Recently, I’ve found myself wondering what goes into production roles I only know by title, especially those involved in dance. They’ve always seemed very involved, but I never quite understood what these jobs entailed. This was never clearer to me than when a former student asked me about them, and I surprised myself by not having an answer. This was the point where I decided I needed to talk to someone who knew this job firsthand. I have been following Stephanie Klemons’ career for about ten years now, and her work as a dance captain and associate choreographer has never ceased to amaze me. She and I spoke right after she made her directorial debut with In The Heights at The Kennedy Center. This woman is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever spoken with. When we began our conversation, my first question was not “How are you,” but “Where are you?” We discuss her many responsibilities, the difference between commercial work and theatre, and Katie’s Art Project.
Stef the StageSLP: Which came first for you, dance or theatre?
Stephanie Klemons: Definitely dance. Theatre came into my life a lot later. I’ve always loved theatre. I saw Cats as a kid and I wanted to do be on Broadway. But dance was my passion. I’ve always been passionate about it. In high school, someone said I had a pretty nice voice, and that I should start taking voice lessons if I wanted to be in musical theatre. I double majored in college in dance in Genetics and Microbio Research and Dance, so I didn’t have a lot of time for singing.
S: Those are two very different majors, at least in title.
S: Yeah, they’re not as different as you’d think. The same part of my brain that problem solves my way through cancer research, that has to figure out a solution to a problem is the same way I look at solving problems and making decisions in the theatre. And for me, the same way I memorized organic chemistry is the same way I memorized things in theatre. Memory is memory. It’s definitely its own skill. I’ve always thought they were similar, the big difference was the people I was around. The way I had to communicate to scientists versus dancers—that’s how I honed my communication skills.
S: What is Katie’s Art Project?
S: Katie’s Art Project does a lot. Its objective is to connect professional working artists with children with life-threatening illnesses to create a lasting legacy through art. We’ve found that creating partnerships with specific hospitals has been the best route to take, three in New York and one in Chicago, currently. We pair children in those hospitals with artists. We’ve been taking on one project at a time and working with everyone’s schedules to put the project together. I saw a niche for this, and so I created it. There are music therapists who come in and work with the kids and Make-A-Wish can connect kids with their favorite artists, but I didn’t see anything like creatives coming in and creating music with these kids. It’s all about the process, and recording a song is just the icing on the cake.
S: How can I spread awareness of Katie’s Art Project?
Personal connections always help. We have an event on July 23rd called The Art Project, which is a pop-up gallery of both visual and performance art. All of the proceeds go to Katie’s Art Project. Last year, we were able to release our single, “Home” because of it. We’re hoping to make it even bigger this year.
S: You recently finished a production of In The Heights at Kennedy Center that you both directed and choreographed. What was that experience like for you?
S: We were originally supposed to go on earlier in the season, but I had the Philip company of Hamilton opening, so I moved us to the second spot in the series at Kennedy Center so I could be there for tech and opening. As a result of our schedule change, we started rehearsing on the ten-year anniversary of In The Heights, which got us a lot of attention, as did Tommy Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbeuhler stopping by. As it happened, we were there during March For Our Lives, and we got to lend our voice to that cause. In present times, doing a show like Heights was really important to me.
S: Since the creative team for the original production of this show was mostly male, what did you bring to your production as a woman?
S: Interestingly enough, that team was more female than Hamilton, because of Quiara Hudes. I don’t feel that Heights was quite so male because of her influence. She spoke to such nurturing themes, and Lin is the best at collaborating, and it just worked so well. As a woman people respond differently to my reactions than they do to the guys.
S: You started in performing, what does performing do for you that choreographing doesn’t, and what does choreography do for you that performing does not?
S: Performing was my first love. Last summer I did In The Heights in Pittsburgh. I was missing that side of my life, and it was so fulfilling. It allowed me to say, “Hey, I can still do this.” Now that I’ve directed and choreographed a show, I really love it. I love setting a show and knowing that together I helped people achieve their best. I’ve been teaching for so long that it really makes sense to me now.
S: The amount of mental and physical energy that goes into being the associate choreographer for Hamilton is superhuman. With the amount of travel involved, how do you keep yourself grounded, and protect both your body and voice so you can do this job?
S: I have an unbelievable support system, and I don’t take that for granted. I make a point of taking care of myself, like going to the gym or the beach or taking walks. One of the stage managers in the Chicago company of Hamilton said I was pretty solid in my self-care. This was not the case when I started in Hamilton. When I eased up on myself, so did everyone around me. You have to realize you set a standard for everyone else around you, and you don’t want to set that bar impossibly high that even you cannot keep up.
S: It took me halfway into my first year in the schools to realize the same thing. I can’t hold my kids to as high a standard as I hold myself.
S: Yeah, the way you teach and where you teach from matters. If I teach from a place of excitement, the actors are usually excited. If I teach from a place of fear, they may be more apprehensive about what I’m asking them to do.
S: What is a dance captain and its responsibilities? What is an associate choreographer and its responsibilities?
S: Dance captain is hired on a performance contract, like all the other actors in the show. They can be a swing, they can be ensemble members. Most of the time, dance captains are off-stage swings because of the job requirement of giving notes. That’s easier to do when you’re not onstage. You also run auditions, and they perform. They’re magical people in this business who can deal with a lot of projects as once. It’s a lot of responsibility.
S: That’s super human.
S: It is super human. And people outside of this business don’t acknowledge it as much as it should be acknowledged. Associate choreographer is a little different. With Andy Blankenbeuhler, it can be him asking me to choreograph a few counts of eight after giving me a concept, or I’ll help him conceive the idea of a piece. When we’re setting the show, that’s when the associate choreographer teaches the entire show. They hire the dance captains and teach them how to give notes and when.
S: What are the different factors you consider when creating work for commercials than when you create for the stage?
S: It’s so different. For Hamilton, we talked about the workshop for a few years, then we did the workshop, more time passed and then we did the off-Broadway run, and later transferred to Broadway. Theatre takes years. Commercial world, the director, writer, or ad agency come up with an idea and what the story is for the commercial. By the time I’m brought on, it’s a few days of work, but is actually a lot easier for me. They don’t mess around with time in commercial work. Creating Hamilton took years. Creating the Eli Manning Super Bowl commercial took a few days. I knew what that needed to look like, I knew what the day looked like and I set myself up for success in our shooting schedule.
S: Every week I challenge my students to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
S: I think that there’s no substitute for hard work, but I think that people forget this. The world needs people to be engaged, and that requires you to be engaged in life for the majority of the time. I think we reward too easily, and that kids should do something to get the satisfaction of hard work. Unplug and make sure you’re aware of the world around you outside of social media.
This was such a fun and informative conversation, and I can’t thank Stephanie Klemons enough for her time. To learn more about Katie’s Art Project, please check out their website. It’s a wonderful organization that I really believe in. I really value her challenge and will be taking it on along with my students. There’s no better time to take on such a challenge.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP