Broadway, Inclusion, Interview, The Human Connection, Wise Words

Make Them Hear You: A Conversation With Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

Growing up dancing, an integral part of my life was music. When I knew I needed to get emotion out or truly dig down deep and express myself, music was what let me find myself through dance. Stories got told and feelings were freed–joy, sorrow, what have you–through no better musical style than that of musical theatre. There are many great writer-composer duos, but there are truly none that have struck a chord in me such that Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have over the years.

Ragtime has such a grip on my heart that I know it will never let me go, Anastasia fills me with such joy and wonder that I never want to leave that world, and Little Dancer, which was shown at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., is a show that truly needs to reach more audiences. It is the music of theirs I relate to most–once a dancer always a dancer.

Just before I worked up the nerve to ask for this interview, a dear friend of mine and I started texting the lyrics to School House Rock back and forth because Lynn Ahrens wrote them! That’s right, the same material I use to create therapy lessons for my students are the ones that help my friends and me remember facts we learned in school. This interaction is one I’ll not soon forget, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Stage SLP: What got you interested in theatre?

Lynn Ahrens: The first Broadway show I saw was Fiddler on the Roof, and it made me very interested in the art of telling stories in song. Years later I took a musical theater workshop, and the idea of actually writing for the theater took hold.

Stephen Flaherty: I’d been playing the piano since I was seven but what really got me interested in music for the theater was when I saw a touring production of the musical Godspell when I was twelve. I knew I had to be a part of that magic. That same year I wrote my first music for the theater: additional underscoring for my school’s production of Peter Pan.

S: For my students, editing can be really tough. So can finding the main idea or summarizing. Many of my students are working on these skills in speech and wanted to know how this translates into writing lyrics?

A: Lyric writing is all about editing, and each song needs to be concise. The classic song form is AABA—which means A) set up a premise or idea, A2) expand on that same idea, B) Develop the idea in a different direction and then A3) wrap up the idea. Not every song has this form, but it’s a good place to start, and a good way to think about organizing ideas. Maybe the simple AABA format will be of help to your students in organizing and building on their ideas. And of course, every word needs to count and be as clear and colorful as possible.

S: Do you have any advice for how to get beyond frustration when you’re brainstorming or get stuck?

A: Your mind is always busy solving problems. Sometimes you just need to take a break from what you’re trying to solve, and give your brain some breathing space to sort it out. Go to the library. Talk a walk. Take a nap. Let you mind wander. Do not go to your iPhone or Computer.

F: Yes. “Change the channel”: Take a walk (WITHOUT your cell phone), go to a park, go to a museum. Any of these may spark something or help you look at what you are working on with new eyes. And always carry what you need to capture your ideas when they do come, so you can quickly record it and remember that spark of inspiration.

S: You have written the lyrics to so many wonderful shows. Some of the most powerful lyrics I’ve ever heard, are those of yours in Ragtime. This is one of the shows I firmly believe had a hand in molding my upbringing. Can you talk about what that process and experience was like for you?

A: This would take a book to describe. Suffice to say, it was a wonderful collaborative experience, and once we sorted out how the many story strands could be organized, the writing came quickly. I think the first draft was done in about 6 months. The novel is written in a very declarative style, without a lot of dialogue, but I found the lyrics “in between the lines” –in other words, in what the characters didn’t say.

S: I have seen Anastasia twice now and another visit to the Broadhurst is certainly not out of the question. Why did you feel the need to come back to this particular work and add to it?

A: We always thought we could expand and deepen the story if we were given the chance, and when producers came to us to adapt the film for the stage we leaped at the chance. We’ve been able to make the story more adult, more complex, we’ve eliminated a couple of the most cartoony characters and have created a more realistic antagonist. The show is more historically accurate than the animated movie, too, and we got to write a slew of terrific new songs for characters who never really got to sing in the original.

