A Dancin’ Man: A Conversation with Andy Blankenbeuhler

The first thing I notice as an audience member at any musical is the choreography. Growing up with a dance background, I’d find myself tracking ensemble members that grabbed my attention throughout an entire performance. The show that solidified this practice for me was Fosse. My family didn’t know how much I’d get from that show, but I thought it was magic. During that show, I couldn’t stop watching Andy Blankenbeuhler, who sang my favorite song in the entire show, “Mr. Bojangles.” A few years later, I saw his choreography in the revival of The Apple Tree, which I can still picture. Most recently, Andy Blankenbeuhler has choreographed Hamilton, as well as making his directorial debut in Bandstand, as well as choreographing the piece. His ability to tell stories without uttering a word really struck me. Every time I’ve left a performance he has been a part of, I’ve come away with a new idea about nonverbal communication, and dance as a means of expression has become more prominent in my appreciation of the artform. Getting to speak with a choreographer whose work has had a profound impact on me was a real treat. We discuss choreographing a story, what collaboration can look like as a choreographer, perfectionism in dance, and so much more. Enjoy!

S: Which came first for you, dance or theatre?

A: Dance came first. I started dancing when I was three. I was always pretty good at it but I didn’t really love it until theatre in high school. Much like I am now, I needed a reason to do something. As soon as I had shows to do, I got much more satisfaction out of dancing. I grew up learning a little bit of everything. I got into theatre for the sense of belonging and community. I started performing in my high school in my sophomore year. It made me feel glad that I had a place to do something I was good at. I went to a college prep school, and academics were really important, but once theatre came into the picture, I knew this was what I wanted to do.

S: Your choreography is so distinct, I’d know it anywhere. I can still vividly picture Marc Kudisch slithering onstage as the snake in The Apple Tree revival.

A: I don’t try to make a style out of my choreography. Over the last ten years or so, I’ve found a comfort zone that I like to work in. It revolves around rhythm more than dance vocabulary. It allows my work to look more consistent, but it doesn’t fit with all music.

S: I can see where you’d say rhythm, but your ability to tell a story is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

A: I now can’t start on choreography without knowing the story. The idea of the story has to make sense to me. I’m working on some more dance-y stuff now, but even with that, if I can’t figure out the story, I can’t figure out the step. The story is the most important part, I’m actually glad you noticed that. When I’m working on a new idea, I’m actually thinking about character and plot before I’m thinking dance vocabulary. Steps are usually the last thing I think about when I’m choreographing. I don’t start with the dance vocabulary.

S: That makes so much sense to me.

A: I mean, when we grew up, there wasn’t always a story for the dance we were doing. You danced because there was music. Now I’m focusing on heightening a story and dance is the tool I work with. All of the steps have a purpose in pushing the story forward.

S: How does your contribution to a show fit in with the rest of the team?

A: All collaborations are different. Tommy Kail, who directed Hamilton, had me do a lot of the staging and I came in at the beginning of that process. I got to interpret the ideas physically. Other directors may think the dance just develops separately from the development of the scene. I think it’s important that the story and the dance go together, that’s why I’m directing more now. This way, you almost don’t notice the baton being passed off, and the dance and song get bigger and more heightened in a more organic way.

S: I grew up in a family where technique was valued and artistry came second, and I danced in the reverse order of what they valued.

A: And that caused you to make choices, I’m sure. I was never a really technician, I wasn’t a big jumper or turner, but I loved detail. Detail was where I wanted to be. In a way, it’s more Fosse than Jerome Robbins’, which is interesting to me since he’s my biggest influence.

S: Your choreography tells stories without words. In my line of work, I work with student who are nonverbal or communicate through other means than their voice, and your work is another example of that. What is the most intimate way you’ve found to communicate using movement?

A: There’s a moment in Bandstand where the men are pushing the piano onstage, and the use of the bullet in Hamilton, or the slow motion in 96,000 in In The Heights. The dancing in “Nobody” or “Yorktown” from Hamilton are fun and I’m proud of the artistry and dance vocabulary in there, but these moments are the more special moments to me. They’re ideas that are really moving and reach people. It’s rare when you can make that connection. Anyone can do steps, and make it look fun, but that’s not true for emotion. Those smaller moments are the ones I’ll always remember.

S: What do you do when the steps don’t come as easily as you’d like?

A: They often don’t come easily. There are a lot of choreographers who can make things up in the room, but I have to really chisel them out and work through them ahead of time. I will record myself in my studio and have 80 different ideas for one scene and end up narrowing that down. If the moment is dramaturgically sound, I can come up with four to six ideas for that scene. If not, it’s a lot more challenging to stage that moment. There are times where I’ll use one version in pre-production, even previews, but I will work on a version of my choreography until I’m told to stop. My dancers know that I’m a perfectionist, and I will work up until I’m satisfied with it, which may be the eleventh hour. I have to keep working through the same counts until it works.

S: I think that’s something dancers have built into them—perfectionism. I think we all experience it.

A: Yeah, I think we all are perfectionists. Dancers are used to being told their dancing is wrong. We’re all waiting to be told we’re somehow doing it wrong. We really focus on the negative and it’s always a part of our life. We have a hard time thinking we’re good enough. Why do you think dancers roll up one pant leg when they’re dancing, have you ever thought about that?

