Interview · Scenic Design · The Human Connection

Setting the Scene: A Conversation with Derek McLane

Hi readers! Over the past three and a half months, my students and I engaged in distance learning, which required me to get creative with service delivery. Though maybe I should have expected it, my students asked me how they could stay creative at home. Many of these students had spring plays and musicals that had been put on hold, with hopes to revisit during the next academic year. When I asked in what area they wanted to be creative, they said they wanted to learn more about the technical aspect of theatre, specifically scenic design. I had reached out to a few scenic designers and was ecstatic that Tony Award winning Derek McLane, who has designed Moulin Rouge!, A Soldier’s Play, American Son, Gigi, Beautiful, Nice Work If You Can Get It, along with the NBC LIVE! Musicals The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The WIZ, and Hairspray. We talked about what goes into his design process, when he begins working with the creative team of a show, and how folks interested in design can stay creative while at home.
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Stef: How did you become interested in theatre, and then scenic design?

Derek: When I was in high school, I had learned how to do some house construction and carpentry. It was a summer job of mine for a few years. In college, I was asked to build a set, which was something I had never done before. So I built the set and I thought, what I’d really like to do is design the set, not just build what someone else had designed. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, which didn’t have a theatre program while I was there. Ina way, that was a blessing for me, because there was very little competition when I said I wanted to become a set designer. I had done a couple of sets for shows around campus, and I sort of made it up as I went along, and I decided I needed to learn more about what I was actually doing. I applied to Yale drama school, and completed my Master’s degree there.

S: That’s a lot of schooling. How long did that take you?

DM: It’s a three-year Master’s program. It was very intense, especially in the first year. We had to design one set a week, and we had a Saturday class in which we presented our work and it was critiqued. Once that was done, you got your assignment for the following week. It started with simple plays and became more complex as the year went on. Operas, musicals, multi-set plays, and it was exhausting. And that was only one class. We got to see our progress over the course of the year, so that was exhilarating. That was my first experience with face-to-face criticism.

S: At what point in a production do you join the rest of the creative team? What does your process look like?

DM: Well, it’s always a little different, depending on the creative team and how complex the project is. I get involved pretty early, and start the design work. Typically, what’ll happen is the director will send me a script, and I might get to see a reading of it, and conversations begin from there. Making a musical is a very collaborative thing, and it can be complicated, but the moving pieces come together through these conversations. This can take years, sometimes less. By the time you get to the second, third, fourth meeting, you and the designers, the director and producers have an idea of what the design looks like. At that point, we have an idea of how the show would work with our proposed design.

S: I’ve seen a decent number of your shows on Broadway and each set is so distinct to its show, and all so memorable. Two that come to mind, American Son and Moulin Rouge!, seem like polar opposites in how they’re designed. Where do you pull your ideas from and tailor them to fir their shows so specifically?

DM: The ideas really start with the script. I also got to do the movie adaptation of American Son, which is on Netflix. American Son has four characters, with two characters on stage at time for the most part. It’s a tragedy, and when I read it, it felt like a Greek tragedy. Not that far into the play, you can tell where it’s going, which is awful and scary. Something about the script felt symmetrical to me. You’re looking into a square room at a 45-degree angle. The text in the script, what’s described, is quite mundane. There’s not a lot of people in this space, not a lot of interaction. When I looked at my research for Miami police stations, they looked pretty bland. We put in windows, but all you could see was the rainstorm that’s mentioned. It was meant to feel elemental and realistic.

Moulin Rouge! is really an entertainment more than anything. It’s decadent. For that, I was trying to capture the club feel in the script and I was determined to make it a surprise for the audience when they came in. I didn’t want to disappoint the many fans of the movie that were coming in with the movie in mind. I felt obligated to honor that. I made a very conscious decision not to make the scenes stylistically similar, there’s an eclecticism to the way the scenes look. The show starts and it’s bright and there’s a lot of red and then we transition from the club to the streets of Montmartre, which is very grey. It shows the contrast between the settings in a fun way, keeping the audience thinking about where they are.

S: Do you have a favorite element you like to design in a show or a favorite material you like to work with?

DM: It varies. I try to let those things come out of the ideas for the story. I don’t see it as my job to impose my taste, it’ll show up through my design inevitably, but I’m much more interested in designing each show as its own bubble. I’m happiest when I can see that each show has its own world and logic. I feel like I’ve succeeded when it takes on a life of its own. When that happens, other little details make more sense based on the logic based on the bigger world.

S: How do you feel about projection design becoming more prominent alongside scenic design, as that seems to be a trend I’ve seen in a few more recent shows?

DM: It’s certainly come a long way. There are all different levels of success with that. Technologically, we’ve come a long way, but it really depends on how it’s used. What Ivo Van Hove did with Network and West Side Story made bold use of projections, and it’s something we haven’t really seen before, but it doesn’t really become scenery. King Kong also used projections really well, the set designer did those himself, and he did a clever job od tying projection into the 3-D elements on stage. In that production, the projections were all illustrated and all tied into the overall design of the show. They had a very strong identity with their design.

S: How can my students get started with scenic design, especially now that we’re home? My students are looking for ways to be creative, and a lot want to know how to explore this area more.

DM: The best part about that is anyone can design a set. Whether it can be built or not is another story. The simplest way to do it is to draw it. That’s what I’d be doing, finding a story you love and draw a set for it. It doesn’t have to be a play; it could be a book or something they make up altogether. I’d encourage them to draw the way they’d like to see something, not the way the scenes are shown to them. What can they do to make something they know better? When I’m designing a set, I keep in mind it’s something that I’m going to be looking at a lot, so I may as well like what I’m looking at. If I’m an audience member, what do I want to see? Draw spaces—your bedroom, your kitchen, wherever you are. A lot of set design is based on architecture, and that can be really helpful when you understand perspective and spatial arrangement. The drawings don’t have to have great details, they can be fast, they can be messy, they just need to convey the space.

S: Is there something people should know that they wouldn’t learn in school?

DM: A million things. School will teach you a certain number of skills, but you’re always learning. But the thing that school probably won’t teach you much about is how to deal with the people you work with. And there’s different levels of that. There’s the director and producer, the people who deal with money, the people who will build the set and work with props. You need to be able to persuade them to overcome their doubts and if necessary, stand up for what you believe is necessary and advocate for yourself. You’re working with a lot of people at once, and people skills go a long way.

S: What is the most ambitious design that you’ve executed?

DM: Moulin Rouge!, for sure. And Hairspray Live, which we did at Universal studios in Los Angeles. Sometimes we were using interior and exterior shots. There we re sets we used from their backlot and sets we built in the studio. Shooting it live and getting from one set to another was really complicated but very exhilarating.

S: So, is television more challenging than designing for television?

DM: I don’t know that it was harder than Moulin Rouge!, but we had sets of varying sizes. We were under different constraints. On stage, the stage is tinier than you think. Figuring out how to make all of that fit. You don’t have that problem on television, because you have plenty of space. The other piece is on Broadway, the set has to last a long time. On television, it only lasts as long as it’s needed. The challenges and constraints are different.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with Derek McLane. My students got to hear all about this conversation before distance learning ended, and I know some of them started drawing scenes they were interested in creating. It’s safe to say both my students and I learned a lot more about scenic design and its part in production development of a show. If you’d like to lean more about Derek McLane, you can find him on Instagram at @derekmclane or his website derekmclane.com.

