Broadway · Performances · The Human Connection

Spectacular, Spectacular! My Review of Moulin Rouge! The Musical

The opulence is overwhelming. The beauty is bedazzling. The freedom feels like fireworks. The truth is terrific. The love is lavish. Moulin Rouge! is a must-see event.

From the second you walk into the theatre, you are completely enveloped in the ambiance of the Moulin Rouge. If you think you know this show because you saw the 2001 movie, think again. Nothing can prepare you for what you, dear audience member, are about to experience.

From beginning to end, the set dazzles, the choreography intrigues,  the acting amazes, and the singing captivates. There are crowd favorites and new surprises across all creative choices that could only be done in such a stage production. This is a magical world you’ve entered, full of extravagance encapsulated by Karen Olivo, the ensemble, and Danny Burstein, with desire personified in Aaron Tveit’s and Tam Mutu’s performances respectively. Sonya Tayeh has truly outdone herself with the choreography, which soars and inspires to the point where you want to get up and dance (I must admit, I danced in my seat the whole show). I smiled ear to ear from the second I entered the theatre and I’m fairly certain I fell asleep with that same smile on my face when I fell asleep that  night.  I can’t encourage everyone to go see this production enough! It’s timely and touching, entertaining and endearing, heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Tickets are available here.

As we all know from the film, the beautiful, idealistic Bohemians of the revolution believe in the foundational truths of freedom, beauty, truth and love. This week, I challenge you to determine what your own fundamental beliefs are. They can be words, phrases, or anything you like. Share them in comments and see how you can practice these beliefs in your day to day life.

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

Improv · Inclusion · Performances · Pragmatics and Social Skills · Summer Speech · The Human Connection

Comedy Tonight: Freestyle Love Supreme

Hi readers! If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I had the opportunity to see the unbelievable improv musical comedy crew Freestyle Love Supreme in DC. If you’re not familiar with Freestyle Love Supreme, here’s how their website describes them:

FLS is a freestyle (hence the name), improvisational, hip-hop comedy show. Every night the performers take suggestions from the audience and spin them into instantaneous riffs and full-length musical numbers. Every night is different: no two shows are the same. We don’t know what we’re rapping about until YOU tell us!”

The crew has a rotating cast of characters, but I was fortunate enough to see Anthony Veneziale aka Two-Touch, Chris Sullivan aka Shockwave (whom I have interviewed about beatboxing here), Andrew Bancroft aka Jelly Donut, Ian Weinberger aka Burger Time, and Chris Jackson aka C-Jack.

FLS
Photo Credit: FreestyleLoveSupreme.com

You might be wondering why a blog with a focus on speech pathology and Broadway is writing about her night at an improv comedy show. This group of talented performers put together an experience that is founded on trust, the power of yes, and open communication. If I could take my students working on social pragmatics to see anything, it would be this. The performers were entertaining each other as much as they were making the audience laugh. The audience was as much a part of the show as the people on stage.

If you’re familiar with this group you know that the entire evening is built on the relationship between the performers and the audience members. How is that different from any other performance I’ve seen? Great question reader–this show only works if the audience and performers can work together. It was the coolest experience I’ve had of an audience being fully present and actively engaging with the folks onstage. There was no fourth wall, everyone was there to have a good time, especially the performers, and it was such a relaxed atmosphere, you felt like you were in a room full of people you already knew. Unlike a scripted show, each performance in completely unique to its audience.

This got me thinking about conversational speech and pragmatics, and how they are unique to the people participating in them. Sure, you can tell someone about a conversation you had with a friends, but it’s never the same as being there. That was exemplified by the friendship between the performers and by how inclusive they were with the audience and between one another. The exchanges are quick but meaningful, funny without picking on anyone, and easy to follow but entertaining. This is what I want all of my students to know about interpersonal skills and conversing with one another. There is no room for ego in this group, and all topics and ideas get treated equally, the same way they should in any conversation. The transitions were logical and smooth, which many of my students are also working towards. I couldn’t help but notice all of these parallels and had to share them with my readers.

The best news I can share with you? Freestyle Love Supreme is going to broadway for 16 weeks beginning September 13, 2019, and you can get tickets at FreestyleLoveSupreme.com. I cannot encourage you to see this enough if you’re able. If not, there are some episodes of this crew doing what they do best on Amazon Prime, but be in that room and feel a part of the community of the audience if you can–there’s nothing like it. This week, I challenge you to engage in a conversation and stay in it–no distractions, no tech, no interruptions. Stay as in tune and present with your conversational partner as possible, and just have fun.

