Broadway · Inclusion · Interview · Performances · The Human Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

S: What is Katie’s Art Project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S: That’s super human.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadway · Interview · Performances · The Human Connection

Not Just A Simple Sponge: A Conversation with Ethan Slater

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

Stef the Stage SLP: What got you into theatre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadway · Performances · The Human Connection

Give My Regards to Broadway: What I’ve Learned from the 2017-18 Broadway Season

Every time I get to participate in live theatre as an audience member, I walk away with new lessons learned, new perspectives, and new ideas to bring into the speech room. With the Tonys a week away, and knowing the audience is the real winner since we get to experience something so unique, I’ve decided to list what I’ve learned from the shows I’ve seen from the 2017-18 Broadway season.

  • SpongeBob SquarePants
    This show taught me that I need to access joy more in my everyday life. I brought it back into the speech room immediately. Yes, I will always make a plan, no it will not always work, and yes, I can find the joy in the chaos. I was also able to bring back the message of keeping oneself informed and speaking up for what you believe in. Though I always teach this to my students, using the cast album gave both my students and I a new way to access an idea we’ve been working at for some time now.
  • Frozen
    Above all, love, compassion, and empathy. While watching this show, the weight of love in the room–between cast members onstage, parents and children in the audience–was so present. The message of the importance of being you, exactly the way you are. I came back with a lesson ready for my students: “I love the way I am because ____________________.”. This was one of my favorite lessons of the year. I got to see how my kids were proud of themselves and why. Sometimes educators forget that students are people with thoughts and feelings. Just because they’re young does not mean they should be discounted in any capacity. This also allowed them to feel free to ask me what I was proud of myself for and see how similar adults and children can be in this regard.
  • Mean Girls
    The anthem, “I’d Rather Be Me” (though not speech room friendly) rang true. Ironically, it was around this time that some drama was stirring up between some students, and gave me a new plan on how to address some of these issues. No, trust falls were not involved, but honest expression was used. Through collaboration with parents and staff, all issues were resolved and all is well. This also opened the discussion in pragmatics of what is a friend/acquaintance/best friend and how are they similar and different?
  • Carousel
    I’ve written about this in a previous post, but Carousel taught me the value of perspective. To listen for the feedback my kids were giving me about lessons, what they enjoyed, what they didn’t. I got to think about therapy through the mind of a child, and what my effect was on each of them. I reminded them that I’m always here for them regardless of the issue, and that they will always have my support.

This week, I challenge my students and readers to let me know what lessons they’ve learned from a performance they’ve seen or been involved in. What did you learn, and how has it impacted you?

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

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