F: There was a deeper story to tell. In an animated film you can only go so far and so deep. With film, you’re not the captain of the ship; the producer is. We knew there was more to discover about our characters and had a strong desire to bring the story back to its original historical roots. Luckily, the film company agreed, and we were able to go forward. It’s certainly been a journey!

S: I was extremely fortunate to get to see Little Dancer at The Kennedy Center. I found theatre through dance, and this show is my favorite of the nearly eighty I’ve seen so far. What drew you to this project?

A:I had always admired Degas’ Little Dancer sculpture, but for some reason I suddenly began to wonder about the girl who posed for it—who was she? What was her story? I did some research and found out the few known facts about her and her family, and then decided to weave those facts into a fiction, set in the colorful backstage world of the French ballet.

F: Thank you! As a composer I wanted to write more for the dance world, and we both wanted to work with Susan Stroman, who was central to the creation of this piece. Lynn came up with the central idea: The story of this young ballerina who would inspire a great work of art becoming, in many ways, the most famous dancer in the world. We are still working on the show, focusing the story and deepening the central relationship between Marie and Degas.

S: You also wrote the book for Little Dancer. For those who may not know, what is the difference between writing the book and the lyrics?

A: Lyrics are the words that are sung in a musical. Book is the scene by scene structure of the musical, and all the spoken words in those scenes.

S: Is there a future for Little Dancer so more people can be as amazed by it as I was and continue to be?

F: There is a future. We are in discussions currently about another regional production with its sights on Broadway. So…fingers crossed!

A: We hope it will come to Broadway at some point in the next year and a half.

S: What inspires you to write?

A: Life, literature, music…the world at large.

F: Many things inspire me to write. I tend to be curious by nature. I think you need that quality to be a writer or composer. Inspiration is everywhere, you just need to open your eyes, ears, and heart and dare to look.

S: We have a school-wide goal of collaboration, and you two are well known for your partnership together. What is it like working consistently with the same partner?

A: It takes patience, kindness, a sense of humor and a willingness to forgive. We are also very honest with one another.

F: Over time, you change as both individuals and writing partners. That’s one of the things that makes it all interesting. We both cultivate our own interests, and that allows us to bring new things to our collaborative process. You have to develop trust and know that you can pursue and try any idea without the fear of it not being “good enough,” without fear of failure. Once you have that freedom with a partner you are able to really fly.

S: Do you have any advice for my students on how to be a productive partner in collaborative work?

A: Keep an open mind, listen to their ideas, and rather than saying “I don’t like that idea, try saying: “Maybe not that, but that gives me another idea. How about this?” Try to build on each other’s ideas.

F: Yes. It’s all about trust, support, and honesty. And knowing that criticism, when it is good criticism, making your piece and yourself the best it—and you—can be. Honesty coupled with kindness is key.

S: You got to write for School House Rock, and I can tell you that I use your lyrics with my students in grammar lessons frequently. What is it like to have lyrics that have such a life of their own that adults who heard them as kids still quote your lyrics?

A: It’s very gratifying and also very weird.

S:  Once On This Island is being revived this season! What is it like to see new casts bring new life to your work?

A: It’s very exciting to see your work sung by new actors, and interpreted differently by new directors. Theater is a live medium, so it’s never the same twice. That’s what keeps it interesting.

F:  New casts bring new ideas and takes on characters. Everyone is different and unique. In this revival, we have adapted some of the material to fit these actors and their voices perfectly. We’re tailoring the music to fit them the way a tailor would fit someone with a new suit. It’s thrilling to see this production take on a whole new life, and I’m excited about bringing the show to a whole new generation of theatre-goers.

S: What is the difference between writing from the perspective of pure fiction, as is the case in Seussical, a period piece as in Ragtime, or a mixture of both like Anastasia? Does one genre come more easily to you than another?

A: I’m inspired by stories, worlds, and the characters who live in those worlds. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s fictional or not, as long as it feels like it wants to leap into song. That means that whatever the project, it needs to have built-in emotions and drama. I try never to repeat place or time in my shows.