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

Backstage · Broadway · Inclusion · Performances · The Human Connection · Tony Awards

I Am What I Am: Tony Awards Musings

In my speech room, I ask all of my students to strive for their best. I do my best to teach them it’s not about winning, but about how you show up and put in the work. I believe that this is also the case for theatre. With the Tony Awards only a week away, I can’t help but think that it’s us, the audience members, who are the real winners.

Every individual involved in theatre, onstage, backstage, production, front of house is doing an amazing job every night to make sure the audience has the best experience possible. It’s easy to forget that those roles are in fact work and are by no means easy.

This is a world in which we escape into theatre to find ourselves. No award adequately expresses the magic found in a theatre. It can’t express the memories, emotions, or connections felt in that space. So as the Tony Awards air on television next Sunday, which I will certainly be watching, keep in mind there are more “losers” than “winners,” and it’s the theatre-goers who are the true winners. Theatre is designed to bring community together, and I challenge you all to keep that in mind as awards are handed out. How will you bring community together in your own way? Share in comments, I can’t wait to read them.

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

Broadway · Performances · The Human Connection

They Say There’s Always Magic In The Air: A Review

Happy New Year to all of my readers! I was fortunate enough to spend the week of winter break in New York City seeing some amazing theatre. I am forever grateful to the cast and crew of all of Broadway who provided entertainment and worked even harder than usual while the audiences attending their shows had a break from their job. This trip, my family and I saw two dramatic plays and two musicals. Why is this a big deal for us? We have never attended a dramatic play before. Comedies, sure, but dramatic plays are new to us. Musicals are our go-to. All of this to say, here are my thoughts on my experiences.

  • American Son
    I saw this play on my own. It has been over a week, and the messages of this playa re still sitting with me. Kerry Washington may have it handled on Scandal, but her performance on television is nothing compared to what she does on stage in ninety minutes. The dynamic between her and Jeremy Jordan, Eugene Lee, and Brian Avers (who was on in the role of Scott) is electric. This is possibly the most powerful piece of theatre I have ever witness. No topic goes undiscussed. No perspective goes unseen. I didn’t know I could hold my breath for ninety minutes, but that’s how I felt by the end of the show. This show should be required viewing for absolutely everyone, and if you can get to the Booth Theatre before the end of this limited run, I urge you to go and witness this for yourself.
  • The Cher Show
    I cannot stop talking about this musical! Holy cannoli! I am one of the biggest Cher fans—I can sing her whole catalog backwards and forwards, and have been to my fair share of concerts as well. The message of the show is so uplifting. The takes on the songs and how they’re used to help the story progress is wonderful. Absolutely nothing can compare to seeing Bob Mackie’s costumes on parade. Stephanie J. Block commanded the stage and embodied Cher in a way that I can’t describe. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography speaks to his strengths, and those of the ensemble as well. I hope to find myself back in this audience again in 2019.
  • The Prom
    I don’t even know where to begin. This is the most inclusive, entertaining, moving show on Broadway. You are rooting for each character from start to finish, eating up Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography and Chad Beguelin’s book. Beth Leavel is a force to be reckoned with, as are Caitlin Kinnunen and Brooks Ashmanskas. The way the story moves from heavier subject matter to joy with jokes, production numbers, and honest, heartfelt performances is truly something to behold.
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
    I will not be able to adequately express my love and appreciation for this show. Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, Gideon Glick as Dill, and Celia Keenan Bolger as Scout in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the beloved classic (and favorite of mine). It was an honor to watch this adaptation, and I felt it truly honored the book, its message, and managed to increase its verbiage to become even timelier. There are definitive stamps of Sorkin’s work throughout, with jokes and moments of levity throughout the play. Every actor seemed as though they were born to play these roles in this iteration of such a revered text. My entire family, some of whom were skeptical about enjoying a dramatic play, enjoyed this show the most out of the four we’d seen. While tickets are hard to get, if you can get them for the foreseeable future, you will not regret spending time in the theatre with this production.

It goes without saying that I enjoyed every show, for different reasons. Each offered me new perspectives, new experiences, and new appreciation for my favorite art form. With this, I challenge my readers to consume a new form of media that you’re skeptical of, for whatever reason. See where it takes you, and what you gain from it. I look forward to your comments.

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

Broadway · Inclusion · Interview · Performances · The Human Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

S: What is Katie’s Art Project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S: That’s super human.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadway · Interview · Performances · The Human Connection

Not Just A Simple Sponge: A Conversation with Ethan Slater

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

Stef the Stage SLP: What got you into theatre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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