 

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

Articulation · Better Speech and Hearing Month · Interview · Lesson Plans · Strategies · The Human Connection

Thinking Inside the Beatbox: A Conversation with Kaila Mullady and Mark Martin

Hi everyone! I am so excited to share today’s conversation with you. I am always looking for ways to make speech therapy more fun for my students, and there’s no better time than during Better Speech and Hearing Month. As a speech pathologist working in special programs and with students from preschool to teens, I’ve always found it a challenge to make articulation therapy fun. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played Go Fish, Memory, or brought out flashcards and thought, “This is just as uninteresting for the kids as it is for me.” Enter The Academy of Noise, a program created and run by Kaila Mullady and Mark Martin. Their program works on articulation and social interaction through beatboxing. The second I first heard about this, I knew I had to learn more—how could I incorporate this into speech lessons? What could this do for digital learning? How much more engaged would my students be through this method of instruction? We had so much fun during this conversation that it quickly evolved into a collaborative learning experience for all parties involved. Let’s jump in!
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Stef: How did you guys become interested in speech therapy in connection with beatboxing?

Mark: My mom was a speech therapist and worked in special education. She worked with students with developmental needs, students who were learning how to read, and she would bring home whatever she was working on. As a kid, I got to see what she was doing with her students and she was definitely an influence in how I got interested in how we produce sounds. I’ve always been interested in how we get people to connect to their instrument, their voice, how we project sound, and I remember thinking some of the techniques I saw her use as a kid were boring. I could tell that, by nature of how her instruction was structured, there was a lack of rhythm in what she was teaching. But it becomes so much more interesting if you set it to rhythm. It suddenly becomes more exciting when you add rhythm. I think of how much I liked the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom as a kid, and it was because it had a rhythm to it to keep me engaged. I was a musical kid and definitely a noise-maker, and this rhythm aspect made it magical for me.

Kaila: I come from a really big Irish family, and became the babysitter for everyone. I have a cousin who used to be nonverbal, until he was about seven, and he experienced apraxia of speech. The speech therapist would come by after school and my cousin would just shut down. What kid wants to do more school after just finishing a full day of school, especially when his siblings didn’t have to do this? I realized he loved beatboxing, and I realized that if the speech therapist held up a flashcard and asked him to say “caterpillar,” it could become more interesting if I took the words on the flashcards and presented it as beatboxing. We would make beatboxing beats out of whatever cards the speech therapist held up. So we realized, he wasn’t going to sit and do flashcards, but if I presented the speech sounds he needed to work on as an instrument through beatboxing, he’d practice, because he was beatboxing around the house all day anyway. It’s like sneaking vegetables into a fruit smoothie—they don’t know we’re here to work on speech when we see kids, they think it’s a field trip.

S: Yeah, speech therapy can be boring, until it isn’t. It doesn’t feel like speech practice if you’re beatboxing. You guys have worked with a bunch of different schools and populations, can you share some of your experiences?

K: Once, we went into a school and worked with a group of kids and there was one student who was very quiet, hiding behind the teacher. He was participating with us, and  by the time we left and the teacher told us he had a hard time finding a way into activities and participating, and this was the first time they’d seen him join in. We’re not trying to say this is the fix for speech therapy, we’re not trying to say don’t do speech therapy—not at all—we just want to help give speech therapists another tool to engage their students. And if they get hooked on beatboxing, the kids have access to so much. There are videos online and it’s something they can practice on their own. And you already have the equipment. There’s no instrument to buy, and no limit on what they can do with their own instrument.

S: I was listening to your interview on SiriusXM with American Voices and I heard you talk about the /p/, /t/, and /k/ as the drum kit sounds as the first thing you learn in beatboxing. My speech-oriented brain immediately connected those sounds to measuring articulation skills as an oral-motor exercise to determine the articulation and breath support and control of a patient who may have recently experienced some sort of brain injury or stroke. I love how this connects to my line of work.

Kaila: Me too. It’s one of the things that brought Mark and I together. We’re both beatboxers and we had the same mentor, but we really bonded over the storytelling and musical piece of beatboxing and its connection to education. We took beat rhyming, which is when you talk and beatbox together alternating between the beat and the talking. When I heard it, I wanted to take the consonants in the words, thinking of what I did with my cousin, and over-articulate the consonants. This made the beat and the speaking simultaneous. For a while we worked with an art organization to do beatboxing as music therapy. We worked with a school that supported students with a variety of needs. This transitioned from being traditional music therapy to adding beat rhyming, to adding the emotional intelligence side of communication. What does it sound like when you’re mad? What does your voice sound like when you’re excited? And through this, Mark and I got to introduce the speech therapy related aspect to kids. At that point, Mark and I created a curriculum that was specifically for students who were blind or handicapped.  Now we’ve started The Academy of Noise where we have a vocal health professional, Christine Schneider. She’s amazing.

M: Top of the world in terms of anything dealing with the voice. She works with people on Broadway, vocal professionals, she’s incredible, I highly recommend her.

K: She is incredible. And then there’s Tom Burke, he’s an SLP we’re working with. Right now, he’s focusing on vocal coaching and public speaking.  And now that we have created our own organization, we have people who want to work with us and have seen what we’ve done. In the beginning, we had a hard time getting anyone interested in us doing research. We went to so many universities around NYC and the northeast and we had a lot of doors close on opportunities for us because of the word “beatboxing.” I did an experiment where I changed the wording to include “vocal percussion,” and we got farther with that. Through that, we met a woman through NYU’s Music Experience Design Lab who was willing to study our beatboxing and curriculum to create tactile instruments that students who are blind could use in the classroom. Now we’re trying to work with NYU to work on the beatboxing and speech therapy side of it. Something we just did was go to the Langone Vocal Center and some of the best beatboxers had endoscopies done to see what is happening when we’re beatboxing.

S: What was that like? I saw that on your social media!

M: For me it was insane. The most exciting part was doing something and the doctors saying “We’ve never seen the voice do this before.” For us, it’s exciting to see we’re pushing the bounds of what the human body can do. We can rethink what is possible with the voice.

K: We were supposed to get MRIs done around St. Patrick’s Day to see what happens in the brain when you talk versus when beatboxing or beat rhyming. Do the same areas in the brain respond to these tasks? We’re in a really exciting time because we have people who believe in what we’re doing. We definitely want to talk to more speech therapists about what we could make that would help you. We know beatboxing is fun, but what do you need from us for this to be effective in speech? How do we make this meaningful? Every kid is working on speech until they’re around 8, in terms of articulation, so why not make it fun and engaging? We’re looking at how to restructure our curriculum to be effective for you and meet your needs so you can meet the kids’ needs.

S: What I’ve seen that I really like is that you have a visual component to your digital lessons for the kids to follow while you’re giving them verbal instruction. Almost every child I work with benefits from the visual component paired with the verbal component to really comprehend directions. When I first heard about this, I had a student in mind that I thought would love beatboxing as a means to address articulation. I’m really interested in how you created your own major of “Beatboxing as a Language.”

