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

Summer Speech · The Human Connection

Good For You: Why Self Care Isn’t Selfish

In this summer of transition, I find myself following two very simple rules. 1) Everything I do needs to be good for me, and 2) I only do what I enjoy to reset and begin with a clean slate. After years at one school, I am looking to set some healthy habits for myself. The easiest time for me to do this so that they carry over into the school year is the summer. Some of these are goals. Some of these are practices. All of these are a restart button for myself, and can be incorporated as such for anyone.

  1. Expanding my interests.
    Up until this summer, I knew next to nothing about sports. My students’ interests often intrigue me to explore them independently. I’m learning about baseball, and getting to bond with good friends and my father over the sport. Those are added bonuses I didn’t see coming, and I’m grateful.
  2. Getting back to what I love most.
    As I’ve mentioned in several posts, I am obsessed with the art form of dance. I’ve committed myself to drop in classes for the summer, and I’ve never felt more like myself (or more sore). I begin each class with a moment of gratitude, with my hands on the floor while I stretch, and I think of how fortunate I am that my body is able to move in a way that brings me joy, that I can return to classes, and that I cut out this period of time for myself.
  3. Journaling.
    When words move from thoughts to pen to paper, my mind frees up. I get my feelings out, and I am able to let go of whatever unnecessary baggage I’m carrying. I tend to write about what inspires me and how I can keep that inspiration alive and well within me. I find this especially important once I return to the academic setting in the fall.
  4. Staying in contact with those who are important to me.
    I enjoy spending time with those who value me as much as I value them. I prefer to do this in person, and if I can’t manage that, I call people. This is far more effective than text. This includes family and friends.
  5. Treating my body with the respect it deserves.
    In the summer, I find it’s easier to criticize my body. This is not great, so I’ve turned that into respecting my body. I get to eat all of the fruits and vegetables that are at their peak in the season, including cotton candy grapes and leafy greens. When it’s a truly rough day and I finding it hard to respect my body, I treat myself to some at home pampering, focusing on skincare and relaxing any tension I’m feeling.
  6. Feeling out the day.
    Every day, I like to see where the day is directing me, instead of dictating the day. This freedom is extremely relaxing to me. It takes the pressure out of my summer and gives me options. Do I want to spend the day reading? Out with friends? Don’t get me wrong, I like my days where everything is planned, but I’m far more Type B during the summer.
  7. Making time for mindlessness.
    Every summer I find a show to binge-watch during the summer when I completely want to turn my brain off. Sometimes I fall down a YouTube rabbit hole, sometimes it’s a Disney marathon, sometimes it’s a full series on Netflix or Hulu to occupy my brain.
  8. Upgrade my space.
    No, not my home, but my new therapy room. I want to completely overhaul what I’ve done in years past and change up all my themes and decor. There’s no better way to incorporate a fresh start than a new look. I go to Pinterest for ideas, but I’m not a Pinterest SLP–much more of an Amazon Prime SLP.
  9. Expanding my knowledge in the kitchen.
    Having so many summer days to myself gives me time to explore new recipes and healthier options to old favorites. And I get to try friends’ ideas we’ve been swapping all year. All of this will lead to easier meal prep during the academic year.
  10. Operating from optimism.
    This past school year, I found myself operating from a place of pessimism. I’m trying to change my narrative by changing my perspective. This will help me healthily and clearly operate at my optimal skill set throughout the summer and carry this practice into the next school year.

My challenge for you this week is to set some practices into motion for yourself that will make you feel good or are good for you, whatever that may be. Enjoy yourself, enjoy the sunshine, enjoy the present. I look forward to hearing about these practices in comments.

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

The Human Connection

Teach ‘Em How To Say Goodbye: A Farewell to my Students

To my wonderful, curious, creative speech students,

I cannot believe I’m sitting down to write this letter to you all. By the time you read this, we will have had our last speech session together. I will have already told you that I am working in a different building next year, and that you will have a new speech pathologist in the fall.

It has filled my heart and soul to watch you grow as the wonderful people you are. Some of you have been with me since Kindergarten, and I’ve watched you progress through both grades and skills. Some of you I have known only for this year. All of you have made a lasting impact on how I approach therapeutic techniques, and that the “I” in “IEP” is all about you. I will forever hold in my heart every time you’ve made me laugh, made think, made me question myself. I have learned more from you than you will ever know. Among you there are artists, athletes, bookworms, scientists, diplomats, comedians, philosophers, and each one of you are so full of love and wonder and empathy. Please share all of these sides of yourselves with everyone you meet.

I have taught you skills that you’ve mastered, and skills you continue to work on. Your next speech pathologist will continue to help you, and may have a different therapeutic approach. I know you’ll give them the same patience you gave me when we started working together. If I’m very honest, this is the least important part of my work. The most important was making sure you felt that you could work and grow with me, while being yourselves, and allowing me to be myself. You have each been my greatest teacher. If you forget my name, that’s perfectly fine, because I’ll never forget yours. Please stop me when we’re out and about to say hello. It really is a perk of the job.

I know this was not something you expected to happen. Please know that I made this decision with the best in mind for us both, and that I am not leaving you. It is simply time for me to learn from other children, families, and staff members as well as share with them all that I’ve learned with you. I am always here to support you and you can always feel free to reach out.

My challenge for you for the rest of your speech journey: continue to be yourselves and play with your words.

Forever your speech pathologist,
Stef the StageSLP

Backstage · Broadway · The Human Connection

In Dire Need of Assistance: A Conversation with Kimmie Mark

As much as I love the show I get to see onstage every time I attend a performance, I often wonder about the full production happening backstage. As my passion for theatre has grown, I’ve found myself wanting to know more about choices made in design, how things are timed, how the show gets done by the team behind the performers. When I was explaining to my students that there’s more to a show than what you see, and we discussed this further, I knew I had to talk to someone who lived this lifestyle. Enter Kimmie Mark, who is the dresser for Aaron Burr and George Washington at Hamilton: An American Musical on Broadway. I loved learning about how a show works from the perspective of someone backstage and getting to expose my students to all sides of the creative career paths.

 

Stef the StageSLP: How did you get into theatre?

Kimmie: Actually, quite by accident, I was a sophomore in college, majoring in ‘Early Childhood Education’, in hopes to become a Kindergarten teacher and luckily the school I was attending had sophomores begin student teaching (as opposed to most schools which waited till the students were juniors), so off I went to meet my class at the end of their school day.  I walked into absolute chaos.  There were about 20 children all approximately 5 years old in different sections of the room some groups chasing each other, screaming & screeching, some who must have just finished eating chocolate cupcakes covered in frosting, some crying, some throwing toys at others, and I knew in a matter of seconds that I did NOT want to have a career that involved little children.  I walked out of there and went directly to the main office and explained I needed to switch majors.

My school at the time was predominately a school for future teachers, so I had no option other than to switch schools.  Going into a new school as a junior meant I had to enter already having a major, so I sat down with a fairly chunky book of all my new school’s available majors, starting with ‘A’ and got all the way to the end where there were 2 left, “theater” and “women’s studies”. Not being sure what “women’s studies” were, I choose “theater!”  Obviously, this is not a usual way for people to come across their dream profession, and though I honestly cannot think of any other realistic career I would enjoy more, nor better suited for. I completely lucked into this, but it does prove that the career you think you may want, even half way through college, doesn’t mean that’s the one you will end up having or even that you were meant to have. Search till it feels right for you, even if it takes a while!

S: What made you choose to pursue a creative career behind the curtain instead of onstage?

K: This one’s easy, I’m pretty shy and hate taking center stage in any type of group, even if it’s only 4-5 people, being center of attention or speaking to crowds is not something that I would ever enjoy doing.

S: What exactly does a dresser do?

K: The chain of command goes like this: The Director hires a Costume Designer, who hires a Wardrobe Supervisor, who in turn hires all the dressers to run the show, laundry and stitching people, and dayworkers to come in during the day to prep all the costumes, and eventually swings for all these positions.  The Dresser, once hired, gets assigned an actor, or group of actors and that stays the same for the life of the show. An actor in a starring role can request a dresser that they’ve worked with before, or simply put that dresser in their contract, to ensure they will have that dresser.

Before Tech Week begins, the dresser will be responsible for checking their actor’s costume list and checking them in as they arrive from the costume shops making them.  They help the actor set up their dressing room and set up general ideas of where costume changes will take place during the run of the shows. This is based on the paperwork you receive from your Supervisor with the breakdown of which actors change when, how much time they have, and where they exit and enter the stage. This is the fun part for me, it’s a huge puzzle and everyone’s pieces have to fit together.  Tech week is when you see if your version of how and where the changes will happen gets worked out. The dresser works closely with the other dressers and the crew guys to work out if quick change booths need to be constructed, where hooks need to be hung up, excess lights are needed, shelves built and hung, chairs and mirrors need to be purchased etc.

Once tech week is complete and the show is ‘set’, the Dresser is from then on responsible when they get to the theater each day, one hour before half hour each performance, to unlock the dressing room, bring them show laundry, check all the costumes that need to be in the room, then preset all your actors costumes around the theater, fill all their water bottles, make sure they have sweat and shower towels, load the mics into the mix belts, and be set up by half hour when the actors are required to arrive and then start getting them ready as needed.

