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

Tap Your Troubles Away: A Conversation With Chris Rice

Tap was a household staple in my childhood. I was either trying to learn how to do it, watching the greats perform it in the Golden Age of film, or watching my mom and Bubby literally dance around the house. When I was dancing, my mom picked up tap again, and can still dance circles around anyone my age—triple time steps, pullbacks, wings, you name it. She got that from her mother, who was a Rockette for a year. Then there was me, who could not figure tap out for her life. I worked hard at it for seven years before moving on to other dance styles in which mistakes weren’t audible or visible, but it’s still one of my favorite styles to watch. Chris Rice, most recently in Broadway’s Book of Mormon, made tap popular again by posting a video of he and his friends dancing to “Cups” from Pitch Perfect, which only started an entire #Tappy movement! Chris has such a delightful energy when he’s performing, you can’t help but grin from ear to ear. I got to talk to him about his creative process, perspective taking, and collaborating with others. Enjoy!

Stef the StageSLP: Which came first for you, dance or theatre, and how did you discover each?

Chris Rice: When I was a kid, my older sister went to ballet every week. My mom used to take me along and try to entertain me while my sister was dancing. Eventually, I started watching her in her class and would dance around the lobby area on my own. My mom thought she could enroll me and see how I took to dancing in a class setting. I really enjoyed it. My church also presented a large, Broadway-style musical every year. I auditioned as a child dancer and was cast at a pretty young age. Dance and storytelling have gone together ever since then!

S: I got to see you perform in Book of Mormon, which is still one of the most unique theatrical experiences I’ve ever seen. What was it like to be a part of something so well-known and sought-after?

C: It was a complete dream come true. I grew up as a musical-loving kid in Oklahoma who always dreamed of performing on Broadway. It has always been my passion. Being able to look back at that wide-eyed, enthusiastic kid and say “You did it” is a pretty special thing. Being a part of such a major production for such an extended amount of time was unlike anything I have done in my career. The crowds were insane and the show never had a performance where it wasn’t sold out in my entire run with the show. That is pretty spectacular.

S: What did you learn from being a part of such a show?

C: I learned so many things from being a part of The Book of Mormon. It was my first time performing on Broadway in New York City. I learned so many things about how a show is run and maintained and also how it is the responsibility of the actor to keep the material fresh and exciting for every single audience.

My job in the show is called a “swing” which means I understudy more than one role. I covered 7 different roles in The Book of Mormon and had to be ready to go on for any one of them at a moment’s notice. This taught me self-discipline, it taught me to trust myself, and it taught me how to be prepared.

S: How do you overcome anxiety when you audition for or go onstage for a show every night?

C: I don’t usually get nervous to perform on stage anymore. It may happen occasionally, but usually when you open a stage show, you have had enough rehearsal to feel prepared.

Auditions still make me nervous for some reason. Maybe it is the fact that I don’t get to become a character and I have to be myself in the room. Don’t get me wrong; I am comfortable in my own skin. But perhaps it is easier to jump into a role because the work is done for you. The script and score of a musical lead you through the story. They set up the world of the character. In auditions, you are yourself and then you must jump into the world of a character in the middle of their journey. Something about this allows my nerves to creep in.

I think preparation is the key to eliminating or minimizing nervousness. If you have done the work and are prepared, you know you can do it. You have sung the song before and you have rehearsed the material enough so it is now in your body. Once you have done it enough, your confidence will grow and you’ll feel secure in what you are bringing to the table.

S: My students are working on perspective taking and point of view. How do you find your way into a character? Do you have any suggestions for my students for understanding someone else’s perspective?

C: I think some importance advice that someone gave me for this subject was that “Everyone is the hero of their own story.” What this means is that no character thinks of himself as the villain. Each character is only doing what they think is right. Jafar in Aladdin doesn’t think “I am a bad guy for wanting to become the Sultan of Agrabah” but from an audience’s perspective, there are usually “good guys” and “bad guys” and Jafar would clearly fit into the “bad guy” category. It is the job of the actor to get to a place where they can motivate the actions of every character honestly. You have to put yourself in the world of the character and think “What has this character gone through so far in their life to make them have these view points and to make them want the things they want?” This is the first step of bringing any character to life.

S: How did the #Tappy series come about?

C: I was actually sitting backstage at the Book of Mormon on Broadway and listening to the song Cups on the Pitch Perfect movie soundtrack. At the time, people were posting videos of them performing the song while creating the drum beat with cups and their hands. I wondered if anyone had done a video using tap sounds instead. I looked around online and couldn’t find anything so I was inspired to do it myself.

A few weeks later, I recorded my friends and myself performing the choreography and uploaded it on YouTube. Within 24 hours, we had 55 thousand views and within 8 days we had a million hits! The success of this video inspired me to continue choreographing and creating.

My second video was to the hit song “Happy”. We created the hashtag #Tappy and the Tappy series was born!

S: Collaborating is a district-wide goal for my students. How do you choose who you want to collaborate with in your #Tappy series? Do you have any tips for them?

C: I think the performing business is all about who you know. I started casting my videos by thinking “Who do I know that is talented and great to work with?” Life is too short for egos. You don’t want to work with someone who is going to take up the very limited rehearsal time with unnecessary drama so being a kind, collected, and respectful human being can help your career in addition to making your life more focused.

Moving on to future tap videos, I decided to “reach for the stars” and ask people who I only dreamed of performing with! Always try! I asked some big-time stars who were unable to participate due to contractual limitations, but others have said yes! I’ve had the opportunity to sing duets and to tap alongside some people who I have admired in the business for years! They could have all said no, but I asked anyway. You never know who will be willing to collaborate with you, so I say go for it!

On that note, please always be respectful of the time of your collaborators. Have a set (realistic) schedule, show up early, be prepared, and make the experience easy and great for them.

S: I’ve watched all of your videos multiple times and your joy when dancing is just contagious. Is that something you developed through dance, or are you just a genuinely enthusiastic person?

C: Without sounding like a jerk, I think I am a genuinely enthusiastic person. That said, dance elevates my joy in a way that I can’t quite describe. Dancing, and tapping specifically, brings a lot of happiness to me. I always admired dancers and definitely was not one myself. I had to work hard to even pass as a “mover”. Now, I am thankful I am in a place where I can perform while dancing and let my own personality shine through while also doing the correct steps with my feet.

S: What have you learned from acting that you can apply to your daily life?

C: Identify what you want, what your obstacles are, and make a plan of how to surpass them to arrive at your goal. That applies to a scene, a song, and to life.

S: What have you learned from dancing and choreographing that you apply to your daily life?

C: Spatial awareness is a huge lesson that the dance world has taught me. I can’t stand when I am in line for something and someone is breathing down my neck in line behind me or when someone cuts you off and is completely unaware of their body and the space you two share. Personal space is something we need to all become aware of and pay attention to in life and dancing and choreographing has helped me do so.

S: What does choreographing do for you that dancing does not, and what does dancing do for you creatively that choreographing does not?

C: If you have a performers’ heart and soul, then nothing feels better than performing a dance yourself. It amplifies the most courageous and passionate parts of yourself and allows you to escape into a higher level of being for a few moments. There is nothing like it.

Choreographing is always a fun process but it is definitely more of an intellectual one than performing. You have a vision of a final product in mind and it is your job to hammer away at all of the extra rock until you have nothing but the beautiful sculpture in front of you. It takes a lot of thought. Do I need this section? Does this help the overall number? It can be a lot of work, but also a lot of fun! It is satisfying to see the finished product.

S: When you were younger, did you know you wanted to be a performer?

C: Without a doubt, I always knew I loved performing. When I was a young kid, everyone told me I was going to be a movie star because I was so theatrical so that was my plan. I figured I would grow up and then start being in films… simple right? I did not know you could make a living as a performer on stage until my mom took me to the national tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for my birthday. I was turning 13, I believe, and when I saw the magic that was happening on stage, I thought to myself “I have to do this.” I started asking questions and learned these actors made a living performing in musicals and in that moment, my plans to be a movie star were thrown out and my dream of being a performer on Broadway was born.

S: What is your most memorable experience either seeing a show or performing in a show?

C: I have been fortunate enough to see some really special productions that have challenged the way I think, inspired me, uplifted me, and moved me. It is hard to pick just one because so many of these wonderful shows have touched me in different ways.

As a teen and into my college years, whenever I would see a Broadway show or tour, I would head to the stage door to meet the actors as they exited the theatre. I have boxes of Playbills signed by the actors and pictures with them at the stage door from my years of seeing shows as a young theatre enthusiast. Some of my most special moments after performing in a show have been meeting young theatre fans at the stage door. It is so fulfilling to hear their stories and answer their questions. It is always a very “full circle” moment for me. I am happy to give back and to help inspire the next generation of performers just as the actors who I met at the stage door inspired me!

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

C: I would encourage them to spend a day (or week) attempting to listen more. Practice being a good listener. Don’t misunderstand me and think I mean you must be a mute for a week. I simply mean listen to hear and understand and don’t listen to respond. Try not cutting off others to respond and let them finish or expand upon their thoughts. You might learn something.
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I thoroughly enjoyed learning so much from Chris, and really hope my students take his challenge to heart. There’s something so powerful about listening to hear; it’s so grounding and makes you really pay attention to the words being shared with you. I’m taking this challenge on personally, and can’t wait to see how my readers do with it in comments. If you haven’t seen his #Tappy series on YouTube, please do yourself a favor and go watch it. My personal favorite is “The Boogie Woogie Candyman of Company B,” since my Bubby sang “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” all the time when I was growing up, and used to teach me tap lessons in my parents’ foyer while she sang.  It will instantly brighten your day and make you grin—I’m certain it’s impossible to watch these videos without smiling.

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

Broadway, Interview, Language Comprehension, Performances, The Human Connection, Wise Words

Pick Up A Pen, Start Writing: A Conversation with Nik Walker

Writing is not always easy. Personally, it’s something I’ve always enjoyed and have always done. I saw it as a means of expression, of creativity, of escaping my bubble and traveling elsewhere. One of my high school teachers once told me I should be an author, since I loved to read and write so much—who knew I’d be writing this blog some years later? She and I are still in contact, we now work in the same district, and constantly swap book recommendations. Now that it’s my turn to help my own students write, I can see how much is involved from an objective standpoint. I recently mentioned a playwriting assignment my students had to complete, and was surprised at the expectation level that had been set for them, especially for my students with language comprehension needs, difficulty with perspective taking, and my literal thinkers. Nothing I said to them made sense—organizers, outlines, I did it all. And then it occurred to me, I need to talk to someone who knows the world of writing and perspective-taking.

Enter Nik Walker, who has not only done some writing of his own, but who made a video that helped my students understand what storytelling through this medium could sound like. He is currently playing Aaron Burr in the Philip Tour of Hamilton: An American Musical. That’s right, I got to learn even more about my all-time favorite character from a musical (sorry, Elphaba), and the three other tracks he covered while in the Broadway cast of the show. Ready to read for yourself? Let’s go!
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Stef: You came to mind because of this writing assignment my students are doing. They’re writing a play, and the expectation set for them would be challenging for anyone, let alone third and fourth grade kids. I sat in on the lesson and heard the expectation myself, and I didn’t think I’d get a passing grade on an assignment like this, as someone who enjoys writing and theatre. I know you have some experience with writing plays, and what I used to help my students was your Free Speech video about your Blockbuster store.

Nik: Oh wow. I’m so glad you were able to use that. That’s really wonderful.

S: My student said, “I don’t think he was talking about a store. I think he was talking about people’s behavior. Like, is your behavior kind enough to go into his store?” And I hit the table I was so excited, because this student who has been working on perspective taking and nonliteral language for years just understood your imaginary world. So please know, you’ve reached some kids in my little speech therapy room.

N: No way. That’s so cool to hear.

S: So, after hearing that, I told the students that was how we were going to write. We scaled it back and made it work for their level. That is when it occurred to me to talk to someone who lives in this space, because IU can’t help my students with something that I don’t know or understand. They want to know what you do when “You can see it in your head but you can’t figure out how to put what you see on paper.”

