Broadway, Interview, The Human Connection, Wise Words

Pulled In A New Direction: A Conversation With Andrew Lippa

Recently, my students were working on an assignment for writing in which they had to write a play. Most of the students I work with wanted to write a musical, because it’s what they were familiar with. Mind you, this wasn’t going to be performed, it was merely meant to show the students’ abilities to compose a written narrative. When I first heard about my students’ reaction to this assignment, I knew that I should try and get in contact with Andrew Lippa, whose work I’ve always appreciated. I grew up listening to “My New Philosophy” on repeat, and finding his work wherever I could. If he was a part of a show, my family and I were there. Most recently, this occurred with I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk, which I had the pleasure of discussing with him. We got to talk about his writing process, a lifelong love of the arts, and acceptance. Enjoy!
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Andrew Lippa: You know, a lot of people don’t know this, but I was the beneficiary of a fantastic speech pathologist named Mrs. Weeks. I met with her maybe once a week with other kids in elementary school because I had a very pronounced lisp. It was years of speech therapy in elementary school, but she taught me how to use my tongue and my mouth and my lips to pronounce S’s differently from what I was naturally doing. I was the same age as the students you’re working with now. And the teacher’s name was Weeks so I didn’t get her name right. My voice was my main instrument in college and I was trained as a singer. It was a great benefit to me that I could pronounce S’s correctly in order to pursue the arts in the manner in which I did.

Stef: That’s wonderful that speech therapy had such a lasting impact for you. S’s are hard! A lot of my students are working on that sound.

A: I am very grateful and glad I was her student.

S: How did you get into theatre?

A: Well, the old vaudeville joke is there was a door and I walked in. I was a member of a family that was supportive of artistic things. They were supportive of musical things since I demonstrated talent in it as a child. When I was in 10th grade, my school put on a production of The Pajama Game, and I was cast in it. The challenge was this: I grew up in a Jewish family and I went to Hebrew High School twice a week after my public school classes. I attended Hebrew high school through 8th and 9th grade, but in 10th grade it was in conflict with rehearsal for the musical. I asked my parents’ permission to stop in 10th grade so I could be in this production. And they knew it was important to me, and they were supportive of my interest in performing and I stopped attending Hebrew High School that year.

S: You know, it’s funny. I have a very similar story. I didn’t do theatre in high school until 10th grade, and that’s when we have Confirmation. My school had a strict attendance policy and I ended up just missing enough classes due to tech rehearsals that year that I could still be confirmed with my class. And that was it for Hebrew School for me.
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 I had the pleasure of seeing I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk in Bethesda, and that show has really stayed with me. My favorite lyric comes from the final song sung, and it’s “Befriend Yourself.” I’ve been teaching them to myself and my students ever since. What was it like to write these stories about people becoming who they are?

A: I got to work with Noah Himmelstein, who always whispered to me the notion  “you are enough.” I didn’t have to be more than what I was: my voice, my experience and approach and instinct. They’re as valid as anyone else’s in the room—no more or less. That was an important lesson for me. Growing up, I was a kid who always struggled with my weight, and was teased for it. I didn’t get physically bullied, but I bullied myself, which I think we are all capable of. When I’m speaking at universities, I ask the students “How many of you today have had an uncharitable thought about yourself?” I do this to show everyone in that room that we’re all going through something or we’re frightened or feel inadequate in some way. It can be helpful to know that everyone has those thoughts about themselves. (And, by the way, all the hands go up, including the teachers’.) A student working on speaking can have traits that bring up a lot of feelings of being less than perfect. But we all have something we’re dealing with or working on no? This is a process, and it doesn’t go away. We do have to be kind to ourselves. If we were born perfect, what would be the point? How would we grow?

S: And that’s something that we teach now, starting in about third grade. That everyone is different and how wonderful that actually is, and how we can learn from each other instead of envy each other.

A: I think it’s great that you can start a conversation like that with students at such an early age.

S: Many of my students as well as myself have had the pleasure of seeing The Addams Family. Many school productions have been done, and my students were curious if you’d ever seen a student production?

A: Actually, I haven’t. I’ve seen it professionally performed in many countries all over the world, and my mother saw a high school production in Florida, but I haven’t. But getting to see so many audiences all over the world respond to it in so many different languages is phenomenal to experience. It’s been a blessing and it’s always a thrill to see other people do it.

S: I just have to tell you, my mother says not to use Morticia’s toast to Wednesday at the end of the musical lightly, because that curse works, and it is serious business.

A: And that line gets universally received the way your mother understood it. I take it as a compliment.

S: One of your works, and one of my all-time favorites, is The Wild Party. The lyrics in that show are unbelievable. How did the poem influence your creation of that?

A: The Wild Party is not for your students’ age group.

S: It’s not, but I love it.

A: I discovered the poem when I was in my thirties when it was republished with drawings by the great Art Spiegelman. I was not a lyricist at that time. I didn’t have a writing partner to work with when I discovered the poem, and my original intention was to simply set the poem to music. I started writing my own lyrics because there wasn’t much opportunity for the characters to express themselves in terms of “I feel” or “I want.” I called a lifelong friend of mine, Jeffrey Seller, and played him a couple songs over the phone to see what he thought. He asked me who wrote the lyrics and I told him I wrote them and he said, “Just keep going, just write it.” Jeffrey Seller later produced RENT, Avenue Q, and Hamilton in addition to co-producing The Wild Party.

For the most part, writing is a self-starting thing. It takes a long time, and then you have to develop it until it’s at a place where it’s good, and I gathered various partners along the way. The more I wrote, the less poem I used. I wouldn’t actually recommend writing this way—there was no outline, there was no actual plot in mind; I just started writing songs. There are probably as many songs cut from The Wild Party as are in The Wild Party.

S: Did you get the same amount of creative freedom with The Addams Family and Big Fish or were you more confined to the source material for those projects?

A: For The Addams Family, the audience really felt they knew the characters, so our job is to say “We know you know them, here they are, and here’s what they’re going to do that you’ve never seen before.” We initially thought we were being clever by delaying the famous TV theme music – a popular piece of music! – to twenty minutes into the show. We decided to move it to the beginning of the show for the Broadway run. It let the audience feel comfortable so they knew that they’re seeing The Addams Family. It’s like how “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starts. That song lets the audience know what they’re about to see and the world they’re coming into. And we moved our story from there.

S: And the same was true for Big Fish?

A: The film of Big Fish is beloved and known, but not on the same scale as The Addams Family. We didn’t feel any obligation to stay very true to the film, but it did inspire our work. We kept some of the show similar to the film. The reason you do a musical is because you love the source material. The more you work on that musical, the less you use of the source material. It has to work as a musical, with the source material diminishing over time. It’s an irony of musical-making.

S: I’ve found as a theatre-goer that what I love most about The Addams Family and anything with such a big following are the elements that make them different. To me, the magic of those productions is you only sort of know what you’re in for. However, I get that audiences need to feel the familiar to feel comfortable. In my mind though, if you want to see what you know, watch the movie. If you want to see the new musical, see the musical.

A: There’s truth there. Not everything in the book or movie will work on stage, and it has to work on stage.

S: One of my district-wide goals is collaboration. In an industry like yours, collaboration is key. What would you tell my students about collaboration?

A: The idea is, if everyone has a role, who has the most expertise in that role. In Big Fish, I worked with John August, who also wrote the screenplay. He knew these characters really well. John could tell me why something I had a character doing wasn’t working because he knew how they behaved. This didn’t mean I didn’t give input, but he was connected to the characters in a way that I wasn’t early on in making the musical. I had to trust that he knew more about the circumstances than I did. And in return, he had to trust me on the lyrics and melodies I was using with his depiction of the characters. Trust is a big proponent of collaboration. Most times, as in most cooperative endeavors, what works best is experimenting with ideas. The point isn’t to get your way, it’s not to win, it’s “What can we make as a team that we can’t make as individuals?”