During the show the dresser is responsible for all their quick changes, and for making sure their actors are dressed and on time for all their entrances.  At the end of the show, we make sure all costumes are cleared from set and collect show laundry as well as any costumes that may get washed daily to bring to the laundry person. At this point your dressing duties are complete. However, if you are a Star Dresser, your after-show duties may include anything from bringing your actors guests to the dressing room, helping entertain their guests, collecting the actors dinner on a 2-show day or maybe running errands for them between shows.  As Alan Cumming’s long-time dresser, after each evening show my dressing duties change into bar-tending duties and I bar tend to all his guests, mixing drinks and making soda waters! I’ve made and served drinks to many, many famous people, most notably (to me) Paul McCartney and Jessica Lange to Green Day and many TV stars that I watch weekly!

S: You have multiple actors playing the parts you’re dressing. Is it a different process for each actor, or is it all based on character?

K: It’s basically the same for each actor, the timing and location of the changes cannot be changed, as well as the time slot assigned to each character to get into mics and wigs. What they can change are little personal things, like if they want a different temperature water during the show, some like cold, some hot, some a mix.

S: What should audience members know about a dresser’s job?

K: One thing I hear most from people when I say I am a dresser on Broadway is “oh you must get to see all the shows!”  This couldn’t be more inaccurate!  Since most shows play at the same time, Broadway workers hardly ever get to see other shows.  If I wanted to see another show, it would require me to request a night off with no pay, and I would have to purchase a ticket to the other show just like any other person.  We do not get any special discounts to buy tickets to other shows.  In fact, backstage workers never even get to see the show they are working on!  We go to the rehearsal studio the day before the actors move into the theater and watch a run through of the show there, in a plain white room, with no costumes, sets, lighting or band.  It’s just the actors in sweats with one single piano.  We get an idea of the show, and this is the only time we see the show.

S: Do dressers have understudies?

K: Yes!  We call them ‘swings’ and once a show officially Opens, each dresser is required to type up their show track and submit it to the Supervisor which will be given to the dresser swing when they come in to learn our track.  A swing will stay with the dresser for 3 performances, the 1st evening following along with the notes, watching and asking questions, the 2nd evening doing all of the pre-sets and activities that don’t involve the actors directly, and the 3rd evening doing it basically on their own with the dresser following closely and only jumping in when necessary.  After the swing has trained on a track for 3 shows, they are then ‘on call’ for whenever the dresser may need a day off for any reason.

It’s common on a long running show like Hamilton for each dresser to have 2 or more trained swings at any time since we cannot have a vacant dresser slot and run the show.  Most swing dressers learn many tracks on more than one show at a time.  They only get paid when they are physically filling in on or learning a track, so to make ends meet they will learn a few tracks on several different shows.  This cuts down on their availability for any one show at a time, which is why it’s safest for each dresser to have several swings at a time.

S: Is there anything we’d be surprised to know about working backstage?

K: They may be surprised to realize we are usually right off stage, like mere inches out of view. All of the backstage crew is.  There’s usually a stage manager, several crew/prop guys, several wardrobe crew and a hair person.  The backstage staff and choreography is usually just as full and specifically timed as what’s going on onstage.

S: What is the most enjoyable and most challenging parts of the job?

K: I’d say the most enjoyable part of my job is the sense of family that comes from being part of a show, whether between myself and my actor or between the others on the wardrobe crew or the whole company.  It’s very much a team, and even though there may be some people you aren’t especially close with you know everyone in the building has each other’s backs no matter what.  The most challenging part of my job is keeping focus at all times.  It’s easy in a long run to lose focus during the run of the show when you know your cues so well you feel you could do them asleep. However, a dresser or any member of the company who is backstage, must always remain alert because it is a live show, and at any moment your actor, or any of them could come running off stage with a costume malfunction or needing anything from a tissue to a missing prop, or with an injury.  Most of the time the shows run smoothly as planned of course, but this makes it all the harder to remain focused.

S: What is your most memorable theatrical experience either through work or as an audience member?

K: I think my most memorable experience through work must be back when I was on my first show, the 1998 revival of Cabaret, dressing Alan Cumming, and it was his last weekend. He had been with the show for about a year and a half, and everyone was very sad he was leaving, so to keep the mood light and happy (a dresser’s job!) I got permission from the Wardrobe Supervisor to wear one of Alan’s understudy’s costumes, and change along with him as the show progressed, so we were always wearing matching outfits!

While waiting backstage with him for Act 2 to start, (in matching black teddy, short black wig, beret, black tights, and my own matching black boots) all of a sudden when the music started he grabbed my hand and said “don’t look around, just run straight across the stage to the other side” and pushed me out on stage ahead of him!  It was a scene where ‘The Emcee’  (Alan’s part) is dressed identically to the 6 ensemble girls on stage and they all run out and scramble around in circles, so as to hide the fact that ‘The Emcee’ is in the mix, before doing a Rockette style kick line, I ran out, and as instructed ran in a straight line across to exit the other side, however as I got closer to the other side there was a light tree on full power with bright red lights, and I couldn’t see an inch in front of me, so I left the stage like a blind person, slowly inching forward with both hands stretched out in front of me!! It was definitely memorable!