N: I think anytime you’re writing you’re sharing a part of yourself and that’s kind of the beauty and the curse of it. You’re sharing something so raw, why would you make it accessible. What I always think about is ‘What am I trying to communicate? How do I want the person to take what I’m saying?’ Now, you can’t control how an audience understands your message, but you can know your end-game. If you want people to feel or think a certain way, that will give you a direction or goal to work in. It’s a process for kids and adults alike.

S: I love this as an assignment but not as a grade.

N: Yeah, I can understand that. They’re just trying to figure out what it is. Grading it explains that there are rules to this, and there are so many more possibilities than there are rules, and I hope they know that.

S: A lot of my older students are very familiar with Hamilton; the younger ones are because of me and my obsession with the show. My one Hamilton-obsessed student wants to know how you always seem to be the target for practical jokes from James Monroe Iglehart and Michael Luwoye. She really feels for you.

N: First of all, all of that is done in love. I am the eternal younger brother, and what ends up happening is that, with both Michael and James, we bonded over being playful people. It’s not like that with everyone, but most people know that our friendship is getting closer when I tease them. I do not ever tease to hurt, I would never do that. I grew up with witty barbs thanks to Indiana Jones and Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club. But these people know that I love them, pranks, scares, what have you—it’s all done in love.

S: After  covering Aaron Burr, George Washington Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, and Man 6 in the ensemble,  you’re playing Burr full-time on tour. How does your prep change from four roles to one?

N: You put in the same amount of work for each track you cover. The unsung heroes of theatre are the swings and understudies. The whole point is that they go on and you don’t know the difference. It’s not an impersonation, but the whole reason you have them is because they’re just as good if not better than the people they’re covering. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of my heroes and mentors this way, how to make this show happen eight shows a week. This is the first time in my Broadway career the only role I only have to worry about what I’m doing. For me, it’s knowing I am enough and knowing that the show will still work. I am not Leslie, I can’t be him, but I can be me, and I just want to do the show to the best of my ability.

S: When I saw the show, Jon Rua was on for Hamilton and Austin Smith was on for Washington.

N: You saw Austin? He’s amazing!

S: He is. And I loved seeing their performances. I went into seeing the show cold, and had no expectation for what I was seeing. I was concerned that I’d hate that show. I loved it, but I know I love the performance I saw more than the cast album I hear. I think it’s more fun to see something without an expectation, and I loved getting to see something different than what the world thinks they know of this show.

N: Definitely. And you saw a great group of performers. It isn’t the recording, but that’s what makes live theatre interesting. Only the people in that room that night get to see that production of that show.

S: How did you get into theatre? I can’t believe it took me this long to get to this question.

N: As a kid, my mom wanted me to focus. She thought theatre would focus me. I had too much energy, and she had me audition for a kid’s production of Winnie the Pooh at Wheelock Family Theater. I fell in love with the community of it, it was pretty automatic from what I remember. I loved the idea of people coming together to create something. I went deeper because of my love of stories, especially Mark Twain. His storytelling was just so organic, and I spent my elementary school years seeking out storytelling. I listened to albums by The Who because all of their albums tell stories.

From there, I got into film. I watch film incessantly. It’s just spectacular, especially Tarantino, Scorsese and Spielberg, and their stories defined who I became as an adult. I think the acting part of it just came out of studying that; in college it was Shakespeare and words and how to do something with words, which really drew me to theatre, but the backbone is still that love of community. Acting is like a sport to me. There’s nothing like engaging with and reacting to your scene partner. It’s like tennis, and there’s nothing better than that. There’s nothing I love more, and I am so fortunate that I get to do what I love.

S: The song Wait For It changed everything. I had a favorite show and song before I saw it; and this changed that. How do you do that eight shows a week?

N: Leslie has said “Everything you need to know is in the text,” and that’s the gift of this musical. Musicals aren’t often about the words, they’re about the music. This show isn’t like that, because words, text and dialogue are at the forefront. For Wait For It, I ride the wave of the word. I really like the idea that this is a man who is trying to believe in the mantra. It’s not like Burr hasn’t had success in his life, but Hamilton shows up and everything he does raises the bar. His thought process has to be, “With all my knowledge, how did I not come up with that?” We all know that person who always manages to beat you to your goal.