S: I did it to show off my stronger side and hide what wasn’t working on my left leg. Is there a different reason?

A: Or they have to actively break the picture so that they can’t be criticized. Something about us presumes we’re going to get it wrong. There’s a battle for us to always get it right and be perfect and cover up what doesn’t work.

S: Most recently, you’ve made your directing debut with Bandstand, which you also choreographed. Are those two jobs different from each other?

A: They’re pretty inseparable now. It’s always story. Everything I have to say, I can put in a song. The story never ends with either. You just have to figure out where the tension of one moment can build to the resolution of the next. As director, I set myself up as a choreographer. My choreography can only be good if I’ve directed the scene well. If the scene isn’t pulling its weight, then the choreography can’t either. I also like being involved from the very beginning, and sometimes choreographers come in last, and you may not feel as valuable. When you start with the show, you can see the organic nature of the transitions between all of the moving pieces.

S: You took on the powerful theme of mental illness with Bandstand, and it was so moving. I saw myself and my students in the showcase of mental illness.

A: Thank you for saying that. I didn’t want to do a story about veterans suffering from PTSD. To me, a lot of people struggle with huge hurdles in their life that scar them. For me, that needed to be synonymous to how people get through life now. I found the storyline of the characters being World War II veterans secondary, and it was more of a lense to see how the characters functioned in this story. I’m passionate about WWII issues and that era, but it means a lot that you say it resonates with you and your students. Often when you do a period piece like Bandstand, people believe you can’t tell a contemporary story. People suffered through some of the same exact things in the forties that are happening now. It can feel like another world in a period musical.

S: This one didn’t. I saw a good portion of my caseload in Jimmy. The pent-up anxiety and his mannerisms really struck me. Unfortunately, a lot of my students are dealing with anxiety on a different scale and for different reasons, but I watched that character and knew who he was and why he was acting the way he was acting.

A: That was a difficult character arch to find. All of the characters had really interesting behaviors. Wayne exhibited some OCD behavior my son shows from time to time. The idea of drilling yourself into a hole to try to escape and you don’t even know you’re doing it—that’s familiar to me.  Exploring these behaviors through balletic moments was so interesting to me. None of these things existed in the script.

S: Honestly, it really added a depth to the show that would not have otherwise been there.

A: And we were extremely proud of it as a cast. It’s hard to do that in any musical, but even more so in a period musical where people have certain expectations about what they think they’re going to see. The cast knew they were telling really important stories, and that made such a difference in the show. And the musical was nothing like this out of town. The show at Paper Mill Playhouse was a lot lighter, but by the time we got to Broadway, we simplified everything and made it about the details, and that’s the show that you and other audiences saw.

 S: How do you choreograph in those spaces, and how do you leave it to work on the more upbeat numbers, or go home at the end of the day?

A: You know, I’m not an unhappy person. I’m pretty happy, but I’m serious. I’m an idealist.  I feel things very deeply, and I’m interested in the realness of thing. I’m not attracted to huge disfunction. I like happy ideal situations. But I’ve learned that there’s a tension that has to exist in order to fully appreciate the idealistic situations. I don’t want to do pieces of art that are fluffy and fun. I want to do the ratcheting tension that lead you to realize that you have something wonderful. I’ve learned as a choreographer that what I’m good at is the tension before the release, which leads back to my dance vocabulary. I don’t do big dream ballets well, I do stress really well. It’s something I understand and something I can physicalize in really interesting ways. For me now, it’s all a decision about how honest the movement can be in a situation

S: Your shows have had a lot of choreography that must really wear on the performer eight shows a week. How do you choreograph sustainably?

A: I take pride in that, but Hamilton is really hard and there’s not breath in that movement. It’s hard for the body to sustain that choreography. Since I spent so much time as a dancer, I feel like I can read if it works for the cast. It has to feel organic and like the character would do what they’re doing. If it feels natural, it’s usually sustainable. If dancers are thrilled by it, they’ll want the challenge. If it’s a chore in rehearsal, it’ll be a chore for the run of the show. I like to keep track of balance, to make sure the choreography is evenly distributed on the dancer’s body.

S: How did you do that with Bring It On, because dance and cheerleading are very different worlds.

A: Bring It On is a very complicated math equation. Everyone in that show was utilizing skills they already had. No one went up in the air that hadn’t been doing it for years. Cheerleaders weren’t being asked to do choreography that wasn’t innate to them. I wasn’t teaching new skills. What I did was rotate people onstage so when vocabulary changed, you weren’t aware that people were moving forward to highlight their own skills. That show took a huge physical toll on everyone and we were really aware of everyone’s health during that show. We had huge health and safety standards for that show.

S: Are your kids into the arts?

A: Yeah. My daughter is a beautiful dancer and my son is getting into theatre and he’s around my work all the time.

S: Dance nerd that I am, I saw your choreography for So You Think You Can Dance with Thayne Jasperson. What was that like, especially now that he’s in Hamilton?

A: I love Thayne. He has so much passion. I wanted to do So You Think You Can Dance, and I got to know him very briefly then. He did pre-production with me for Bring It On. Thayne is so courageous in his movement and feels things so deeply. I love that about a person—they have so much to offer that you can sculpt them into a smaller, more controlled place. And over the last ten years, our journeys have intersected, and we’ve both grown and I love the interconnected ness of it all.

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

A: A.BlankI didn’t go outside my box as much as I ‘d like to as a kid. I think they need to put themselves out there physically and not care who’s watching, and to do it with other people. Those types of challenges deal with reacting to other people and insecurities, and it helps them to become unafraid of being silly and foolish regardless of the situation.

This conversation is one of my favorites to date. I can’t thank Andy enough for this conversation and what I’ve taken away from it. Everything he said about how he understands and executes dance really resonated with me. I’m really looking forward to how my students take on his challenge. I don’t know what Andy Blankenbeuhler’s next project is, but I am sure to be one of the first with a ticket to witness another feat in directing and choreography.

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


We Can Do It: Setting Goals For The School Year

This year is a big year in terms of my therapy strategies. I’ve been thinking about my practices, what I want to keep, try differently, and play with being even more creative in the speech room. Since my students have goals they’re expected to accomplish, and I set some for myself every year, I thought I’d share mine here for the 2017-18 school year.

  • Create a more efficient home practice system.
    I am going to develop some kind of home practice system that is parent and student-friendly. This may include resources from others as well as myself. I only get my awesome kiddos for such a small fraction of their week–home practice is certainly key.
  • Incorporate more technology into my sessions.
    My students are extremely motivated by technology, so it would only make sense to incorporate more into the speech room. Now, I don’t have everything the classrooms have, but so what? There are so many apps for articulation and language out there that can be used individually or in group settings, why not take advantage of them? Especially if this means more engagement from the students. As long as it doesn’t become a distraction, I’m all for this.
  • Keep learning about the field.
    With every school year come new changes in the system, new students with individual needs, and I am going to make sure they’re all met. I am going to get to learn more about AAC this year, and I couldn’t be more excited. All while keeping up with ASHA and district-based trainings. Learning is my favorite part of the job.
  • Remember that I am human.
    In this field, I am a part of a wonderful team. While I am here to support every one of them, I can only control my actions within the scope I practice in, and that this really is just business. This is something I frequently forget, and end up taking things personally, which is completely unnecessary. As long as I know I’ve done what is best for the child within the power of my license and the ethics I follow, that is all I can do. A great show once stated “I am the one thing in life I can control/ I am inimitable, I am an original.”
  • Finish each day and be done with it.
    Another personal goal is to leave work at work. I will do my best not to take work home with me–including notes and reports. My time is my time, and despite the insane amounts school-based staff works, we don’t get paid overtime. This goes hand in hand with remembering I am a human being and I have my own limits that need to be respected.

These are my goals at this time, and are subject to change throughout the year. My challenge for the week is for you to set your own goals for the school year, your work place, whatever it is you’re working on. Set the goal and let me know what your strategies are to keep them in place.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP


I Can Do This! That I Can Do! I Can Do That!

I’ve spent the month of May stating that it was Better Speech and Hearing Month. On the last day of this month, I’d like to share how I am a support to everyone in my school. This is not to make me seem like I deserve a pat on the back; rather I’ve realized that I haven’t done much explaining about my role in a school. I wear many hats, sometimes all at once, but always with so much gratitude for each role.

I’m a support. I support the rest of the school in many ways. Twice a week, I help with bus duty. I help schedule meetings and parent conferences. I help teachers implement strategies to assist their students. I work with the IEP team to create goals and objective for students on my caseload, while keeping a watchful eye on the student body, for any others who may benefit from my work or that of another professional. I support my students in whatever they need in that moment, that day, or that school subject that is a challenge.

I’m a listener. I listen to my students needs, but more importantly, their wants. I listen to what they want to accomplish and become. I listen to how they feel about their entire school experience, not merely their speech. I listen for feedback on my therapeutic lessons to determine what could be more motivating. I listen to concerns from parents and teachers, providing my help when appropriate, and directing them to resources other than myself when needed. I listen to what isn’t said, what a student glosses over or a parent might say in passing, and file it away in my mind should they become important in the future. I listen to constructive feedback from supervisors, colleagues, and administrators to improve my practices across the board.

I’m a friend. I refer to all of my students as my “speech friends.” I have an open door policy for all staff and students to come to me throughout the day. Maybe they want to have lunch with me, maybe they want to confide in me, maybe they want to vent or cry or celebrate. Regardless, as a good friend, I am here for everyone in my building, and am not limited to the students I serve.

I am an educator. I may not be a teacher, but I help others to understand how to care for their voice. I explain my job nearly daily, and how that changes from case to case. I teach students to refine their oral motor skills, and send them home with strategies to work on. I create comprehension scenarios for my language students. I create low-tech devices for my students learning to functionally communicate. I share strategies with students on how to plan for fluent speech. I educate the staff and administration on how I support the school, my role in the building, and how I build rapport with families and all students.

I am a student. I continue to learn new strategies to assist in instruction, adapt materials, and create new goals. I learn to take my job seriously, but not myself. I learn the value of play and to share that with my students, who are already far too stressed out for children. I learn what the world looks like through the eyes of a child. I learn from my students what matters most in life, and that I tend to over-analyze everything, when I should just roll with the tide. I learn the joy of new school supplies, the pride in a student achieving a goal for the first time and getting to witness it with them. I learn the importance of trust, believing in others, and encouragement on a daily basis.