S: What advice would you give to your elementary school self?

K: I would tell myself not to get to upset or caught up in the day to day happenings, I hardly remember anything from elementary school. Just try and be kind to everyone, even the ‘un-cool’ kids, actually especially them, they need it most and to just always be yourself. There’s a quote from Dr. Seuss I enjoy: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” (but don’t use that as an excuse to be mean to anyone!)

S: Would you encourage kids to pursue creative endeavors backstage? How would you recommend they go about it?

K: I would definitely say it’s a worthwhile career to peruse.  Especially to those who, like me, are not morning people or cannot see themselves sitting behind a desk each day.  It’s a very social job, also very physical, so helps keep you in shape, and being Union is a very secure career.  On the other hand, while your specific job at a show is secure, there is no telling how long that particular show will run, so you have to have the proper mindset to accept that at any moment, sometimes with little warning, your entire company may end…. usually with 1-2 weeks’ notice.  You can contact the local Union house for the backstage specialty you are interested in, each has their own (wardrobe, hair + makeup, props/crew, stage management, even house staff and ushers!) and find out their requirements for joining.  They vary greatly!

S: Working backstage as a dresser means you have to be able to work closely with the actors and other dressers. This is clearly a creative and collaborative process among you all–how do you all work together and make sure everyone is doing their part?

This mostly gets worked out during tech week, as far as what everyone’s part is, and that includes everyone in the building, from the dayworkers in wardrobe who must prep the costumes and make them ready for the show, to the backstage crew who are setting costumes, set pieces, checking lights and mics, to the actors who have to show up certain places during the show at very specific times.  Once everyone’s assigned tasks are set, it’s Stage Managements job to make sure everyone is doing their part correctly.  If someone misses a cue or a swing forgets something Stage Management will usually catch it, or at least be told about it, then that person will be called to explain themselves.  As a team member, you never want to be the one who forgot something because everyone will know!

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

K: I would say try something you’ve never done, but don’t think you like, such as an activity or even just eating a new food item.  So many things that I like I never thought I would and if I hadn’t tried it I would be missing out!  You might even find a new hobby you enjoy!

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I cannot thank Kimmie enough for answering my students and my questions. This was such a thorough explanation of not only her role as a member of the backstage team of a show, but how her role connects with all of the other backstage roles. It is extremely evident to me that, while Kimmie might not have been cut out for Kindergarten where I feel comfortable with my students, I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel in her role. This was such a fun perspective to view a performance through, and my students and I have learned so much. As if Kimmie’s many responsibilities as a dresser aren’t enough, she also advocates for and helps raise money for the New Jersey Freedom Farm, which you can support here. In addition to supporting the animals and organization, she raffles off one-of-a-kind prizes on her Instagram account, @dunkinscout. I look forward to my students taking on her challenge and hope to see my readers’ responses 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

The Human Connection

You Matter To Me: Mental Health Awareness Month

In addition to Better Hearing and Speech Month, May is also Mental Health Awareness Month. Now, I am not, nor do I claim to be, a mental health professional. I am a speech pathologist, but as someone who has her own share of mental health needs and works with children with a variety of needs, this is something I wanted to talk about.

If you are in my life in any capacity, you are wonderful and I don’t want to change anything about you. You’re you, and you are the reason I’ve chosen to hold you in my life and in my heart. I always want to hear you, I want you to know I see you. I want you to know I am accessible to you–my readers, my students, my friends. You matter.

I know it’s easier to say that than to accept that, because I don’t always accept that I matter. Cards on the table, I struggle with anxiety, depression, body image issues, panic attacks. It’s my reality. I know that logic and emotion are two different aspects of my life that I work very hard to balance and maintain. I believe in transparency, and am always honest with my students. They can always tell I’m having a tough day. I don’t hide it from them. I will tell them that “I’m having a hard day today, but let’s see if we can change that.” More often than not, I’m met with a hug or “Maybe you just need more coffee. You really like coffee. I think it will make you feel better.” That last line was said to me by a first grader, as I’m rarely without my travel mug. And with that, you get to laugh.

There are days when nothing seems to go the way I want it to, or when I can’t find what will work for me in my self-care routine and I feel lost. The thing I try to remember is that it will pass and to just ride my emotions out. It does me no good to keep them bottled up. These are the days when I can’t hear anything positive, no matter what amazing thing has just occurred, I can only sit and stew.

I want you to know: I see you. I understand you. I am with you. I want to hear your voice tell your story.

My challenge to you this week is to find some strategies that work for you that help you in these tough moments to actualize your value, validity, and importance. Please share your strategies in comments below.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP