show closed, and it was one of those moments I’ll never forget. It’s the most amount of energy I’d felt between the cast and audience I’ve ever experienced before or since.

M: I had just moved to New York and my friend and I went to see Movin’ Out.  I felt so connected to the stage, and it was mesmerizing. It’s very different from most theatrical experiences, and it was the moment I realized that I’d get to be involved in theatre as long as I’m here and as long as I wanted to be.

S: What is your most memorable experience with a show with your children?

M: This past fall I took her to see The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It was more traditional, stadium seating, and it was done through puppets. The lights dimmed and I watched her, not the stage. I had tears watching her experience a book she knew come to life on stage. To her, it was magical. She was very respectful and thanked us for taking her to the show. I knew I was creating a memory for her and that was something we’d be able to share forever.

S: What should people know about your site that they may not already know?

L: We have four ways to stay in touch with us. Our website is one, and we update it regularly. Our Instagram and Facebook accounts, @petiteseat, are where we communicate daily with our audience. And we are also more than happy to put together personalized ideas for families thinking about seeing a show, by email, at info@petiteseat.com.
S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. This can be anything from writing a play to making a new friend to putting technology away for a day. What would you challenge them to do?

M: Relative to theatre: pick a show outside of your usual taste. When I think about my favorite nights and experiences, they’re plays, which is not usually my cup of tea. It’s important to remember that you can see the work you love, but it can be the stuff outside of your comfort zone that’s the most thought-provoking.
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I had the best time talking with Liz and Mindy. This is one of the smartest services I’ve ever heard of and have been recommending it to the families I work with. Now that it’s summer and school is out, I can’t think of a better way to spend a day than at the theatre. If you’re trying to decide on what to see, please utilize this resource. You can follow Liz and Mindy on Instagram at @Petiteseat, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PetiteSeat/  their website petiteseat.com, or email them directly at info@petiteseat.com. I personally feel that they give the most objective perspective and think about a million things that wouldn’t occur to me independently.

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

 

Broadway · Inclusion · Interview · Performances · The Human Connection

It’s A Bit Of A Dance: A Conversation with Stephanie Klemons

Recently, I’ve found myself wondering what goes into production roles I only know by title, especially those involved in dance. They’ve always seemed very involved, but I never quite understood what these jobs entailed. This was never clearer to me than when a former student asked me about them, and I surprised myself by not having an answer. This was the point where I decided I needed to talk to someone who knew this job firsthand. I have been following Stephanie Klemons’ career for about ten years now, and her work as a dance captain and associate choreographer has never ceased to amaze me. She and I spoke right after she made her directorial debut with In The Heights at The Kennedy Center. This woman is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever spoken with. When we began our conversation, my first question was not “How are you,” but “Where are you?” We discuss her many responsibilities, the difference between commercial work and theatre, and Katie’s Art Project.

Stef the StageSLP: Which came first for you, dance or theatre?

Stephanie Klemons: Definitely dance. Theatre came into my life a lot later. I’ve always loved theatre. I saw Cats as a kid and I wanted to do be on Broadway. But dance was my passion. I’ve always been passionate about it. In high school, someone said I had a pretty nice voice, and that I should start taking voice lessons if I wanted to be in musical theatre. I double majored in college in dance in Genetics and Microbio Research and Dance, so I didn’t have a lot of time for singing.

S: Those are two very different majors, at least in title.

S: Yeah, they’re not as different as you’d think. The same part of my brain that problem solves my way through cancer research, that has to figure out a solution to a problem is the same way I look at solving problems and making decisions in the theatre. And for me, the same way I memorized organic chemistry is the same way I memorized things in theatre. Memory is memory. It’s definitely its own skill. I’ve always thought they were similar, the big difference was the people I was around. The way I had to communicate to scientists versus dancers—that’s how I honed my communication skills.

S: What is Katie’s Art Project?

S: Katie’s Art Project does a lot. Its objective is to connect professional working artists with children with life-threatening illnesses to create a lasting legacy through art. We’ve found that creating partnerships with specific hospitals has been the best route to take, three in New York and one in Chicago, currently. We pair children in those hospitals with artists. We’ve been taking on one project at a time and working with everyone’s schedules to put the project together. I saw a niche for this, and so I created it. There are music therapists who come in and work with the kids and Make-A-Wish can connect kids with their favorite artists, but I didn’t see anything like creatives coming in and creating music with these kids. It’s all about the process, and recording a song is just the icing on the cake.

S: How can I spread awareness of Katie’s Art Project?

Personal connections always help. We have an event on July 23rd called The Art Project, which is a pop-up gallery of both visual and performance art. All of the proceeds go to Katie’s Art Project. Last year, we were able to release our single, “Home” because of it. We’re hoping to make it even bigger this year.