I am a writer. I write reports, treatment plans, therapy notes, progress reports, and fill out billing forms. I write emails tell parents success stories in the speech room and how it’s carrying over into the classroom. I write thank you notes to students who’ve given me so much to enjoy at work. I write dismissal reports for when my students have mastered all goals they’ve achieved.

I am a speech-language pathologist. I work on language comprehension, expression, social skills, pragmatics, syntax, semantics, articulation, phonology, and morphology. I work on public speaking to deliver the morning announcements. I work on building confidence to encourage new friendships among students. I work with motor planning for a more fluent conversation. I work on listening comprehension to reinforce that all of my students have a right to be heard, not merely listened to. I work with teachers to support students and explain speech disorders versus speech differences. I work with administrators to explain best practice, and how the newest version of the curriculum is relevant to speech and language. I assess, diagnose, and treat speech and language disorders. I help my students navigate their lives within the building, and they help me navigate what brings me so much joy and gratitude, even on my worst day. I am a speech-language pathologist, and I am a better person for all I’ve gained though this position.

Unrelated to this post, beginning in June, I will be posting once a week instead of twice. I have so much to share with you all, and I couldn’t be more excited for what’s to come. I hope you stick with me, because what’s next is SO worth it!

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

Autism Awareness · Interview · Uncategorized

What Are The Odds The gods Would Put Us All in One Spot?

Let’s talk about community and belonging. These are the groups we create for ourselves where we can be exactly who we are, how we are and be accepted at face value. This is what the human connection is all about, and how it grows. We all belong to many communities, and for myself I’d include: Broadway, dance, speech pathology,  The Shondaland fandom, and avid podcast listener. Given all of that information, it comes as no surprise that I am OBSESSED with Hamilton. I was fortunate enough to see the show April 1, 2016 and my life has never been the same. I looked for everything I could and then I found The Hamilcast: A Hamilton Podcast,  hosted by Gillian Pensavalle and Bianca Soto. I listen to their podcast every week, and they were generous enough to  let me interview them for the blog. This is the first of a three part interview, and this portion focuses on community–building one, being a part of one, and finding your place.

StageSLP: How did you find theatre?

Gillian: I found theatre through my parents and my upbringing. I was lucky enough to grow up in and around the greatest city in the world, and my parents took me to shows all the time. They had original cast recordings on records and then a lot of two-disc sets.

Bianca: I grew up in a house that was already very much into theatre. My mother and grandmother especially were huge influences on me. My first Broadway show was the Damn Yankees revival in 1994. But even before that, I was always listening to cast recordings and familiarizing myself with film versions of musicals.

S: Were you involved with theatre in school? 

G: It’s funny, even though I went to high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I was only in plays because the school was so small they could only put on plays and not musicals. My parents’ living room, however, was a totally different story… I was every role in any number of shows.

B: I was not. I never went to any schools that had a drama department so the opportunity wasn’t there. Had it been I’m fairly certain I would have been a legit drama club kid. I was a dancer but that was separate from anything school related.

S: Were your theatre friends separate from your other friends? 

G: I always went to really small schools, and it kind of didn’t matter. Ashley, who has been on The Hamilcast, and I are closer than family. I have yet to find a way to describe how close we are, but I think it’s all about finding one person who gets you and you’ll be okay. And starting this podcast, I’ve learned that it doesn’t even mean that the person needs to live in your state, time zone, or even on your continent. I always think of the line from one of my favorite shows, “Freaks and Geeks” – and for context, the character is a freshman in high school which makes this even more poignant – “I don’t need another friend. I mean, I already have two! How many friends does a guy need?!”

B: I had a healthy mix of friends but the majority at least had a general interest in theatre. Regardless of that, I was often wary though of mixing friends from different areas of life. I was always nervous that they wouldn’t gel.

S: When did you realize that you created this space for so many people to share their experiences?

G: I knew from the very first interaction; the fact that we had interactions blew my mind. From the very beginning, people were being so open and honest with us. And not just honest, but the emails made it clear that our listeners felt this was a safe space. I wanted to be able to talk about Hamilton without the blank “uh huh” and glazed-eye response, so I totally get it. And while Hamilton is the icebreaker in many of the emails we receive, in the next paragraph they go in on their family, medical, emotional, medical, situations. And I make sure to take the time to really, truly respond to every message.

B: Pretty quickly actually. We started getting emails form people and the running theme in so many of them was that they felt like they were hanging out with us and that they had found a place where they could channel their fandom. So many of the people who email us tell us they didn’t have any friends or family that share their enthusiasm for theatre, and we’ve helped provide an outlet for them. Right away we were amazed by that. It wasn’t at all expected or anticipated but we love that it has become a byproduct of the podcast.

S: How do you feel about having created such a space?

G: It’s unreal. Our listeners are the greatest and most wonderful people in the world, and they deserve the best podcast I can possibly give them.

B: Incredible! We really take pride in the casual approachable nature of the podcast and it’s really awesome to know that that feeling that we have while recording manages to stay intact and have an effect on people listening across the globe.

S: There’s a lot of people out there covering both Hamilton and Broadway across social media platforms and outlets. Can you talk about setting yourselves apart from everyone else out there, and the importance of creating your own space instead of joining in something similar that already exists?