S: There’s always one!

N: Yes, there’s always one. I think that song is him convincing himself he’s playing the game correctly. Stick with what you already know, because it’s worked for him so far over time. The energy of that song is incredible.

S: That’s the song that made me relate so closely to the character and to the show. I felt like I knew those experiences, because the role is so human, and I had never related to anything more.

N: I think that’s what’s so beautiful about the show. It has these human truths. People come into this show thinking they’ll hate Burr, and they end up sympathizing with him. It’s so human. What could be more human than making the biggest mistake of your life, never being able to take it back, and it ruining both characters’ lives

S: Between protecting your voice and your body, how do you play this role eight shows a week?

N: Doing Burr on Broadway is hard. Doing Burr on tour is nuts. Every place is different—the weather, where I’m staying, what I find comfortable. The biggest thing is not to second guess your comfort. If you’re feeling tired, you go rest. If your voice is tired, there’s technical stuff—straw and water technique, steaming, taking care of your voice. You prioritize your comfort to keep your instrument at its best. It’s a sport, you train and take care of yourself. My body and my voice are my job.

S: I’m a former dancer, I totally get that.

N: This show is so hard on your legs, and I wasn’t fully aware of that when I joined the company. You’re always standing in the period costumes and period shoes. It’s tough. I started doing dynamic stretches to take care of myself and check in with where my body is that day. It’s actually really relaxing. Also, you can’t be afraid. Four the tour, I’ve talked to a lot of the actresses who’ve played Elphaba, to see how to do this eight shows a week. They’ve told me getting used to it will take time, but once you’ve settled, go out and do things wherever you are, and trust that you do know how to do your job.

S: Yeah, if you’re scared, that’s when you get hurt. At least in my own experiences.

N: Yeah, you can’t come from fear. Be confident that you know what you’re doing. Find the version of the show that gets the story told without maxing out after two shows.

S: That makes so much sense to me. As a part of a really collaborative show, what’s collaboration like for you? You collaborate with everyone you work with when you’re a part of any show.

N: Listening is the number one skill. People are waiting for their chance to speak rather than truly listening and taking in what the other person is saying. That’s all collaboration is—people talking from different places and styles and bouncing ideas around and seeing what sticks. You can’t learn the other person’s way of thinking if you’re always in the spotlight. Some of my favorite parts of the show are when Burr is somewhere listening.

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

N: That’s a great question. Honestly, this is gonna sound kind of crazy, but read a book a week. I say that because books are the gateway to understanding cultures and stories that are vastly different from yours. I think that reading is the ultimate test if empathy. Find a book that you wouldn’t normally read, and just read it to see what someone else is thinking about and feeling. I think what that’s gonna do is help others to understand we’re all looking for the same things in life. And it will start to show you what you’re capable of, which is the best part of getting out of your comfort zone, and flipping what you thought you knew on its head.
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In case it’s not completely obvious from our conversation, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to talk with Nik Walker. Full disclosure: this conversation took place the week leading up to Christmas, and he was so generous with his time during this interview, that it felt like I was talking to someone I’d known for years. To those of you who are going to get to see Nik’s performance on tour, you all a re not ready and are going to experience something unique and so smart. I haven’t had the opportunity to see him yet, but I know this because that’s what was running through my head. If you haven’t seen the video mentioned in the beginning of this post, do yourself a favor and check it out. If you have to look up what a video store is like my students did, that’s fine. You can follow Nik Walker at @nikkywalks on Twitter and Instagram. Personally, I can’t wait to hear about what everyone decides to read for his challenge. Don’t forget to comment with the books you choose!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Started The Story: A Conversation with Jeremy Basescu

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

S: How did you get into theatre?

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

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

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

S: When did Story Pirates come about?

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

S: Is there an age limit to this program?

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

S: Elementary school is my demographic!

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

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

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

S: So, how does the program work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

StageSLP: How did you become interested in theatre?