F: No, although I had to do much more research both musically and historically for Anastasia and Ragtime. Seussical, for me, was about play and the love of language and sound. I got to become a kid again, which was great fun, especially since I was turning 40 at the time!

S: What should audiences know about the work that goes into writing the lyrics for a show that they may not realize?

A: Every song has about a million decisions per square inch. What is the rhyme scheme going to be? What is the idea? What does the character sound like—are they educated? Do they have an accent? Where are they from? What are the details of their life? Is the lyric going to be dense and heavily rhymed or simple and direct? That long note is going to require an open vowel sound. The actor is going to need to take a breath somewhere. I could go on and on. And if you think about all the details in one song, think about all the details in a whole show, from lights to costumes to sets to wigs to makeup to sound…. It’s mind boggling.

F: I consider myself a dramatist first and tell stories through music. Story, character, and inner emotional life of that character always dictates the music, its tone, rhythm, and tempo. Once I can fully visualize and understand the character in that moment I can begin to write music.

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

F: Exactly that: Go to the place that excites you without necessarily knowing how you will pull it off. Being scared is not a negative and can lead you to wonderful things. Oh, the thinks you can think!

A: Get together, find a story—could be a fairytale, a personal story, someone’s favorite book, anything—and try writing a musical together.
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“Oh the thinks you can think!” indeed! If you had asked me if I ever thought I’d get to learn about some of my favorite pieces of art from those who gave them life, I would have laughed. I grew up listening to, feeling, and poorly singing the work of this dynamic duo, and am happy to say that, though some things change with age, that’s not one of them! This interview is one of my most insightful to date. I love hearing the creative perspective that, all too often, goes untold. Through this process, I’ve been challenged to look at my own writing differently, as well as viewing my students’ perspectives through a different lens. I am very excited to see what my students and I will create from theses challenges and the wisdom Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty so generously shared, and look forward to hearing your takes on the challenges in comments.

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

 

Broadway, Interview, The Human Connection, Wise Words

Somebody’s Got Your Back: A Conversation With Chad Beguelin

Since I was small, Aladdin has always been my favorite Disney movie. This remains true to this day. So much so that whenever my father sees something with Princess Jasmine on it, he buys it for his adult daughter. There may or may not be a box of Princess Jasmine cereal in my pantry. When Aladdin was announced as a stage musical, my dad and I could not buy tickets fast enough. Like anyone else who loves something, I was protective of the material I loved, but equally excited to see how this work would be adapted for the stage and the theatrical changes made. Many of my students have come back to me to tell me they’ve seen the show, and wanted to know what I knew about “all the things that weren’t in the movie.” It only made sense for me to reach out to Chad Beguelin, who wrote the book and lyrics of the stage musical. Here’s our conversation!

S: What got you interested in theatre?

C: My parents took me to see a community theater production of “Oliver!” when I was a kid. I was immediately transported and knew right then that I wanted to be involved with live theater. I had no idea that you could actually make a career out of it at that point, I just knew I wanted to be around the magic of theater.

S: What drew you into writing for theatre versus performing?

C: I originally went to NYU as an actor. I quickly realized that I wasn’t that good. There were so many talented actors in my class and I just wasn’t one of them. In high school, I had written skits for our annual variety show. I decided at NYU to take a class in playwriting. I was encouraged by my professor to pursue a double major in Drama and Dramatic Writing. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed on and got my Masters in Dramatic Writing at NYU.

S: For my students, editing can be really tough. So can finding the main idea or summarizing. Many of my students are working on these skills in speech and wanted to know how this translates into writing lyrics?

C: When you’re writing words to music, you are limited to how many syllables you can use. This means that you have to pack as much meaning into each word as you can. It forces you to edit the writing down to the bare essence. There is a duet for Aladdin and Jasmine in Act One where they dream of escaping their lives. An earlier version of the song was called “Just A Dream Away”. I quickly realized that it was too vague. What does that mean? I rewrote the song and it became “A Million Miles Away”. That was something much more tangible for an audience to understand. Aladdin and Jasmine literally want to run “a million miles away” from their day-to-day lives. This became a theme that I could build upon throughout the song. “We’ll join a caravan tonight!” or “Maybe we’ll journey on the sea!” So finding a main idea is crucial in lyric writing, as is editing thoughts down to their essence. I’m constantly asking myself, “What is the point of this song?” Finding the main idea makes it easier to elaborate.