G: To be honest with you, I don’t think about that. When I created this podcast in January of 2016, Hamilton was INSANELY POPULAR but no one else had a podcast about it. I’m really proud that The Hamilcast is the first Hamilton podcast to exist. We are an inclusive community and the minute someone emails or tweets at us, I feel an instant connection and my welcoming response is 100% genuine. When I tweet “welcome to the party!” I mean it wholeheartedly.

B: Hamilton is unique in that it seems like the first show to really take social media by the horns and find creative ways to use it. Which, in turn, inspires other people to do the same. When we first started, we reached out to people who were already on that track: Kathleen Cameron who did the #KathDoesHam dubsmashes, Hollis of @hamiltonssquad, Lizzy of @thehamwing, Amber of @hamiltonasdogs…. Essentially, we are all doing the same thing just in different forms. We all are obsessed with this little show called Hamilton, and found ways to create around that and interact with others.  To us, it only made sense to want to talk to those awesome ladies because our projects share some DNA already. I think it’s been really fun and exciting to be able to become a part of the culture.

S: How did you feel about having guests on, especially as people who admire the work of whomever the guest was? How did you keep your composure while talking to them?

G: Having the guests we’ve had on is on is incredible. I know that word is overused, but it’s accurate. The thing is, they’re all just super fun and amazing people. I’m actually sitting on my floor talking to people who are living our the “look around, look around” lyric. My goal is to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible – since they’re coming over to my apartment – and once I hit record, it all falls into place. But yeah, we do a little YAS IT HAPPENED  dance whenever someone leaves (and I make sure the conversation actually recorded because who knows).

B: It’s just the best. I can’t stress that enough. I think no matter how excited we might be to talk to a particular guest, we recognize that in the end we want to put a good conversation out into the world. So we just stay focused on that. Also, we really want to make our guests comfortable and have a good time. So we roll out the red carpet treatment, the comfy chair, and reassure them that we can talk about literally anything they want. We’re not stuffy journalists out for answers. We are interested in fun and engaging conversation.

S: You two get quite a bit of interaction from your listeners. Do you ever find the community you created to be overwhelming or too much? 

G: No way. We LOVE the interaction. It means so much to us that the show is resonating with people and they want to include us in their conversations.

B: No way, it’s not overwhelming at all. It might take us some time to respond to an email, but we always will. Even if we don’t respond to a tweet, we’re still so grateful that the tweet exists.

S: You two have known each other for a while. Anyone who listens to your episodes can hear that you’re close, and it seems like you’ve created your own little family of recurring guests that are friends of yours. Can you speak to your collaborative process and the importance of finding your people?

G: It’s so funny because we’ve known each other for over 10 years, but we’ve only been officially back in touch since October 2015 because of Hamilton. And then we started texting constantly and by January of 2016 I asked Bianca if she’d be down for the podcast. But yeah, we’re basically long lost sisters; we’re both lefties, both only children, both people who can have musicals and 90’s alt rock and Tori Amos on their iPods, and we just understand each other. Plus, Bianca is a Gemini and they’re always looking for their twin and I think it’s clear she found her. #youwillbefound

B: I think eventually everyone finds their people. Gillian and I may have met over a decade ago but didn’t find the real friendship part until a year and a half ago #ThanksHam. I think as adults it’s easier to weed out the junk and decide who your people really are.

S: Growing up and as adults, did you/do you find it difficult to make and maintain friendships?

G:  It is hard to make new friends, but, like they say on every reality show ever: “I’m not here to make friends.” I’m doing my thing and if a new friend comes down the pike, which happens, then awesome.

B: It wasn’t hard necessarily. I’ve had lots of friends come and go as it’s just the nature of life. And the ones who were really solid have never left. And as an adult I think we grow tired of games and nonsense so you can figure out pretty quickly if someone is worth your time or not.

S: Can you speak to the welcoming and accepting atmosphere that you’ve created among your listeners? 

B: It’s definitely organic. It might sound foolish but we really didn’t have a plan. So everything that has come as a result of the podcast both with our guests and listeners are all happy accidents and a product of genuine enthusiasm and wanting to connect with people.

G: We didn’t have any plans for this podcast other than: we love this thing, we love talking about it, maybe people will want to hear us talking about it and then want to talk about us talking about it?!

S: I personally believe that we all eventually find our people. Some of my students have a hard time making friends or engaging with others. They either are learning how to do so or the idea of putting themselves out there  makes them uncomfortable. How would you suggest to these kids reach out to others?

G: Oh man, this question resonates so much. I’m an only child and I’ve always been a bit of a weirdo. I grew up in a time where finding my people had to happen face to face. I’m happy to say that’s not the case anymore. As Javier Munoz stressed in his second episode, if you have an internet connection, you can find your people. The good news is that you’re not alone – someone else loves the thing you love. Whatever it is! Someone else loves it, somewhere. If you can’t find that person in real life, look online. And if you can’t find them, email us and we’ll help you out. Even if you’re not into Hamilton, we’re here to help.

B: This can be really tricky, I’m sure. Especially if you’re currently in a place of feeling alone and without a support system. I think being an only child for me was helpful because I learned early on to learn how to have fun with just me if need be. I didn’t feel too much stress to always be in the center of the action. But on the flip side it really is true that eventually we all find our people. If kids are having a hard time engaging with others I’d say to start small. Maybe it starts with talking about the latest episode of a TV show you love. There’s usually a gateway topic that suddenly opens the doors to more.