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

S: What is your background with individuals with disabilities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP

 

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

A Little Something More Than Heaven: A Conversation with Sarah Charles Lewis

When I was growing up, I wanted nothing more than to live in the fantasy worlds in my head. I wanted to be characters in books, television shows, and movies, and act out alternative realities for them in imaginary play. With my sense of imagination, I could be anyone. I could write any storyline for any character. One of my favorite books growing up was Tuck Everlasting, a fantasy novel by Natalie Babbitt which begs the question of immortality. When it was announced that this show was being turned into a musical, my inner child lit up and I got to see the fourth preview of this show. Winnie Foster was one of my childhood heroes, and Sarah Charles Lewis portrayed her beautifully. It was such a treat to see Sarah live out my inner pre-teen’s connection to this character.  I was so excited to get to hear about her experiences as a young professional in the theatre world, and was so impressed with her outlook on life at such a young age.

S: How did you get into theatre, and what makes you want to stick with it?

S: My parents are musical people. They met in a band, so my whole life I’ve been exposed to music. I was always singing and dancing and wanted to be on stage. My brother is also musical; it’s in our blood. I guess I’ve stuck with it because theatre is just what I love to do! I enjoy everything about it, on the stage and off. I know that’s the path I’m going to take with my life.

S: Do you ever get frustrated, and if you do, how do you deal with that?

S: Well, I think everyone gets frustrated at times. During Tuck Everlasting, the creative team would keep saying things like “Don’t grow” and that would really frustrate me. I cannot control my growth. I just kept telling myself to really live every moment until I was replaced. That time never came, thank goodness, and I was able to go on for every show until it closed. I went into a growth spurt right afterwards, though. I was so relieved it didn’t happen during my contract! Growing out of roles is just normal as a kid on Broadway. It’s really the worst part. Many of my friends in Matilda and School of Rock would get measured and it’s super stressful and sad when they would get replaced.

S: What advice would you give to kids your age or younger?

S: If you want to be a triple threat, then you have to work on your weakest link. It’s hard to do, but you just have to do it. My Tuck director told me that one day, and I’ll never forget his advice. And, just be nice. Pay it forward. I’ve seen many awesome actors get cut because of the energy they brought into the room. So, work hard at what you love to do, be nice and pay it forward. Give back to others, it feels really good to do that.

S: What is it like being a professional already? Is it all business or is it fun?

S: Some of it is business, but—come on–most of it is fun! It’s even better when you get to work with other kid actors, because we totally understand each other. There isn’t any weirdness or fan stuff. We are just normal friends and that’s the best. I really miss my Broadway friends. Everyone is just so chill and cool, but insanely talented, focused, and hard-working. You have to be, because the competition is fierce. Everyone in New York City is AMAZING.

S: How do you balance school and performing, and what does that look like with an 8-show week?

S: Schooling was hard, especially since Tuck was an original show and I was the lead role. Every day I would have new lines, until the show was frozen. Sometimes it was even just a few hours between shows and I would get new lines, changed lines or new lyrics. But, it was super fun, too, because my “class” was in my Broadway dressing room! It was all just such an awesome experience. And I loved my on-set tutor so much. I learned to really balance my time better. That was a HUGE help for middle school.
S: How do you take care of your voice when you’re performing?
S: Silence, hydration, and rest. Basically, don’t talk, drink tons of water, and rest whenever you can. It’s the only way to preserve your voice when doing that much singing. Being quiet it hard!

S: What part of this job does the audience not get to see, but should be aware of?

S: I don’t think the audience often gets that there are so many people off the stage that are part of the show, too. The audience only sees the actors, but really the cast is just a small part of the whole TEAM. From the designers, writers, producers, pit orchestra, my dresser, to hair, makeup, understudies, spot light, directors, theatre cleaners, wranglers, casting, choreographers…the list goes on and on.

S: What’s the stage door experience like for you?

S: Oh my gosh, it’s so incredible! Some people in the cast were often too tired, sick, or had to preserve their voices, etc. Two show days are rough. But I always went out, because it’s really fun to meet everyone who watched the show and to hear their feedback. Obviously, signing the playbills was awesome, too. And most of the people at the stage door were MY AGE, so it just felt like I was one of them. I go to stage doors all the time!

S: How do you keep your confidence up when having to perform in front of so many people?