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

A: I would say, you cannot change your first thought but you can change your second thought. When you find yourself in conflict with someone—your mother or your teacher or your sibling—can you pause and listen before responding? Actually listen first instead of listening for your turn to speak. Many people only pretend to listen but are actually formulating their response while the other person is talking. Listening is a universal skill that is always useful.

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I learned so much from talking with Andrew Lippa, and my students have learned quite a lesson in organizing their writing and working together. This is no small feat with the younger students. What I most enjoy about conversations like these that I’m fortunate enough to have with artists like Andrew Lippa is that they all include such wonderful lessons for myself and my students to take to heart and to practice. I look forward to hearing how my readers do with this challenge as they tackle it themselves.

 

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

 

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, The Human Connection

Celebrate You to Elevate You: Takeaways From BroadwayCon 2018

4C65AD15-D004-47EC-86FB-7C7D90F9E02F.jpegWhen I attended BroadwayCon 2017, I had no idea what to expect. I enjoyed every minute of it. I met people I’d listened to and watched, gotten photographs and autographs with them, and even took classes with them. I walked out with the theme of “create what you want to create.”

This year, I got to do all of those wonderful things a second time, but I found something better than that this year. I found real connectivity. I spent time with people whom I’ve met throughout the year and over a myriad of circumstances. All of this is very well documented, but the best moments of my time weren’t. I met my friends and made new ones in theirs. I made new connections over projects I find exciting. I shared what I love with my best friend who accompanied me. I was present.

One of the highlights of my time was getting to see so many people and thank them for their support, contributions, and time spent towards interviews, edits, and scheduling for this blog. I will never have enough words to express my gratitude to ANY of these wonderful people.

This year’s convention had a different theme, or at least I found a new takeaway. This year, I came away with the following:

“You are capable of accomplishing whatever it is you’re setting out to exactly as the person you are. You don’t have to wait or change yourself. You don’t have to be well-known. Just be you, and share what you have with this world, since no one else can.”

Wait, really? This is something I personally struggle with and know my students do, too. Hearing it so many times this weekend stuck with me. From Christy Altomare at the stage door, to the cast of In The Heights, to all of the podcasters I love and admire, to Lesli Margherita at Sunday Church—yes, this really happened , and I am a convert now—this message was spread all across the convention. All I had to do was walk around and see people who, simply because it is who they are, succeed in what they wanted to succeed in. By being true to themselves. And I found this so extremely empowering.

Am I going to run away to Broadway because I love it? No, because I adore my students. It is my path in life to be a Broadway-loving speech pathologist. To get creative and bring what I love in both of these worlds together, for the enjoyment of my students and myself. But hearing over the course of the weekend that it’s okay to want and do both? That I don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) put in a box and neither do my students was very eye opening. Again, this wasn’t new information exactly, but I saw it everywhere I looked this weekend.

As exhausted as I am from a very full, very gratifying BroadwayCon, I get to bring all I learned to the speech room. I get to approach the year with this theme, along with stories of my weekend.

I don’t have a challenge for you in this bonus post, but I pass on the encouragement to be you. The world only gets one of you—share with the world the best you you can be, whatever that means to you. And I am going to try and remember to always do the same.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

—Stef the StageSLP

Broadway, The Human Connection

Everything I Need To Know I Learned At BroadwayCon

As you’re reading this post, I will be at BroadwayCon 2018. I was fortunate enough to have attended last year’s convention and it was everything I wanted and more. I learned more about myself and what I want out of life in that weekend than I ever expected. Here are some pieces of wisdom I gained along the weekend:

  • Create your dreams. Worst case scenario, it doesn’t work out, and then you will have tried.
    THIS. This was the overarching theme of the weekend, at least that’s how I felt. Put it on paper, put it to music, leave your mark. DO NOT let your dreams disappear or end with you. Share them and see what comes of it. You just may surprise yourself. Yes, this is where the inspiration for FINALLY starting this blog came from, and I’m so grateful for that.
  • Meet your heroes.
    I’m not talking about the autographs and photographs, though those are wonderful. Meet the creators of the things you love. I am a proud podcast nerd, and meeting the podcasters made my weekend. All of them were so kind to me and accepting of me and my fangirling that I couldn’t believe it. Gillian, Patrick, and the crew at Broadwaysted–thank you for making my favorite things (and for knowing that, when in doubt, I’d be at your booth). As for the autographs and photographs, meet those heroes too. They come to the convention because they love that you support what they do.
  • Don’t be afraid to say hello.
    Meeting people in lines and panels often leads to making new friends. Theatre people are my kind of people and being with so many people who love what I love–well, who could ask for anything more?
  • Kindness always counts.
    So, I knew this already, but still. Thank the volunteers who are doing a zillion things at once, trying to ensure you’re having a great time. Thank the panelists for hosting, because they didn’t have to do so–this also goes for all talent/guests there. And of course, kindness doesn’t cost anything. The more positive you are, the better the experience for everyone around you.
  • Try something new and challenge yourself.
    This came in the form of Jon Rua’s dance class. Somehow I had gotten into his advanced hip hop workshop, lord knows I haven’t danced hip hop in over a decade and a half. Something had happened a month earlier in which I promised myself as long as my body could move, I would dance. What was exceptionally amazing was that Jon Rua taught the class from this perspective; from knowing your body’s got you covered even if you don’t know the steps. That it’s not about looking good, it’s about trusting yourself. And this was very cathartic and meaningful to me. Was I great? No. Did I walk away more fulfilled than any class had ever left me? Yes. Did I get to tell Jon Rua my story and thank him? Yes. Tangent: Jon played Alexander Hamilton when I saw the show, so this was such a surreal moment for me I’m still working through it.
  • Go with the flow.
    That schedule changes minute to minute, which means something is always moving/happening/ changing. Guess what? That means you get to try new things and make choices on what you do or don’t want to see or do. Which leads me to…
  • Experience something you think has no connection to you.
    That thing you think has nothing to do with you? It does. We are all connected and you can find connectivity to pretty much anything. Why? Because the human connection supersedes everything. You’ll learn someone else’s perspective on something you think you’re an expert on, and it will change your thought pattern and open your mind to so much. Listening is so much better in speaking. Hear before you speak.

This week’s challenge is to think about an experience you’ve had–any experience–that’s felt important to you. Make a list of everything you learned from that experience and see how you can apply it to everyday life.

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

The Human Connection

I Resolve: Speech Room Resolutions

It’s a new year, and that means new resolutions for the speech room! I’ll share some of my student’s resolutions with you first, because those are much more fun!

  • “I will learn my sounds.”
  • “I will not give up.”
  • “I will try something different.”
  • “I will make new friends.”
  • “I will try my best.”

When we came back from break, I created a graphic organizer splitting up resolutions for home, school, speech, and for themselves. Sure, a few overlapped, but I loved seeing what my students thought they could do to better themselves this year. A favorite moment of mine was when a student took his whiteboard and decided it was personal. He would only share his resolutions with me, then asked if I would take a picture of his board and email it to his mom to keep him accountable. His resolutions remain a secret, but I am inspired by his character.

As for me, I picked a word for the year instead of a resolution. The beauty of words is that you can apply them to any situation. They’re flexible, like I’ve learned to be. This works for me, but I know many require hard and fast resolutions in order to see any kind of result, or simply don’t do the whole resolution thing. I can respect that–I only recently started theming my years with a word.

This year, my word is Enough. This is to remind me that I am enough, even when I feel that I’m not. That I do enough for my students, even when I feel that I don’t. That my best in any given moment, day, meeting, or therapy session is enough. Subsequently, this applies to my students’ efforts. I’ll always push them, but their best is always enough.

On the flip side of this coin, is acknowledging when I have reached Enough. Enough of a situation, enough overindulgence, enough worrying, enough working when I should be winding down to ready myself for the next day, and enough trying to control what is beyond my control. This is the year of remembering I am enough just as I am. My challenge to you all, is to find what you want out of 2018, and take steps to seeing it through! You can do it, I believe in you!

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