S: What is the difference between writing the book of a show and writing lyrics?

C: The book of the show is the script or all of the spoken words. The lyrics are all of the words that are sung. There is a lot of freedom when you’re writing the book because you aren’t limited to words that fit a musical phrase. However, the goal of writing lyrics or a line of dialogue are the same. Everything said or sung should either advance the plot or reveal character – or in the best-case scenario, do both!

 

S: Do you have any advice for how to get beyond frustration when you’re brainstorming or get stuck?

C: If it’s possible, I always find it’s helpful to talk it out with another person. It’s great to bounce ideas off of someone else. If I’m by myself, I will actually talk to myself as I pace the room. “Why isn’t this working? If there another angle that I’m missing?” It sounds crazy, but I need to pace and talk out loud.

S: You’ve gotten to work on both The Wedding Singer, Elf, and Aladdin, all of which were adapted from film. What is the most exciting and challenging part of contributing to projects that may already have a strong fan base?

C: It’s important to give the audience the big moments from the movie that they are expecting. However, it would do no good to just put a carbon copy of the movie onstage. People would just watch the movie if they wanted a straightforward adaptation. So there’s always a tricky line that has to be negotiated. The key is to create something that honors the movie, but is its own creation.

S: What inspires you to write?

C: As a professional writer, I’m given deadlines by producers and have to honor them. This means that even if I’m not entirely inspired to write, I have to find a way to become inspired. Thankfully, writing musicals is a collaborative process. I usually get inspired while talking to my co-writers or the director of a project. We spend a lot of time as a group discussing song ideas or how scenes should build. This makes it much easier when it’s time to sit down and do the actual writing.

S: In terms of theatre, you are considered part of the creative team. Do you have any advice for my students on how to be a productive partner in collaborative work?

C: I am extremely supportive of the other people on the creative team. You have to create a safe space where people can say what they think are dumb ideas, because dumb ideas usually lead to good ones. We all try to encourage one another and we also are very respectful even when we disagree. When someone comes up with a good idea, everyone wins. It doesn’t matter who came up with what, it matters that the show is successful. So we are quick to praise one another and delicate with our criticisms. This creates an environment where we can trust one another and come up with a bunch of ideas, both bad and good.

S: You got to write for Aladdin, which is such a beloved Disney film, and my personal favorite. Was it as magical for you to help create and add to the theatrical experience as it is for the audiences to watch?

C: The development process was actually very difficult and daunting. We had two “out of town tryouts” where we performed the show outside of New York to gauge audience responses and perfect the show. The tryout right before Broadway was in Toronto and the critics trashed the show. It was very hard to figure out why they disliked the production so much. We had to rethink and rewrite almost the entire show. It was a very difficult time, but we had to dissect what wasn’t working and why. Thankfully, when the show got to Broadway the reviews were great and the audiences where cheering. But we had to do a ton of work between Toronto and Broadway.

S: For Aladdin, were you encouraged to use the movie or other source material inspiration?

C: The movie was a launching pad for the script and score of the musical. However, there were several songs that were written for the movie that got cut before it was released. The composer, Alan Menken, wanted me to incorporate as many of those cut songs into the stage version of the show. So it was my job to figure out how to make those songs work. This meant adding new characters and reshaping the story line to fit them into the show.

S: What is it like to have lyrics that have such a life of their own that adults and children can recite them?

C: It’s very exciting when we’re listening to Sirius radio in the car and a song I wrote the lyrics for comes on. That’s very surreal.

S: What should audiences know about the work that goes into writing the lyrics for a show that they may not realize?