S: You recently finished a production of In The Heights at Kennedy Center that you both directed and choreographed. What was that experience like for you?

S: We were originally supposed to go on earlier in the season, but I had the Philip company of Hamilton opening, so I moved us to the second spot in the series at Kennedy Center so I could be there for tech and opening. As a result of our schedule change, we started rehearsing on the ten-year anniversary of In The Heights, which got us a lot of attention, as did Tommy Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbeuhler stopping by. As it happened, we were there during March For Our Lives, and we got to lend our voice to that cause. In present times, doing a show like Heights was really important to me.

S: Since the creative team for the original production of this show was mostly male, what did you bring to your production as a woman?

S: Interestingly enough, that team was more female than Hamilton, because of Quiara Hudes. I don’t feel that Heights was quite so male because of her influence. She spoke to such nurturing themes, and Lin is the best at collaborating, and it just worked so well.  As a woman people respond differently to my reactions than they do to the guys.

S: You started in performing, what does performing do for you that choreographing doesn’t, and what does choreography do for you that performing does not?

S: Performing was my first love. Last summer I did In The Heights in Pittsburgh. I was missing that side of my life, and it was so fulfilling. It allowed me to say, “Hey, I can still do this.” Now that I’ve directed and choreographed a show, I really love it. I love setting a show and knowing that together I helped people achieve their best. I’ve been teaching for so long that it really makes sense to me now.

S: The amount of mental and physical energy that goes into being the associate choreographer for Hamilton is superhuman. With the amount of travel involved, how do you keep yourself grounded, and protect both your body and voice so you can do this job?

S: I have an unbelievable support system, and I don’t take that for granted. I make a point of taking care of myself, like going to the gym or the beach or taking walks. One of the stage managers in the Chicago company of Hamilton said I was pretty solid in my self-care. This was not the case when I started in Hamilton. When I eased up on myself, so did everyone around me. You have to realize you set a standard for everyone else around you, and you don’t want to set that bar impossibly high that even you cannot keep up.

S: It took me halfway into my first year in the schools to realize the same thing. I can’t hold my kids to as high a standard as I hold myself.

S: Yeah, the way you teach and where you teach from matters. If I teach from a place of excitement, the actors are usually excited. If I teach from a place of fear, they may be more apprehensive about what I’m asking them to do.

S: What is a dance captain and its responsibilities? What is an associate choreographer and its responsibilities?

S: Dance captain is hired on a performance contract, like all the other actors in the show. They can be a swing, they can be ensemble members. Most of the time, dance captains are off-stage swings because of the job requirement of giving notes. That’s easier to do when you’re not onstage. You also run auditions, and they perform. They’re magical people in this business who can deal with a lot of projects as once. It’s a lot of responsibility.

S: That’s super human.

S: It is super human. And people outside of this business don’t acknowledge it as much as it should be acknowledged. Associate choreographer is a little different. With Andy Blankenbeuhler, it can be him asking me to choreograph a few counts of eight after giving me a concept, or I’ll help him conceive the idea of a piece. When we’re setting the show, that’s when the associate choreographer teaches the entire show. They hire the dance captains and teach them how to give notes and when.

S: What are the different factors you consider when creating work for commercials than when you create for the stage?

S: It’s so different. For Hamilton, we talked about the workshop for a few years, then we did the workshop, more time passed and then we did the off-Broadway run, and later transferred to Broadway. Theatre takes years. Commercial world, the director, writer, or ad agency come up with an idea and what the story is for the commercial. By the time I’m brought on, it’s a few days of work, but is actually a lot easier for me. They don’t mess around with time in commercial work. Creating Hamilton took years. Creating the Eli Manning Super Bowl commercial took a few days. I knew what that needed to look like, I knew what the day looked like and I set myself up for success in our shooting schedule.

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

S: I think that there’s no substitute for hard work, but I think that people forget this. The world needs people to be engaged, and that requires you to be engaged in life for the majority of the time. I think we reward too easily, and that kids should do something to get the satisfaction of hard work. Unplug and make sure you’re aware of the world around you outside of social media.
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This was such a fun and informative conversation, and I can’t thank Stephanie Klemons enough for her time. To learn more about Katie’s Art Project, please check out their website. It’s a wonderful organization that I really believe in. I really value her challenge and will be taking it on along with my students. There’s no better time to take on such a challenge.

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

Broadway · Interview · Performances · The Human Connection

Not Just A Simple Sponge: A Conversation with Ethan Slater

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

Stef the Stage SLP: What got you into theatre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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