M: I went to the Gallitan School at NYU. It’s a school for individualized study.  I originally went to study Music Business and I wound up with an Entertainment Media business minor. I wound up leaving the program in sophomore year because YouTube just became popular and kind of took over this whole area. At the time, I’d become part of the New York City beatboxing community and became interested in beatboxing as communication. I saw beatboxing as a kind of meta-language. I thought I had this moral obligation to share beatboxing as a form of communication with people. This has been an ongoing passion of mine. What if we could really articulate the sound of what we’re trying to do? I took all these diverse classes, poetry, different languages, linguistics, phonetics, some speech-language classes, along with the ethics and implications of how we communicate. So now, it’s about how we take what we have and turn it into what we need. At this moment, that includes delivering all of this over the internet while we’re all at home and doing digital learning.

S: In addition to The Academy of Noise, you guys started out in competitive beatboxing and now you’re producing the championship competition?

M: Yeah, so I started out making noise playing as a kid—laser guns, rocket ships, all of it. I was a musical kid and I would copy what the drummers did. I was always tapping, and getting in trouble for expressing myself through this in school. School is a fairly clinical environment, and the expectation is to sit still and sit quietly.

I didn’t know beatboxing was a thing, I was playing with music. There are two sides to beatboxing—expression and community. The feeling of belonging within the community because you express yourself the same way is amazing. It was a huge part of my learning. I know how empowering it can feel to be around other people willing to make sounds and take risks with you, and that’s why I’m here with Academy of Noise.

K: Mark was one of the first people I met. There is a vulnerability in beatboxing that is specific to what we do. We’re taking risks and making weird faces and strange sounds and I have to be okay with that, and the fact that there’s a community okay with me doing those things was amazing to find. It’s a really loving community. It’s a very positive community, our battles are an excuse to hang out; they’re not meant to be aggressive. The competitions have every age group now, and they want to welcome you and your unique voice and style. When you teach it to kids, they walk away with another skill. Say they have to leave class to go to speech, coming back into the room can feel awkward for them, they feel like they’re different and they missed out on something. Well now, with beatboxing, we’re giving them this superpower and they can come into class with something they can do that the other kids don’t know how to do yet. They get to share that. That’s what gets us up in the morning—we know all ages enjoy it. It’s harder to teach adults to beatbox.

M: I call it the shame barrier. For kids, they make weird sounds all the time and at some point, we get told to use our words. That’s so ingrained in us as adults that we don’t want to be vulnerable with our voices anymore and take those risks, because at some point, we were told not to. We work with everyone and have students of all ages. Seeing it cut to this level of freedom that these people can access through vulnerability is so powerful.

S: Is there a sound in beatboxing that’s harder to teach than others?

M: Yes. People are inventing new sounds all the time. People make the sounds more challenging, changing the production and complexity of the sound. People take outward sounds and make them inward sounds or combine them together. Every sound takes a different amount of time to learn.

K: I look at sounds that took me forever to learn and I’m seeing teenagers pick it up in a month. It’s like language acquisition, it’s easier when you’re younger. Beatboxing is a language through replication, rhythm, and timing.

M: And it’s dependent on your body. Your instrument is different from everyone else’s. Some sounds can take you moments and some can take you years. There are different styles of beatboxing so it depends on the focus of the person.

K: And bringing it back to speech, the kids get so many repetitions of a speech sound when they’re beatboxing.

S: What’s been really cool to watch while we’ve been talking is how you’re using your voices to make sounds. It would never have occurred to me to put certain articulators or sounds together to make another sound. I didn’t think vocal structures could do this. Based on how you’re explaining how you find, replicate, or recreate sounds, you guys might be the only other community that understands the articulation aspect of speech productions as well as speech pathologists.

K: That’s interesting, because we’re coming at it from putting articulators in place to make sounds and knowing how that works, and we have prompting strategies for avoiding the more common pitfalls that come with each sound.

S: Every week I challenge my students to get outside of their comfort zone and try something new. What would you have them try to do, other than beatboxing?

K: We have a game called “Show Time.” Everyone gets a minute of show time to do whatever they want in front of the audience of their peers or family. They can talk about their day, sing, dance, beatbox, whatever. The idea is getting them used to building confidence and trying something new in front of people. That person could do nothing for a minute if they wanted to, but no matter what, the audience is loud and supportive of that person’s choice.
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For the first time since distance learning began, Kaila and Mark got me thinking about the different avenues that can be taken to support my students best right now. I think beatboxing as a tool for speech production is brilliant. It really is another language, with its own shared rules and exchanges, which I think could be taken to the social skills areas of language as well. I am really excited about staying in contact with Kaila and Mark and playing with beatboxing in some of my own sessions in the future. You can find out more about what Kaila and Mark are doing by following them on Instagram at @TheAcademyOfNoise or on Twitter @AcademyofNoise. They are also teaching beatboxing to anyone and everyone interested online, and their information can be found on their website. I hope you all enjoyed reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it. I’m looking forward to hearing about how everyone’s 60 seconds of Show Time goes in comments.

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

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

I’ll Make You Proud of Everything I Know: A Conversation with Kyle Scatliffe

It’s Speechie Sunday and I have been looking forward to sharing this conversation for a while. At the beginning of the year, I heard Kyle Scatliffe on an episode of The Hamilcast.I had already been following his career while he toured with the Philip company of Hamilton, and became even more interested as he joined the cast of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Many of my students are reading this book for school, and Kyle kept mentioning how much of his job he learned as he worked. The first thing that popped into my mind was that he could really share some of the ins and outs of being an actor, tour life, what it’s like to perform on Broadway…he had so much to share on so many topics. During one of his three Hamilcast episodes, he also discussed anxiety and vocal health, and I couldn’t imagine anyone relating to my students as well as he could. I am so glad that when I reached out, Kyle was happy to participate in this interview. We talked about so much and covered a lot of ground, I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I do.

Stef: How did you become interested in theatre as an activity? As a career path?

Kyle Scatliffe: When I was fifteen I was feeling a bit aimless because I had fallen out of love with trying to pursue basketball as a career. I just knew that I enjoyed it but the actual profession of it wasn’t for me. I had an elective theatre class that year (9th grade), and my teacher Donna Bialkin suggested that I try theatre after I performed a scene in class. I told her that I would have to think about it. I thought about it for the entire year, but ultimately decided that I should try it. I fell in love with it and haven’t looked back since.

S: One look at your Playbill biography, and anyone can see that many of the roles you’ve played are pretty heavy ones. How do you get into or out of character and keep the role separated from your personality?

KS: I don’t treat every character the same way, and because of that my way of getting into character changes with each one. For Tom Robinson, I listen to a specific playlist of songs that were about the Jim Crow era, and for Hamilton it was accent work for Lafayette and trying to be as full of myself as possible for Jefferson.

S: Many of my students are experiencing anxiety and have developed their own strategies for giving presentations and getting involved in new social situations. As someone who is pretty vocal about anxiety and being an introvert, how did you become comfortable putting yourself out there in auditions and in performing?

KS: When it comes to auditioning and anxiety, what helped me the most was being so prepared that any misstep wouldn’t throw me off. My anxiousness tends to flare up because I’m a perfectionist in some ways and a realist in others, and those two sides are at war with each other. So, preparation always helped me. Another thing that helps is knowing that the people in the room have more pressure on themselves than you do. They are the ones on the hook if they can’t find someone to fill in a part. You’re just there to help them.