S: I know I listen every Monday as part of my morning routine, but where can we find you?

G: I’m @GillianWithaG on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.  We’re @TheHamilcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, our website is TheHamilcast.com.

B: I’m  @_biancajean_ on Twitter and Instagram and my website is biancajeansoto.com  and you can email us at TheHamilcast@gmail.com

It’s safe to say that the ladies of The Hamilcast have created a warm and welcoming community for all who choose to become a part of it. This is the same kind of environment I want for all of the students I work with; where they feel accepted, equal, and welcome just as they are. As a member of the special education community,  I know the value of a community like this one.  There are people I can talk to about a topic that no one else understands on such a level. This is not unlike the dance community, speech community, or truly, any biological or chosen family. For those of you still trying to find inclusion opportunities near you, contacting local schools, social skills professionals, or athletic groups are great places to start. My students and their families have been successful across these avenues. Further, don’t be afraid to ask your IEP team for inclusion opportunities, and get their opinions on the potential for increased inclusion opportunities at school, or resources they may have for extracurricular activities.

Stay tuned for part two of three of my conversation with Bianca and Gillian on Wednesday. And, please, if you’re not already go listen to The Hamilcast. New episodes are released every Monday, wherever you can stream podcasts. It is the best way to start every week, and I’m lucky enough to call myself a part of this community as well. I hope you all join us, as we pretend we’re in Gillian’s apartment listening to the unbelievable stories that get told #InTheRoomWhereItHappens.

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


Who am I?

We are in the midst of April, and I’m keeping up with my theme promoting Autism Awareness. This week is anything but normal–shortened week, IEP meetings, and two days of assisting Kindergarten orientation makes for a busy SLP. In fact, this is my only full therapy day this week.

I am a speech pathologist, a Broadway nerd, a daughter, a sister, a student, a blogger. I am a friend, a bookworm, a makeup addict, a dancer. I’m an employee, a podcast listener, a candy-crush-player, a quote-lover. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is just the beginning of me. I am too many things to pick one word to define me. And guess what? This is also true for my students.

My students are people. They have feelings, strengths, areas of difficulty, joys, things they are passionate about. I can tell you quite confidently that many of my students share some of my qualities above, and some are completely opposite. Some are athletic and savvy, great at math, Minecraft champions–sheesh, I even have one  student who is learning how to code computer programs. For fun. In elementary school. There’s a kid who just showed up the majority of the adults around him in that area! And I cheer him on every step of the way.

Allow me to share with you what my students aren’t. They are not the disability written on their IEP. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, they do serves a purpose. Do I necessarily know what it is all the time? No way. My students are making progress every day toward not needing my services. Every time I dismiss a student from my caseload, I get very sad. I will miss working with my student. I am invested in them. The goal, however, is for them to no longer need me, so I am simultaneously proud. And this is all because I can see these people beyond the label assigned to them.

No, I am neither 24601, nor Jean Valjean. I am undefinable, and so are my students. We are all human, and we’re all running this race together.

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


I Have Confidence In Confidence Alone

We’ve reached the middle of April–I didn’t remember this month moving quite so quickly! Maybe it’s because my school doesn’t resume until Tuesday, when I will be participating in IEP meetings and bragging about my students’ progress over the last year. Time also movoes quickly when I get to share my students’ strengths. I don’t know if you know this, but I have some of the hardest working elementary schoolers you’d ever see. That said, there is a character trait that all of my students, and very often myself, aspire to be: confident.

My articulation students want to feel confident when speaking to their teachers, friends and families. My students working with language comprehension want to feel confident when they’re reading word problems in math or asked about the main idea of a story. My students with Autism want to feel confident greeting their peers and having a conversation. I want to feel confident ALL. THE. TIME. My students would never know this about me, because I’m able to act through the day and provide therapy and take data and make it look like my job is easy (SPOILER ALERT: It’s not).

My students all want to be included. My students all want to belong. This is no different than anyone else, because we’re all human and we all crave the human connection. Everyone I know has a support system, and I know you do too. I have found that it is easy to feel included within the four walls of a speech room, your home, or your school. It’s a lot harder to feel confident outside of familiar spaces. It’s easy for my students to feel confident around one another, just like it is for me to feel among my staff, in meetings with families, and with my friends. Why? Because this is familiar. This is safe. I know how to navigate these spaces and people.

What’s unfamiliar to my students? A new teacher. A newborn sibling. Auditioning for the school play or sports team. Making new friends. The key word here is “new.” What’s unfamiliar to me? This website, and what I have planned for it. As a result, both my students and I have the tendency to sell ourselves short. Today, I’m going to share some of my confidence-building strategies that you can use for either your student or yourself.

