Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

The Spark of Creation: A Conversation with Stephen Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S: Oh, that’s great!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

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

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

Stef: How did you get into theatre and performing?

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

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

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

S: What inspired your line Intermission Beauty?

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

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

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

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

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

IB2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

Reindeers Are Better Than People: A Conversation with Andrew Pirozzi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Thank you.

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

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

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

 

 

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