S: You’ve learned a lot about vocal health over the course of your career. Now that this is sort of becoming a more discussed topic among actors, what do you do to keep your voice healthy?

KS: Steam. Steam. And Steam. Steaming is the best thing for your voice. When you wake up and right before bed. I also don’t drink at all because it can dry you out. It’s all about taking care of yourself as an individual and knowing your responsibilities. Friday night is a cute night to go out but it’s not when you have two shows the next day. I also have a voice teacher that I see regularly. And whenever you are sick, apple cider vinegar is your best friend. It’s gross…but it’s your best friend…and garlic. Haha.

S: You’ve had the opportunity to perform with Disney Cruise lines. I have older students who are interested in pursuing careers in both theme park/ cruise line entertainment and acting in stage productions. Are auditions for an opportunity like this different from auditions for theatre productions?

KS: Hilariously enough…no. They are structured the same way. They may have open calls for the shows or agent submissions and you have to prepare something from your book or something from the shows you are auditioning for. It’s basically the same.

S: You get to play really charismatic historical figures in Hamilton. My students are curious about whether or not this made you want to learn more about our country’s history aside from this production?

KS: History was actually my favorite subject in high school, so my general curiosity towards what has happened, what could have happened, and how we don’t repeat the bad that’s happened has helped me immensely throughout my career. So, coming into Hamilton I knew a lot of tidbits about the founding fathers and their relationships and what they did. I just had to fill in the details.

S: You are currently playing Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird on Broadway. Many of my students have read or are currently reading this book. What is it like to portray a character so many are familiar with through other genres?

KS:  Because it’s a new version of the show and a new version of the script, I tend to not think about that too much. Everyone has come into the show thinking about the characters as if they’ve never been portrayed before because of the agency of the characters in this particular version. Every once and I while I do have to speak on it though and that’s when I’m reminded. Luckily, this version of Tom isn’t extremely dissimilar to the book or the movie. But he has more of a decision in the events that happen on stage.

KS
Photo: Brian Hester

S: What are the best parts about doing a role on tour versus a sit-down production?

KS: The traveling! I got to see and experience a lot of American cities that I’ve always wanted to go to. The nice thing about not being on tour is the fact that I have a fiancée and two dogs at home. You get homesick after a while and that’s what brought me back.

S: What do you think aspiring actors need to learn before working that they may not learn in school?

KS: Every actor has a completely different path. Don’t look left and right and think you are failing because other people are doing better than you or are involved in work you want to be involved in. Everyone’s path is different. And that you are never not an actor as long as you truly believe you are one and put in the work to be one. Outside validation is great, but when it’s not there, what are you?

S: How does your relationships with cast members impact your onstage performance, if at all?

KS: It helps deeply with chemistry. You should be able to have chemistry with people even if you don’t like them, of course, but it helps to be friends with those you work with because it makes the job easier. I had a teacher tell me once that he couldn’t stand one of his coworkers and he was not only supposed to be with her in the show, he was supposed to be married to her. So, he just found something about her he liked and would remind himself of that. It just so happened to be her jawline, ha-ha.

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

KS: To live and to experience. Experiencing life and understanding life as it is and as it could be is an actor’s best tool. Regardless of what style of acting you use. We are on stage emulating life, but you have to understand it first before you can do that. And most importantly of all is to understand both sides of an argument regardless of what you actually believe. Try to understand how and why someone got to where they are not just judge them for where they are now.

 

I can’t thank Kyle enough for answering the variety of questions my students and I asked. When I shared all of his responses with my students, they really agreed with the notion that comparing themselves to other actors didn’t do them any good, and most had not thought about needing to know both sides of any and every argument. They’re learning how much space there is between the beliefs of “right” and “wrong” in daily life, but hadn’t thought to apply it to acting. They felt like if Kyle had been a classmate of theirs, that they’d be great friends, and now have another actor’s perspective on how the business works.  My most anxious students had not considered the folks casting could possibly as nervous if not more than they were, and this really resonated with my students.

 My students are now coming back to me with “lessons learned” from experiences, and I’d like to challenge my readers to do the same. In comments, share what you’ve learned from looking at another side of a topic. What were your lessons learned? To hear the interview from The Hamilcast, check out Kyle’s first episode here, and to keep up with Kyle Scatliffe, you can follow him on Instagram here. If you can, go see his performance in To Kill A Mockingbird—that whole production is powerful in every sense of the word.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP

Inclusion · Interview · Performances · Pragmatics and Social Skills · Vocal Health

We’re All Connected in Emojiland: A Conversation with Laura Schein

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take myself to the theatre and see Emojiland the Musical. It was a show I had wanted to see for a while, but when friend of the blog Andrea Koehler of Coloring Broadway told me I needed to see it, I made sure I did. Ever since, I have not been able to get this show out of my head. From concept to casting, score to scenery, I cannot remember the last time I felt like I was truly a part of the world in which the show took place. It is currently playing at The Duke on 42nd Street and I can’t encourage everyone to see this show enough. After the show, I went to the stage door because I had to thank the actors for the performance I just saw onstage. I got to thank Laura Schein (whom I had asked about vocal health during an eight-show-week, because my job is never far from mind), for her performance and later learned that she also co-created the entire production. Based on that information alone, I knew I had to learn more about the work she’s done and how Emojiland came to be. I was already trying to find social skills lessons to base of the cast album when I learned she was also a health coach and beginning to co-host a podcast on functional health. At this point, I was so inspired by the amount of work one person is doing at once across so many different platforms and professions that I had to reach out to her. I am so, so grateful that Laura was as enthusiastic as I was to have this conversation.

Stef The Stage SLP: I am so inspired by everything you’re doing right now, thank you so much for chatting with me.

Laura Schein: No problem, I’m so happy to talk to you! And yes, I enjoy wearing a lot of different hats. I’m a hat lover.

S: I can barely do one thing at a time, but I’m trying to get better at multitasking.

LS: It’s tricky, but I like the challenge of it.

S: You do so much! What came first for you; acting or creating or being a health coach?

LS: Dancing, actually. I started when I was 2. I saw a production of The Wiz when I was 3 and at intermission I turned to my mom and said, “I want to do this.” I did children’s theater and community theater, and through a summer camp I was chosen to go audition for a professional Equity production of The Secret Garden and I got to play Mary. From there, I got an agent and I was also in the Chicago sit-down company of the first national tour of Ragtime for a year and a half. It was a really amazing experience. I kept doing theater all throughout childhood and went to Northwestern University, and that’s where I started writing, directing and choreographing, becoming more interested in those areas as well.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles and kept acting, but also started writing more with my writing partner Keith Harrison. We wrote stand-alone songs, music videos, we were always creating something. Eventually, we were asked ‘Where’s your big musical?’ We spent some time thinking about it and one night at dinner in 2014 a Google Trends alert came up on our phones that said the most searched word that day was “emoji.” It dawned on us at dinner that these are characters in an alphabet but also characters with potential stories we could tell. That’s where Emojiland began. It’s been a six-year journey since then.  We’ve probably written over 50 songs for the show and developed so many characters over different versions of the show. A lot of the characters that are in the show now didn’t exist when we first started writing—Nerd Face didn’t exist—so the show has changed along with the emoji alphabet.