  1. Be specific
    With my students, I like to tell them what they did differently that helped them in today’s session. Example: “You did such a nice job turning nad looking at your friend before you asked if you could use the toy he was playing with!” Why does this work? My student heard verbal praise, which will likely increase her ability to repeat the action, which leads to generalization, which leads to mastery. Everyone wins, and everyone is validated. Bonus points if you credit the other child for active listening skills.
  2. Talk less, smile more
    Yes, that’s a Hamilton reference. When I or my student become frustrated or upset, I ask them if they’d like to take a minute to collect their thoughts, organize them, and then decide how they want to go about the rest of the session. If you let the kids run the show for bit, they get to own their skills and take responsibility. Let them be the SLP for the session; it’s a great way to see what they’ve picked up from you and for them to grasp that you believe in them enough to let them take control of what is usually yours. They’re proud of what they’re learning, let them show off. When I’m the one upset, I ask for a minute to get myself together, and use the moment as a teachable moment. This gives you both a moment to calm down.
  3. Progress, not perfection
    A friend of mine recently told me to “be human and forgive yourself for glitches and then soar.” This was exactly what I needed to hear and I hope everyone has at least one person in their life who will remind them that we are only human and perfection isn’t achievable. I find it useful to remind my students that their best is always more than enough, and as long as they’re trying, they’re doing their best. They also know that my expectation is for them to do their best, and my older students know that they’ve all come so far from where they began in speech. That reminder of “Do you remember when you had the hardest time with _____? You just told me this was easy!” lights up their faces and brightens their entire day. Do this for you, too! “Remember when your fellowship year was hard and everything was life or death? Now you laugh at the things you used to worry over! Look how far you’ve come!” Works like a charm.
  4. Meet them where they are
    If your student just isn’t performing the way they want to be, or if you notice something may not be quite right, ask them what’s going on. It’s okay to stop your lesson to connect to your student. Maybe something happened over the weekend that is still occupying their brain. Maybe the teacher was about to turn on a movie and you needed to pull her out of class. There is a reason for every behavior and every response. This is usually when I go back to tip number two and let them run the show. If I’m the one having the hard day, I will start my lesson by telling my students so. It usually goes something like this, “I’m not really feeling my best right now, but if you give me your best effort, I will give you mine. We’re a team. Do you think we can work together in speech today?” WOAH. You just made your student your EQUAL. You told them they had an important role and now they’re going to do their best to fill it. You also get to show them that you’re human, too, and even grownups have hard days! Who knew?!

I hope you found these strategies useful, and are able to put them into practice. I’m always open to feedback, so feel free to leave comments and connect with me and each other.

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


Give My Regards To Broadway

It’s spring break this week in my district so I though I’d share some of my theatrical adventures that took place over the weekend. Some argue that a trip with this much running around that it wasn’t truly a vacation, but nothing recharges my spirit like the theatre.

Over the course of three days, I was fortunate enough to see four shows. I saw Groundhog Day, Anastasia, Hello, Dolly!, and War Paint. Holy star power, Batman! I went from crying laughing at the wit and comedy in Groundhog Day to shocked by the beauty of the magical and spectacular production that is Anastasia (seriously, I could’ve just stared at that set and been happy), to watching Bette Midler, Patti LuPone, and Christine Ebersole in complete amazement. This was a weekend I’d never forget.

Now, why is ANY of this important and why am I telling you? I learned so much from every show I saw, and I’m going to find ways to get the messages across in my speech room.

In Groundhog Day, I took away that I have one life, just one, to live to the best of my ability. That every day, no matter how ordinary or remarkable, is not promised. I’d do well to remember this and approach every day from this mindset. I personally feel it would leave me a better person.

Anastasia taught me to stand up for what I believe in. Now, I’ve learned as a school based speech pathologist that not many people in the building understand my job, why I make certain therapeutic choices, my process, my paperwork, etc. I watched a strong young woman go after the life she believed to be hers, no matter the cost. Professionally, standing up for what I know to be right but also to question what I don’t understand is a strength of mine. If I can teach my students to stand up for what they believe in in any aspect of their lives, I will have done my job well.

Hello, Dolly! was a force of nature. The Divine Miss M did not disappoint. Here, I took away self-reliance and follow through. I believe these are two values that serve all people well. In my personal experience, this how I know I can accomplish whatever paperwork, assessment, meeting, etc., that comes my way. And guess what? Everything always gets done on time.

War Paint had me leaving the theatre thinking about collaboration. This show follows Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein in their heyday, and of course, their rivalry in the cosmetics industry. The women never met, yet both ran empires of their own. I spent the whole show wondering what could’ve happened to the cosmetics industry had they stopped competing and collaborated. They could’ve owned and run a billion dollar industry, and be quite the dynamic duo to do so. Women in the 1930s and 40s with such a level of wealth and power were unheard of. Imagine if they joined forces. I cannot  wait to teach my students the power of sharing each other’s strengths when working together instead of trying to best each other for a higher mark or praise.

This trip was a memorable one for sure, and when I figure out how to share these lessons in the speech room, I’ll share that with you, too! I hope everyone is having a wonderful week.

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


The Book Report

Many of us are familiar with “The Book Report” from You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. This isn’t that kind of book report. I am a total bookworm myself, and I’d like to spotlight some research that went into one of my favorite author’s works.

I am spending much of my spring break reading. My all-time favorite author is Jodi Picoult. I have read every book she’s written. Her most recent novel, Small Great Things, is my favorite (recently replacing her 2008 novel, Change of Heart). That post is for another day. Today I’m going to talk about House Rules. House Rules is a story about an adolescent with Asperger’s, and how he and his family go about their daily lives.