S: Well, when I would mess up a line, blocking or harmony part, my cast mates would lift me up /cover /improv – we took care of each other. It became instinctive and comforting. Everyone has bad days, but we try to leave it all at the door and become our character when we enter the theatre. However, it’s live theatre and things happen. A prop breaks…which reminds me of one time that I lifted my fishing rod in the rowboat scene of Tuck and my fish was NOT ON THE ROD! Pa Tuck said something great and winged it. We laughed afterwards. I think your cast family keeps your confidence up. It’s truly a family. I miss them the most.

S: Some of my students have a hard time navigating social situations—making friends, talking to new people, and you get to do this for a living. Do you have any advice for them on how to do this?

S: I have a hard time with this, too. The best thing I’ve found that helps me is to just break the ice sooner than later. Be the one to walk up, look them in the eye, give them a (good) handshake and introduce yourself! Although we don’t often shake hands in school. Being the brave one is really hard and it gets tiring, but we can all be ourselves and have a smile on our faces and still do it. That’s what I do.

S: I like to give my students and readers weekly challenges. What would you
challenge my students or readers to try?

S: I would challenge them to meet at least one new person this week. And I’ll do it, too. Don’t worry; I’m right
by your side! Remember to be yourself. Being different is really the coolest.

I am truly grateful that Sarah took the time out of her busy schedule to chat about these topics. Part of my job is to see the world from the perspectives of others—mostly my students and their families. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be so young and already trying to strike a work/life balance, but Sarah seems to have a solid handle on that. Her honest answers were truly remarkable, and when I saw her perform last spring, her character is more than evident. I look forward to seeing what she does next, and for my students and readers to tackle her challenge.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP

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

And Now That I’m Dancing, Who Cares If I Ever Stop: A Conversation with Jessica Lee Goldyn

One of the most beloved shows in Broadway History has been revived this season: Hello, Dolly! I was fortunate enough to see this show back in April while it was still in previews. In shows like this that shine a light on its star, I’ve always liked to see who’s performing in the ensemble. When I took my seat, and opened my Playbill and saw Jessica Lee Goldyn’s name, I knew I was in for something truly special. I have been following Jessica’s career since I saw her as Val in the 2007 revival of A Chorus Line. In the previous season, I had seen her perform in Tuck Everlasting, which I will always say is one of the most beautifully crafted shows I’ve ever seen. Every time I’ve seen her onstage, I wasn’t able to take my eyes off of her. I was truly honored when she agreed to speak with me about her story, her experiences in dance and theatre, and the need for genuine human connection.

S: How did you get into theatre?

J: I grew up dancing. I started dancing when I was three, and I was a gymnast for five years, but I continued dancing. When I stopped gymnastics, my mother didn’t know what to do with me. One day, I sang a solo in church, and someone sitting next to my mother said I had a pretty good voice, and recommended I start going to a studio in Morristown, New Jersey. I got to sing and dance there, and that was it. Around that time, I saw Bebe Neuwirth in Chicago and that was it for me. I was hooked.

S: Dance was my way in, too. It’s sort of inherently competitive, though. What made you stick with it as a kid? Did you ever get frustrated with it?

J: The only time I remember being frustrated with dance was in ballet. I knew I needed to do it for the technique. My preferred style of dance is reckless abandonment, so I’m grateful that I have the foundation of technique in order to break those rules. I didn’t like holding a flower and standing second from the end, I just felt like I was the weird musical theatre kid in ballet class.

S: I was that kid!

J: You know what I mean? I remember spending so much time trying to make the girls laugh rather than taking class seriously. Dance, for me, feels effortless. Even if it’s something that feels like it’s beyond my physical ability, it just feels so natural and it’s my gift to the world. There are things I try and do that may not fit me, but it’s like air. It feels like flying.

S: What have you learned from theatre and dance that you’ve been able to apply to everyday life?

J: I learned to be in the moment for what it is, and be malleable. You never know what’s going to happen in every moment. Just being present in that moment and reacting to it is a way that you will look back on and feel content with.  I also learned how to take rejection. You’re not always going to get what you want. And knowing things work out the way they’re supposed to and you’re meant to be doing what you’re doing when you’re doing it.