S: I didn’t even think of characters evolving along with actual emojis evolving in our phones.

L: Very much so. And that’s been the biggest challenge with this show. The source material is not narrative, so deciding on which characters we wanted to focus on and the stories we wanted to tell was always a topic of discussion.

S: And you’re a health coach, too?

LS: Yes, the health coach side of things is a whole other aspect of my life. I’ve always been passionate about health. My mom is a psychologist and nutritionist and actually raised me vegan. She started a school to train health coaches, The Functional Medicine Coaching Academy, and I was in the beta class. This lead me to become the co-host of this podcast, What The Func, with my friend Clayton Farris. We became friends doing a play together, and he was essentially my first client. We’re exploring functional health and talking to all sorts of professionals and delving deeper into that world.

S: I discovered the functional health world through my students and their unique diet needs. The impact of nutrition on behavior and overall functioning didn’t occur to me until I had families of my students telling me how certain diet changes affected their student’s mood or behavior. This led me to go on my own functional health journey. My older students can actually tell me, I need to eat healthy foods today or I won’t be able to focus on my exam.”

LS: Oh yeah, it’s amazing how nutrition and health absolutely affect mood and behavior. That’s wonderful that your students are so in tune with their bodies. A lot of people have yet to make the connection that what they eat affects their mental health.

S: Changing topics, I am clearly in love with your show. You play Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes and she goes through a lot of emotions over the course of the show. How do you mentally and emotionally prepare for a role like that eight shows a week?

LS: I have always been interested in pursuing the depths of emotion that I possess. The first play I ever did was called Kindertransport and it was very intense. I really learned how to access all of those emotions, and I love being able to tell the story as a character and then put it aside at the end of the play and go back to my life. There’s always some of me onstage, and in a way, it helps me process my own emotions too. Everyone’s going through so much every day, and I feel lucky that I get to share some of that on stage with people, and hopefully help them feel less alone.

S: Your answer made me feel a lot more normal. Those are the same parts of acting and performing that I enjoy, and grew up being asked why I didn’t just want to see or do happier and lighter shows. All of your characters have such a range of emotions and real depth to them. How do you create such well-rounded characters beyond the superficial images the audience knows emojis to be?

LS: That’s what I try to do in life, see all sides of a person. I try to see what drives them, what’s their history, and not take anyone at face value. I would never want to create a one-dimensional character, because that’s not interesting to me. We’re all so multi-dimensional and multifaceted, and those are the types of characters I want to create.

S: Students of mine actually shared with me that they thought it would be easier to just create the characters exactly as they are and how people would expect them. And I guess you could do that, but there’s not much story in that.

LS: When we had the idea, we very quickly connected with the idea that emojis have a fixed, coded identity. But what happens when you are who you are and everyone sees you one way, but you feel differently? We knew we wanted to tell a story about that duality, and we thought that emojis were a wonderful way to represent that idea.

S: Has working on this show changed how you use technology and emojis?

LS: Definitely. Ever since we started working on the show, I get so excited for updates because that leads to new character and prop possibilities. And no surprise, I love using emojis when texting. You know how in musicals ‘when you can no longer talk, you sing’? With emojis, when you can’t convey something by text, you use emojis. We thought there was a wonderful parallel there between how music is used and how emojis are used.;

S: I have actually used emojis with my students who are nonverbal. All of my students are extremely tech-motivated, and I’ve taught some students to use emojis on an iPad to express their wants and needs. When I don’t have access to a dedicated device, they’re actually a great method of communication. And with the space that you’re in and how your show is staged, you feel like you’re such a part of Emojiland.

LS: It really does feel that way. I love the intimacy of the space. We’re all connected in Emojiland.

S: I noticed wile I was watching the show, there is only one instance in which a gender-specific pronoun is used. I really like that choice. Was it intentional, or did it just kind of happen that way?

LS: It was intentional. There are no pronouns in the script because the emoji code isn’t inherently gender or racially specific. We were really excited about that from the beginning. And we’re excited about future productions having wildly different casting because these roles can be played by anyone.

S: That would be really exciting to see this show with different casting, I hadn’t thought of that. I love the casting in the show, I think it’s great. I love your performance in this show, but I am curious about how you take care of your voice as a performer. In this show specifically, you’re also putting on a bit of a voice. How do you prepare for that?

LS: It actually feels, as the run goes on, that my voice becomes more comfortable. It feels like my voice now sits healthfully where it should. Obviously, as a health coach, I’m really health-conscious. I eat very well; I drink so much water. And ginger shots. I’m obsessed with them. There are some nights when non-theater friends will ask me to go out to a loud bar with them post-show, but with 8 shows a week I have to be really careful. I try to get my rest and not be somewhere where I have to yell over music. It’s tough because I want to hang out, but I also have to be careful and protect myself. My castmates are the same way. When we want to go out post-show we go to a quiet diner and have pancakes and tea.

S: I get that, but there was a moment when Nerd Face’s reaction was to scream and I thought to myself, ‘I know he’s using a microphone, and I know my seat is really close, but that has to hurt eight shows a week.’ I felt the same way about whatever crazy note Skull has to hit in his songs.

LS: I guess your voice just adjusts to it. And it fluctuates. Some days feel much harder than others.

S: I have to ask; how do you wear so many hats in this production without becoming exhausted?

LS: I’m just trying to enjoy the ride. I’m so grateful for this run. One of the first lyrics in the show is “Stay in the present, the future’s unknown,” and I am really trying to just be present and focus on one thing at a time. Once I start thinking about everything at once, I get overwhelmed.

S: See, that was fascinating to me as a lyric in the show since Emojiland takes place in a phone. Most of the time we’re on our phones, we’re using it to escape and not be present. How does that work?

LS: I think we all have love-hate relationships with our phones. Phones connect us to each other. Even now, we met briefly in person, and then you reached out to me online. I’m thankful for how our phones have expanded our world and our reach, but I do have to make myself put it down and be present with the people physically around me. You need to look up. I’m also a perfectionist when it comes to responding to every message I get, and I’m working on waiting before responding to people so that I don’t miss out on connecting with someone I’m physically with in the moment.

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

LS: I would challenge people to go through one full day without complaining about anything. Try to see if it’s possible to find the positive side of every situation throughout the day, to maintain a sense of gratitude and emanate that positivity despite whatever challenges you may experience.

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Very much like my first experience with Emojiland the Musical and Laura, I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. For context, we spoke at the end of a school week while Laura was in between teaching a masterclass and a meeting before her Friday evening performance. As busy as we both were, this was certainly the highlight of my day. I can’t wait to hear how you do with Laura’s challenge, please share the results in comments.

 

You can find Laura on social media at @thelillaura on Twitter and Instagram and Emojiland the Musical at @emojimusical on FacebookTwitter and Instagram as well. You can catch Emojiland at The Duke Theater on 42nd Street through March 19th, and tickets are available here. This show has something for everyone, and is the most relatable show I’ve seen in a while. I can’t recommend this show enough. The cast album is available on streaming, as well as physically and digitally.