I recently emailed Jodi Picoult to ask about the research that went into this novel. It truly is a great read, and gives those of us who are neurotypical a look at this individual’s and his family’s way of processing and navigating the world. When I asked Jodi about her research, this is what she shared with me:

“When I was researching HOUSE RULES, I learned that kids who are on the autism spectrum are absolutely brilliant, fascinating…and challenging for the family members who live with them.  I knew when I was interviewing kids with Asperger’s Syndrome that face to face communication wouldn’t work, so I sent out a survey of 50 questions.  The first girl I sent it to replied with 200 pages of answers.  The others were similarly detailed, and generous with their observations, and so, so smart.  The thing that I took away from those tomes they sent me was that no two kids with autism are the same, and that kids with autism don’t think badly, or in a broken way — just in a DIFFERENT way.  I treasured getting to puzzle together how their brains worked, and came away with a new way of seeing the world.”

I appreciate that right away the research was done in a manner in which would be most accessible to the children. Further, she read each response carefully and you can see the minutiae of their thoughtful responses throughout Picoult’s novel. Now, Jacob is a fictional character with a variety of abilities and pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Not all people with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome look like Jacob, and she acknowledges this as well, and doesn’t use Jacob to a) be the poster child for all people on the spectrum or b) make Jacob out to be a motiva’tional icon/person to be pitied/ a stereotype. This is one facet of a beautiful and complex spectrum. The detail of how this individual’s needs are depicted is incredible.

What I truly appreciate about this book is how the family dynamic is shown. We see the mother, doing her very best to meet her child’s needs. We see the brother, who understands that there are many things with which Jacob struggles, but wants to find his place within this family dynamic. Through their eyes we see what love looks like. We see what frustration looks like. We see what “for now” looks like, because in a split second, the world can turn upside down. This really is the beauty of this book.

The family dynamic of any person with special needs is many things. It is challenging and loving, accepting, and complex, in many ways like any other family and in many ways incomparable. Often, when I find myself having a hard time finding my way into a student’s perspective, I talk to past teachers and the student’s family for insight into whether or not a behavior is new, or how certain behaviors are addressed at home. My job is to work with people. I work with a student, that student has a family, other therapists, tutors–all of these are people with thoughts and feelings that are interconnected. I have found many times that if I can understand the family dynamic and build rapport, it’s easier for me to understand the child.  After all, this is the dynamic that shapes the student. I’ve also found that my families are usually forthcoming whenever I ask about their students and want to build a partnership with me to help their child. These relationships have changed the manner in which I work with a child, allowing me to better understand how they navigate the world. I have many children who respond in single word utterances because, well, they did answer the question, why use more words to do so? That’s not logical. I get that now.

I hope everyone is getting to spend time with their families today. I know I’m enjoying my time with mine. The human connection connects us all and knows no limits.

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

Introduction · Uncategorized

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

Welcome to The Play On Words, the blog where the spotlight is on communication. And in the spirit of such, I’m going to tell you a bit about myself and the purpose of this blog.

I am a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist with a passion for Broadway, both are the loves of my life and have been since my childhood.I see as much theatre as I can and support many artists and their projects. I grew up singing badly, dancing decently, and only enjoying drama onstage.  As I was working with school aged-children, I’d find common threads among them, and noticed they stuck together. They created their own families, often bringing their nuclear families together in close bonds as well. As I watched this happen, I thought of every theatrical family I was a member of or had the privilege to watch from a seat in a crowded theatre. I noticed that my students all believed themselves to be “other,” “different,” or “not normal.” Often they’d come to me for advice on making friends, being more outgoing, public speaking in class or the morning announcements. They’d tell me they’re too much or not enough of something–that they somehow didn’t fit some mold that they believed they needed to squeeze themselves into to be accepted by others. These students of mine have a variety of abilities, patterns of strengths and weaknesses and diverse but strong passions for what they love. I noticed very quickly that I am all of these children, in some way, and they’re all the theatre kid that I will always be.

This got me thinking about the theatre community. Theatre kids are often called the “misfits,” the “oddballs,” the kids who are too much or not enough. The kids who know how to put on a show, but just being in every day life could prove to be a challenge. How we found our families in rehearsals and backstage, making stage moms and stage families. Why did these kids and families stick together? They felt that they were “other,” finally finding their people who got them–no questions asked, no explanations necessary. They knew all the words to their favorite monologues, can recite their musicals of choice backwards and forwards and reference anything remotely theatre-adjacent for their own enjoyment to any unsuspecting conversational partner.

I mentally drew this Venn Diagram and acknowledged the similarities between my students and theatre people, and thought to myself, “Why not fill in the gaps?” After all, who could better understand the need to be human than someone who works within the human connection by definition? Who better than an actor whose experienced a hundred lives through playing to help explain perspective taking to those who don’t understand? Mama Rose told her daughter, “Sing out, Louise!” because it made sense to her. Can I teach my students to communicate and speak up, use their voice? Sure. I do it every day. Do my kids go on to love the arts and participate in them? They do. But they ask me, “Why is it so easy on TV/stage/in the movies? The ending is always happy. It makes sense to them. I want to talk to them.”

So here I am, in my personal attempt to bring the worlds of my students and theatre together here on this blog. Here, I will spotlight some of my strategies for my students, while talking with people in the world of the arts about how they communicate through their mediums and as people. Hopefully, this will bring families together, help create the found families that people are looking for, and bridge a communication gap. Who said communication had to be verbal, anyway? Certainly, not this SLP! High on a hilltop a lovely young governess once advised us to “Start at the very beginning, a very good place to start,” and here we are! Nice to meet you, let’s get started!

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