S: You’ve gotten to do both original work and revivals. Is there a difference in how you approach the character?

J: When you do a revival, there’s a precedent already set, and it can be scary to venture off from what is known or safe. With A Chorus Line, they let me fly; I got to balance what I was doing with what everyone fell in love with about the show for the first time. With a new work, you have the freedom to make it whatever it is you want it to be. I think that that’s exciting. I enjoy both very much. With a revival, it’s like a paint-by-numbers. You can change the colors, but the end product is roughly the same as the original. With a new work, it constantly changes until it’s done. They’re both so challenging, but both so rewarding.

S: Everything I’ve seen you in has been pretty dance-heavy. How do you protect your voice and body in these shows?

J: I’m a big believer in breath through dance and breathing through the movement. I think gymnastics helped with my endurance in both dancing and singing. And in general, if I’m singing more in role, I’m aware of what I’m eating and staying hydrated and getting tons of sleep. I notice a huge difference in my voice. My body can be a little sore and I can still dance. My voice is more delicate—I have to warm up, I have to sleep well, and I have to stay hydrated.

S: Auditioning is part of the job for you, and so is putting yourself out there on a daily basis. Some of my kids have a hard time putting themselves out there. How do you calm those the nerves?

J: I am somebody that prepares as much as possible. I listen to calming music, I make it joyous in my apartment. Maybe it’s eating a certain thing or listening to some nice music. I know when I get nervous I get quiet, and that makes it harder for me to come out of my shell. I try to stay up an active. I’ll stay warm and keep stretching and moving, and keep my spirit up and engaged. And then, if it’s meant to be, it will be, and to be myself. Being you and showing who you are and letting that shine can be more important than whether or not my presentation of the work was perfect.

S: What would you say to your elementary school self?

J: “You are cool,” is what I would say. I felt very much like an outsider in elementary school, and all I wanted to feel was cool. I liked dance, and I dressed different and I felt different. In the end, looking back, everything that made me feel less than is what makes me amazing and I didn’t see it then. So, I’d tell my elementary school self “You are cool and you are so enough.”

S: What keeps you motivated and alternatively, what keeps you grounded?

J: I think back to why I got into this in the first place and that spark. The feeling I get onstage and hearing the audience, I love working hard—that motivates me. What keeps me grounded are my family and my friends. They are everything. I’ll get upset about something that happened at work and then I’ll talk to them and everything falls into perspective. They make me realize what truly matters in life. And my friends love me for me, and they know when to level with me when I need it.

S: How do you perspective shift with your character in and outside of the show?

J: Every character that I play, I do believe a part of me is there. Even if it’s not something I’ve experienced, I’ve experienced that feeling in some regard. Also, it is just a show in the end. I can go and laugh in the wings and leave work at work. But I get to let out whatever is going on onstage through whatever I’m doing. I’ve never had a problem with leaving the theatre at the theatre and my life at the door. I think that’s how I’ve been able to navigate that.

S: I’m still working on that skill.

J: It’s not easy.

S: Every week, I challenge my students and readers to get out of their comfort zone in some way. What would you challenge my readers and students to do?

J: To connect with someone they might not understand, or love someone they feel distant from. I think that that is what helps people to grow the most. Understanding people and where they come from and the life they live, there is no better way to grow as a person. And it can be uncomfortable. We’re all just people and we’re all just doing the best that we can, and I think that that is one of the most beautiful ways to put yourself out there and challenge yourself.
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For those of you who have been following along for a while now, you know how excited I am for this challenge. What I do, both here and in my practice as a speech pathologist, is all rooted in the human connection and the human experience. Through our conversation, I was able to share with Jessica more similarities between her story and experiences and mine than I would’ve expected. I am so excited to share her messages of acceptance and kindness with my students, and see their responses to her challenge. I can’t thank Jessica enough for this conversation. Just like she said, it came to me exactly when I needed to hear what she had to say. If you can get tickets to see Hello, Dolly!, run don’t walk to get them. If you look up Broadway in the dictionary, this is the show you’ll find, with a full-page photo.

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