 

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP

Better Speech and Hearing Month · Broadway · Improv · Inclusion · Interview · Performances · Strategies

Packages Tied Up With String: Wrapping Up 2019

Every year, it feels like time speeds by even faster. I feel like so much has happened over the course of this year, but like the year wasn’t long enough to feel like it lasted 365 days. In all of the chaos that comes with this time of year, I thought I’d highlight my favorite things from each month, related to blogging, Broadway, speech therapy, or both. Let’s start at the very beginning….

January:

BroadwayCon was the highlight of this month. I got to reunite with friends and #FriendsOfTheBlog. I got to nerd out with my community of theatre-loving folks, and form memories with my best friend. I met the Broadway Makers, and started contemplating joining their organization. I got to meet and thank performers I admire. I saw Come From Away, which was such a show to experience. Between the community feeling in the show, in the audience, and over the course of the weekend. I hope everyone gets an experience like this at least once in their lives.

February:

My Valentine’s Day post. Getting to share what I love, who I love, how I love them, and how I expand this holiday beyond romantic love. If you haven’t read it, please check it out, and consider how you’ll be spending the next Valentine’s Day

March:

My conversation with Heidi Blickenstaff. She and I had so much fun during this conversation. We talked about so much and I heard some great stories as we approached a milestone for [title of show]. I think about that conversation often and revisit it whenever I need to be reminded of what a strong female lead is.

April:

Finding out I’d get to work with a  few new populations in speech therapy. 2019 was a year of professional learning for me in every sense of the word. I’ve worked with more students in a greater variety in this single calendar year than I have in my time practicing. I learned a lot about myself in this year, learned more about my colleagues and students, and learned new strategies and skills. It is to the credit of my students that I am a more well-rounded clinician.

May:

Better Hearing and Speech Month. This month every year I get to educate others about this field, what I do, and why I do it. I also get to learn more from my colleagues. For some vocal health tips, read on here.

June:

The highlight of June was the Tony Awards. This, along with the conclusion of every school year, are points of reflection and celebration midway through the year. No matter who takes home trophies that evening, its us theatre-goers who truly win.

July:

Freestyle Love Supreme at Kennedy Center. This show was so joyful and everyone was so present. It was a night with  my parents full of laughter and entertainment. The crew is so talented and so quick, you can’t help but be invested in this show from the second mic check begins.

August:

Moulin Rouge! the Musical. I loved this show so much. I’m planning on seeing it again in February. I haven’t stopped listening to the album or telling everyone who will listen how much I adore this show.

September:

The start of a new school year. As hectic ass this time is each year, I love the feeling of a fresh new year full with new opportunities for myself and my students. I am new to some and familiar to others, and excited to begin lessons alongside my colleagues.

October:

Using Tatro in my speech room. This toy was such a hit with my students, I keep finding new ways to incorporate them into lessons. My students ask to use this playset over and over. I loved getting to support my friend Will Barrios.

November:

Celebrating World Kindness Day with my students and sharing some tips with my readers here. I truly enjoy hearing my students’ ideas and perspectives on kindness each year, and how they grow and change. I got to spend this day with students who were new to me and I got to learn so much about them by listening to their opinions and practices.

December:

Seeing Leslie Odom Jr. with the National Symphony Orchestra. This concert was a real treat. Anyone who knows me knows that Leslie Odom Jr. is one of my favorite performers, and to see him at my favorite venue alongside the NSO was incredible. It was just the thing to put me in the holiday spirit. I had already been listening to both of his Christmas albums and his new album, Mr, on repeat since it was released in November, but this was and auditory experience unlike any other live performance of his I’ve seen.

I’m so grateful to you readers for joining me over the course of the year. May you all have a wonderful holiday season and a very happy new year.

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

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

Everybody’s Got A Dream: A Conversation With Matthew Scott Creative Education Director of Broadway Dreams

If you had asked me what my dream was when I was younger, my answer would have been to perform—a total no-brainer. I was hooked on performing for others and bringing smiles to their faces with something I could do. I found a way to channel that into the helping profession of speech pathology. For my students, the answer is very similar. Almost all of them want to perform in some capacity, they’re just not sure how to get there. While some are interested in doing school productions or youth theatre organizations local to us, others want more than that. Enter Broadway Dreams, a not-for-profit organization that specializes in holding masterclasses in singing, dancing, and acting. I got to talk to their Creative Education Director, Matthew Scott, to learn more about his love for performing and arts education, this organization, and how it all works. Scott has worked on Broadway and touring productions of An American In Paris, Jersey Boys, Sondheim on Sondheim, and First You Dream.

Stef: What got you interested in performing?

Matthew Scott: I grew up just outside of NYC and started seeing shows and concerts when I was a kid. My mom always played music in the house and I started taking voice lessons around the time I was 11.

S: What is Broadway Dreams?

M: We are a not-for-profit Arts Organization that provides training and mentorship. We are currently active in ten cities in the US and six partner countries. We specialize in weeklong intensives and performance opportunities. We bring Broadway professionals (directors, choreographers, musical directors, actors) to your city, teach master classes and at the end of the week, we write and perform a show.

S: How did it get started?

M: Fourteen years ago, Annette Tanner, the executive director and founder of Broadway Dreams started the organization with one weeklong program in Atlanta, GA. It grew from there.

S: What are the different programs within the organization?

M: Aside from our weeklong intensive programming which takes place predominantly in the summertime, we offer additional programming throughout the year in the form of Triple Threat Extremes, College Prep Classes, and Broadway Boosts. More info can be found on our website www.broadwaydreams.org

S: Are there age restrictions at Broadway Dreams?

M: The wonderful thing about Broadway Dreams is we do not have an age cap. You are never too old to dream!

S: How do students get involved?

M: They often find information online or by following our talented faculty on social media. But word of mouth is a big part of it too, and we have students who have been with us for over a decade now.

S: What sort of students get involved with the programs? Is it for students who are thinking of musical theatre as a profession, or can classes be taken for fun?

M: It is for anyone who has a dream. Many of our students go on to be professional performers, but many others pursue parallel careers in the arts, or become teachers, or stage managers. No matter what, they leave our program with a better sense of self. I will say this, our students are FIERCE, talented, and yes competitive. This is a serious program and a great opportunity for those who are serious about a career in the arts.

BDF_logo_outline-01 (1)

S: How does a school or organization connect with Broadway Dreams?

M: They can reach out on our website.

S: Why do you think the arts are an important component of education?

M: It’s all about teaching empathy, acceptance, tolerance, and music and theater do that. It is healing and all children should be able to express themselves through art.

S: Some of my students feel it’s easier to play a character than it is to be themself. Do you find this to be true for you?

M: There is much truth in that statement. And yet, what your students may not realize…just yet, is that they will always bring a part of themselves to any character they play. Even the characters who are not redeemable, and do not deserve the sympathy of the audience deserve the sympathy of the actors who play them. Therefore, you must always seek to find redemption in any character you play. And often times, that means looking inward and bringing your own personal experiences to the role.

S: How do you select the teachers for your classes?

M: Often times I just reach out to my exceptionally talented friends, people I’ve worked with or long admired. The criteria for our faculty are that they be a great teacher and successful in their field. Also, they have to be a good person.