C: Lyrics are very tricky. They have to rhyme, but the audience shouldn’t anticipate the rhyme. And when words are being sung, the writer has to make sure that the correct stress is on the right syllable.

S: My students love to be creative in their own way, which may or may not include performing. Would you encourage them to explore the creative/backstage aspect of theatre?

C: I’d encourage anyone interested in theater to get involved in any aspect of putting on a show. When I was a kid, I didn’t get cast in a community theater production of “My Fair Lady”. That didn’t stop me. I volunteered to work backstage and had a blast. I also made a bunch of new friends. It was a great experience.

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

C: I would say write something and share it with someone you trust. It’s a cliché, but the old saying “writing is rewriting” is very true. Share something you’ve written and discuss it with that person. It will make you look at what you’ve written in a whole new light.

As a theatre-goer and fan, I learned so much from this discussion, and am so grateful to Chad for agreeing to share his knowledge with me. I absolutely love everything about the stage production, especially “A Million Miles Away.” My students share my passion for this show and were so excited to get writing advice from the man who worked on a stage production that’s left them awestruck. I can’t wait for them to take on this challenge, and their classroom teachers will appreciate it too!

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

 

Broadway, Inclusion, Interview, Performances, The Human Connection, Wise Words

Tap Your Troubles Away: A Conversation With Chris Rice

Tap was a household staple in my childhood. I was either trying to learn how to do it, watching the greats perform it in the Golden Age of film, or watching my mom and Bubby literally dance around the house. When I was dancing, my mom picked up tap again, and can still dance circles around anyone my age—triple time steps, pullbacks, wings, you name it. She got that from her mother, who was a Rockette for a year. Then there was me, who could not figure tap out for her life. I worked hard at it for seven years before moving on to other dance styles in which mistakes weren’t audible or visible, but it’s still one of my favorite styles to watch. Chris Rice, most recently in Broadway’s Book of Mormon, made tap popular again by posting a video of he and his friends dancing to “Cups” from Pitch Perfect, which only started an entire #Tappy movement! Chris has such a delightful energy when he’s performing, you can’t help but grin from ear to ear. I got to talk to him about his creative process, perspective taking, and collaborating with others. Enjoy!

Stef the StageSLP: Which came first for you, dance or theatre, and how did you discover each?

Chris Rice: When I was a kid, my older sister went to ballet every week. My mom used to take me along and try to entertain me while my sister was dancing. Eventually, I started watching her in her class and would dance around the lobby area on my own. My mom thought she could enroll me and see how I took to dancing in a class setting. I really enjoyed it. My church also presented a large, Broadway-style musical every year. I auditioned as a child dancer and was cast at a pretty young age. Dance and storytelling have gone together ever since then!

S: I got to see you perform in Book of Mormon, which is still one of the most unique theatrical experiences I’ve ever seen. What was it like to be a part of something so well-known and sought-after?

C: It was a complete dream come true. I grew up as a musical-loving kid in Oklahoma who always dreamed of performing on Broadway. It has always been my passion. Being able to look back at that wide-eyed, enthusiastic kid and say “You did it” is a pretty special thing. Being a part of such a major production for such an extended amount of time was unlike anything I have done in my career. The crowds were insane and the show never had a performance where it wasn’t sold out in my entire run with the show. That is pretty spectacular.

S: What did you learn from being a part of such a show?

C: I learned so many things from being a part of The Book of Mormon. It was my first time performing on Broadway in New York City. I learned so many things about how a show is run and maintained and also how it is the responsibility of the actor to keep the material fresh and exciting for every single audience.

My job in the show is called a “swing” which means I understudy more than one role. I covered 7 different roles in The Book of Mormon and had to be ready to go on for any one of them at a moment’s notice. This taught me self-discipline, it taught me to trust myself, and it taught me how to be prepared.

S: How do you overcome anxiety when you audition for or go onstage for a show every night?

C: I don’t usually get nervous to perform on stage anymore. It may happen occasionally, but usually when you open a stage show, you have had enough rehearsal to feel prepared.