S: During your career, is there advice you’ve received that has changed how you perform? Is there any advice you’d share with kids/teens who are currently performing in school?

M: Keep going. Keep singing, and dancing. See as much as you can. Read. Go to the theatre. Listen to cast albums. Be informed and start to figure out who you really are. It’s like a moving target that is constantly changing, so keep pursuing your goals and it will reveal itself to you.

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

M: If you are not a dancer, go to dance class. Not a singer, go do Karaoke, and take voice lessons. Write. Create. Dream.
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I can’t thank Matt enough for his time and insight into Broadway Dreams. I have been aware of them since I attended BroadwayCon 2017, and can’t believe it took me this long to dig deeper into their philosophies and programs. I strongly encourage all of my readers to go explore their website and see if they find anything that suits them, I know some of my students have already started exploring. You can find more information at BroadwayDreams.org, @Bway_dreams on Twitter, and @mybroadwaydreams on Instagram. You can follow Matthew Scott at @thematt_scott on Twitter and @fattymattyfresh on Instagram.

 

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

Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

Astonishing: A Celebration of Women in the Creative Space

March is Women’s History Month, and we have plenty to celebrate. March 29th marks our second birthday here at Speech To Stage. My lessons this month have had to do with women from a variety of backgrounds and showcasing a myriad of accomplishments. My students and I have learned more than we expected, and I got asked why women only get a month. I don’t have that answer, but in my speech room and in my world, women get celebrated every day. Today, I’m taking the time to celebrate every woman who has been generous enough to share her words with me. In order of appearance, I would like to showcase the women I’ve interviewed.

  • Gillian Pensavalle
    When this blog was just an idea, Gillian was the first person I reached out to. Gillian had already jumped into the deep end of the pool with her podcast, The Hamilcast, and I am a HUGE fan. She is a true self-starter who learns on her feet and is open to whatever gets thrown at her. It has been so exciting to watch her podcasting evolve.
  • Laurie Berkner
    Laurie Berkner creates the BEST children’s music my speech room has ever heard. Any song can be turned into a lesson, and I enjoy them as much as my kids do. They inspire creative questions and conversations among my students. Thank you for your creativity!
  • Margo Seibert
    Margo was someone I knew I wanted to talk to right away. With her work with weracket.com, beautiful solo music, and Broadway career, I knew I had to know her journey from beginning to present. She has a beautiful presence about her, and insight I’m forever grateful she shared with me. Already looking forward to the next time I get to see her perform.
  • Karla Garcia
    As a dancer, I was so excited to speak with Karla. She has such a unique, sophisticated style to her work. Currently in the Broadway cast of Hamilton, she teaches at Broadway Dance Center and has her choreography in different projects. If you ever get the opportunity to learn from her, DO IT! Her energy is contagious and you will have the time of your life.
  • Susan Egan
    Broadway’s first Disney princess. I still can’t believe I had the pleasure of this conversation. I remember learning so much and being able to give my students so much to work with right after this conversation took place. If she is coming to a Broadway Princess Party near you, go. Susan is truly a delightful human.
  • Jessica Lee Goldyn
    Jessica caught my eye back in the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. A few years later, and the same held true in Tuck Everlasting. Getting to hear about her dance journey and how she takes care of herself was a real treat for me and my kiddos.
  • Sarah Charles Lewis
    This young lady is a triple threat. Just a glance at her social media, and she is always dancing, singing, acting or all three. Sarah shone as Winnie Foster in Tuck Everlasting. An incredibly talented individual, I look forward to seeing her perform again someday.
  • Arielle Jacobs
    When I spoke to Arielle, she was starring in In The Heights at Virginia Repertory Theater, which Karla Garcia was choreographing. She is currently representing royalty as Princess Jasmine in Aladdin on Broadway. She has such a sunny outlook on life and is such a lovely human to speak with. My students found her words and advice really grounding and inspiring.
  • Laura Heywood
    I have followed Laura through many of her Broadway-related endeavors. I’m certain all of you know her as BroadwayGirlNYC. She is always filling my timeline with uplifting and hopeful words and thoughts. She is now back on the radio with her own interview show. Be sure to check her out!
  • Nava Silton of Addy and Uno
    Nava may be my personal hero. She found a way to take the arts and the special education community and merge them into a child friendly teaching tool and off-Broadway show! I swear by her teaching tools and have recommended them to many other educators. I firmly believe everyone needs to see this show and learn more about her work in educating others.
  • Lynn Ahrens
    Lynn Ahrens has written so much that has made me feel every possible emotion. She helped shape my childhood with Anastasia and School House Rock, and is now working on a show I adore, Marie Dancing Still. Her advice for the writing process truly changed how some of my students approach their writing assignments and feel they understand it better having heard her perspective. My students and I are so grateful for her words and her work.
  • Andrea Koehler of Coloring Broadway
    If I could give an award for most supportive human, it would go to Andrea. She shows so much support for me and for everyone involved in the Broadway Makers Alliance. Mastermind behind Coloring Broadway and The Coloring Project, she found a way for Broadway fans to make Broadway lyrics their own with coloring pages. Each page has its own mindfulness activity to go along with it, and I am OBSESSED with this product. I think I own every coloring set.
  • Kimmie Mark
    Everyone needs a Kimmie in their lives. Gillian started this saying, and she was right. She is the dresser for both George Washington and Aaron Burr for the Broadway cast of Hamilton. She is a hero for all, including the animals! She does incredible raffles benefitting the New Jersey Freedom Farm on her Instagram account, @dunkinscout
  • Stephanie Klemons
    This amazing human is superwoman. While fulfilling her job as associate choreographer for all of the Hamilton casts, she has made her directorial debut, added her choreography to other productions and is running an amazing organization, Katie’s Art Project. Everyone should be supporting this. This was such an inspiring conversation, and my students and I really took her words on work ethic to heart.
  • Liz Schwarzwalder and Mindy Swidler of Petite Seat
    Liz and Mindy are doing amazing work. Not everyone can provide a family perspective on theatrical experiences! They think of everything a family might need to know from show content to stroller parking. They keep their followers in the know on so many shows. I know my parents certainly appreciate their work, and I appreciate the fact that they’re bringing family and the arts together.
  • Lesli Margherita
    All hail the Queen. Her message of being yourself is so powerful, and one I need to hear often. My students love her positivity and her comedy, but I love her perspective of being in control of who you are and owning it. She is truly a star that shines from the inside out, and encourages everyone else to do the same.
  • Heidi Blickenstaff
    My conversation with Heidi was so much fun. She has originated these amazingly strong and vulnerable characters through her work, as well as made roles her own. She sings one of my (and my students’) favorite songs on any OBCR, “Right Hand Man” from Something Rotten! Her push to explore your town has really helped change and shape the way my students approach the word, “adventure.”

Who are the women in your life that you celebrate? I challenge to make a list of all of the women in your life you celebrate, the impact they’ve had on you, and how you can share that celebration with others.