Auditions still make me nervous for some reason. Maybe it is the fact that I don’t get to become a character and I have to be myself in the room. Don’t get me wrong; I am comfortable in my own skin. But perhaps it is easier to jump into a role because the work is done for you. The script and score of a musical lead you through the story. They set up the world of the character. In auditions, you are yourself and then you must jump into the world of a character in the middle of their journey. Something about this allows my nerves to creep in.

I think preparation is the key to eliminating or minimizing nervousness. If you have done the work and are prepared, you know you can do it. You have sung the song before and you have rehearsed the material enough so it is now in your body. Once you have done it enough, your confidence will grow and you’ll feel secure in what you are bringing to the table.

S: My students are working on perspective taking and point of view. How do you find your way into a character? Do you have any suggestions for my students for understanding someone else’s perspective?

C: I think some importance advice that someone gave me for this subject was that “Everyone is the hero of their own story.” What this means is that no character thinks of himself as the villain. Each character is only doing what they think is right. Jafar in Aladdin doesn’t think “I am a bad guy for wanting to become the Sultan of Agrabah” but from an audience’s perspective, there are usually “good guys” and “bad guys” and Jafar would clearly fit into the “bad guy” category. It is the job of the actor to get to a place where they can motivate the actions of every character honestly. You have to put yourself in the world of the character and think “What has this character gone through so far in their life to make them have these view points and to make them want the things they want?” This is the first step of bringing any character to life.

S: How did the #Tappy series come about?

C: I was actually sitting backstage at the Book of Mormon on Broadway and listening to the song Cups on the Pitch Perfect movie soundtrack. At the time, people were posting videos of them performing the song while creating the drum beat with cups and their hands. I wondered if anyone had done a video using tap sounds instead. I looked around online and couldn’t find anything so I was inspired to do it myself.

A few weeks later, I recorded my friends and myself performing the choreography and uploaded it on YouTube. Within 24 hours, we had 55 thousand views and within 8 days we had a million hits! The success of this video inspired me to continue choreographing and creating.

My second video was to the hit song “Happy”. We created the hashtag #Tappy and the Tappy series was born!

S: Collaborating is a district-wide goal for my students. How do you choose who you want to collaborate with in your #Tappy series? Do you have any tips for them?

C: I think the performing business is all about who you know. I started casting my videos by thinking “Who do I know that is talented and great to work with?” Life is too short for egos. You don’t want to work with someone who is going to take up the very limited rehearsal time with unnecessary drama so being a kind, collected, and respectful human being can help your career in addition to making your life more focused.

Moving on to future tap videos, I decided to “reach for the stars” and ask people who I only dreamed of performing with! Always try! I asked some big-time stars who were unable to participate due to contractual limitations, but others have said yes! I’ve had the opportunity to sing duets and to tap alongside some people who I have admired in the business for years! They could have all said no, but I asked anyway. You never know who will be willing to collaborate with you, so I say go for it!

On that note, please always be respectful of the time of your collaborators. Have a set (realistic) schedule, show up early, be prepared, and make the experience easy and great for them.

S: I’ve watched all of your videos multiple times and your joy when dancing is just contagious. Is that something you developed through dance, or are you just a genuinely enthusiastic person?

C: Without sounding like a jerk, I think I am a genuinely enthusiastic person. That said, dance elevates my joy in a way that I can’t quite describe. Dancing, and tapping specifically, brings a lot of happiness to me. I always admired dancers and definitely was not one myself. I had to work hard to even pass as a “mover”. Now, I am thankful I am in a place where I can perform while dancing and let my own personality shine through while also doing the correct steps with my feet.

S: What have you learned from acting that you can apply to your daily life?

C: Identify what you want, what your obstacles are, and make a plan of how to surpass them to arrive at your goal. That applies to a scene, a song, and to life.

S: What have you learned from dancing and choreographing that you apply to your daily life?