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

Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

A Solid Rock Am I: A Conversation with Heidi Blickenstaff

I’ve discussed many things I’ve learned through theatre on this blog. After all, participating in the theatrical experience in any capacity is bound to teach anyone something new. Today’s guest embodies one of my favorite lessons: Women are strong, smart, multi-faceted people who should never be underestimated. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Heidi Blickenstaff play Heidi in [Title of Show], Bea in Something Rotten, and Katherine in Disney’s Freaky Friday in an out-of-town production, and every time I am blown away by her performance and excited by the idea that young girls especially, but women everywhere get to see this particular version of strength and power. We talked about playing all the roles mentioned above, how she got into theatre, and what it was like taking a stage production and turning it into a musical. Let’s jump in!

Stef the StageSLP: How did you become interested in theatre?

Heidi Blickenstaff: When I was six, my mom took me to our local dinner theater and we saw a production of Oklahoma! I knew nothing about it beforehand. There was a little girl in it a bit older than me, and up until then, I was only obsessed with movie musicals, especially Singin’ in the Rain. I didn’t know you could do this live, and that was it. I wanted to do that. My parents are the most supportive, wonderful parents, and had no idea what to do with me—they were mostly into sports. We found out I had to be seven to audition for the shows, and I auditioned the next year for their youth company. I sang “Maybe” from Annie, and I was absolutely terrified. The artistic director asked my mom where my voice came from, and suggested that I take voice lessons and come back in six months. I did, and the rest is history. I got a huge musical theatre education with them. I also went to a performing arts high school and was kind of insatiable. I knew I wanted to be on Broadway the second I found out there was a Broadway. I went to college and got my degree in drama from Duke University, moved to New York and started auditioning. I was very focused and relied on my instincts, because my parents had no idea how to help me other than be completely supportive. It was a lot of on-the-job training, and you never stop learning.

S: That’s awesome to come from such supportive parents without theatre as their primary interest.

H: They were given this child who loved acting and recognized early on that I was a bit of an alien, but that they needed to give me the wings to fly on my own. My mom liked musicals; we had the albums. I could not get enough of them. The way my mom tells it, I was harmonizing with Barbra Streisand when I was two. They must’ve thought, “She’s a weirdo, but we’re going to nurture this talent and interest and find her other weirdos like her to continue to grow this interest.” And I’m so grateful for that in them.

S: My students have all seen Freaky Friday, some on stage, all of them through the Disney Channel. What’s it like to adapt a stage production to a movie?

H: I had a lot of feelings of gratitude for this. When we were building the theatrical version, the creative team was incredibly collaborative. It was built on what Emma Hunton and I could do, and our input was very much a part of the process of building the show. I love collaborating and being in a room where my creative ideas are valued and heard, and we’re very proud of what we made. I’m so glad that the theatrical version is out in the world for people to do.

When I was asked to do the film, I was utterly shocked. I was the only act held over from the stage production to the film. I didn’t even have expectations of being cast. I was brought back for readings to help cast the other actors, but I never thought I would be asked to stay. I got to reprise my role on television.

Shooting the movie is an utterly different situation from a stage production. The only thing they have in common is that they require actors. I had never been on television before or made a movie before, so this was all new to me, and more learning on my feet. The script drastically changed from a full musical with an intermission to a ninety-minute film. The differences between the stage production and the film revolved a lot around demographic and attention span. The kids watching the movie may not be as invested in a two-minute ballad as a theatre audience is. Every aspect of the movie musical has to drive the plot. All of the changes made gave the final product integrity, and our book writer, Bridget Carpenter, is a total genius and was able to write for both mediums. I was so happy to be a part of both the musical and movie-musical. Every day was a gift, and an experience of a lifetime for sure.

S: What was it like originating Bea in Something Rotten?

H: It was pretty dreamy from start to finish. I got the very unlikely offer to do the role, I didn’t have to audition. I had just worked with Casey Nicholaw on Most Happy Fella, and Kevin McCollum who produced it had produced [Title of Show] and I had a working relationship with him, too. This show had been in development for two and a half years at this point, and labs and workshops had been done. They called me while I was doing Elf at The PaperMill Playhouse, and I couldn’t believe it—it was truly unbelievable. I will never forget that moment.

To be in that room with those comedic geniuses was both amazing and intimidating at the same time. I learned so much about comedy from the cast and creative team. Every day, everyone came ready to work. We all loved that show so much. Bea was written on me, they had rewritten her from previous versions. They really worked with me to figure out what would work for me, and we landed on “Right Hand Man.” From start to finish, the entire ride was totally crazy and I’m so grateful for it. It’s what you dream about. I love Bea so deeply, and of all the characters I’ve played she’s a lot like me, in a lot of ways more than Heidi in [Title of Show].

S: What was it like to create such an empowering female character?

H: Awesome. And to be on that stage in a spotlight, belting about how strong women can be and how capable we are…it doesn’t get much better than that. I am so proud that there is a character that I got to create that has such a strong message for girls and all women that says “We got this.” I remember Kevin McCollum said to me, “When you make a musical, you leave a legacy. You will always be the first Bea. You made her. This will be a part of your legacy.” And girls and boys will hear that song and its message on a cast recording is incredible.

S: Well, I can tell you it is a hit among my students, my family, and myself.

H: Thank you.

S: How on Earth do you sing the songs that you sing while protecting your voice?

H: It gets harder. Freaky Friday is my hardest sing so far. You don’t talk a lot outside of the theatre. You have to protect your voice. You have to stay hydrated and watch what you’re eating. You can’t be in a loud place where you have to shout over everyone else, or your voice will go out.

The way I sing and make sounds is instinctual. I’ve taken a handful of voice lessons, but I’ve never taken formal, individual voice lessons. I teach a lot of master classes but I can’t teach what I do or tell you how I do it. I’m much better teaching acting than singing. I know my limits, I know my voice, and I know how to adjust accordingly. All of that comes with time. We’re born with certain gifts and instincts on how to preserve those gifts. When I’m teaching, I always stress the acting and storytelling. Find the story, then make it sing.

S: What would you say to kids and teens who want to get into theatre?

H: Access really is an epidemic. It’s becoming a luxury instead of common in schools. If you do have access to any kind of class, take it. Like attracts like, so if you can find your way into a dance class or voice class, the other folks in the class will know other things going on in the arts community. Ask people questions and don’t be shy about it. There are online resources now, too. See what’s happening in your community and if you can take advantage of that. Theatre and the arts give you empathy, perspective, and joy. Kids need this, and the arts and all art are so, so important.

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

H: I would encourage them to go do something new within their own city. My family and I have been challenging ourselves to get out of our neighborhood and do something creative and new that we don’t do every week. It’s been an awesome experience to get out of our neighborhood and see more of the city we live in. Take advantage of things in your city that you wouldn’t necessarily do and have a little adventure. Put your phone down. Make a point of unplugging and really being with the people you’re with. It’s amazing what’s around us, right under our noses.
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This was such a fun conversation to be a part of, and I can’t thank Heidi Blickenstaff enough for speaking with me. How exciting is this? There is a [Title of Show] reunion concert on March 11th benefitting The Actor’s Fund! If you can, please go see Heidi in this show. It is a performance you will not want to miss! My students are already reaping the benefits of this conversation, and I’ve designed a project to go along with whatever adventure they choose to take on in their pursuit of Heidi’s challenge. Needless to say, my students have been requesting “Right Hand Man” more frequently, and I’m proud of them for that. I look forward to reading about your adventures in comments.

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

 

 

 

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.

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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