C: Spatial awareness is a huge lesson that the dance world has taught me. I can’t stand when I am in line for something and someone is breathing down my neck in line behind me or when someone cuts you off and is completely unaware of their body and the space you two share. Personal space is something we need to all become aware of and pay attention to in life and dancing and choreographing has helped me do so.

S: What does choreographing do for you that dancing does not, and what does dancing do for you creatively that choreographing does not?

C: If you have a performers’ heart and soul, then nothing feels better than performing a dance yourself. It amplifies the most courageous and passionate parts of yourself and allows you to escape into a higher level of being for a few moments. There is nothing like it.

Choreographing is always a fun process but it is definitely more of an intellectual one than performing. You have a vision of a final product in mind and it is your job to hammer away at all of the extra rock until you have nothing but the beautiful sculpture in front of you. It takes a lot of thought. Do I need this section? Does this help the overall number? It can be a lot of work, but also a lot of fun! It is satisfying to see the finished product.

S: When you were younger, did you know you wanted to be a performer?

C: Without a doubt, I always knew I loved performing. When I was a young kid, everyone told me I was going to be a movie star because I was so theatrical so that was my plan. I figured I would grow up and then start being in films… simple right? I did not know you could make a living as a performer on stage until my mom took me to the national tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for my birthday. I was turning 13, I believe, and when I saw the magic that was happening on stage, I thought to myself “I have to do this.” I started asking questions and learned these actors made a living performing in musicals and in that moment, my plans to be a movie star were thrown out and my dream of being a performer on Broadway was born.

S: What is your most memorable experience either seeing a show or performing in a show?

C: I have been fortunate enough to see some really special productions that have challenged the way I think, inspired me, uplifted me, and moved me. It is hard to pick just one because so many of these wonderful shows have touched me in different ways.

As a teen and into my college years, whenever I would see a Broadway show or tour, I would head to the stage door to meet the actors as they exited the theatre. I have boxes of Playbills signed by the actors and pictures with them at the stage door from my years of seeing shows as a young theatre enthusiast. Some of my most special moments after performing in a show have been meeting young theatre fans at the stage door. It is so fulfilling to hear their stories and answer their questions. It is always a very “full circle” moment for me. I am happy to give back and to help inspire the next generation of performers just as the actors who I met at the stage door inspired me!

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

C: I would encourage them to spend a day (or week) attempting to listen more. Practice being a good listener. Don’t misunderstand me and think I mean you must be a mute for a week. I simply mean listen to hear and understand and don’t listen to respond. Try not cutting off others to respond and let them finish or expand upon their thoughts. You might learn something.
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I thoroughly enjoyed learning so much from Chris, and really hope my students take his challenge to heart. There’s something so powerful about listening to hear; it’s so grounding and makes you really pay attention to the words being shared with you. I’m taking this challenge on personally, and can’t wait to see how my readers do with it in comments. If you haven’t seen his #Tappy series on YouTube, please do yourself a favor and go watch it. My personal favorite is “The Boogie Woogie Candyman of Company B,” since my Bubby sang “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” all the time when I was growing up, and used to teach me tap lessons in my parents’ foyer while she sang.  It will instantly brighten your day and make you grin—I’m certain it’s impossible to watch these videos without smiling.

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

Broadway, Interview, 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, Interview, Performances, The Human Connection, Wise Words

Talk About Seizin’ The Day: A Conversation with Chaz Wolcott

Newsies is arguably one of those shows that came into my life just when I needed it. I still blast that cast recording when I’m getting work done or put the filmed version on when I need a pick-me-up. This show just makes you inherently happy, and makes you want to get up and dance—especially if you’re also a dancer, like I am. I was so excited to talk to  actor and choreographer Chaz Wolcott, who along with touring in Disney’s Newsies and the live taping of Disney’s Newsies, choreographs and teaches dance regularly. We talk about how he came into the theatre and dance worlds, what performing has done for him on and offstage, and the importance of taking care of yourself mentally and physically.

S: What got you into dance, and what made it stick for you?
C: My parents taught swing dancing, which is actually how they met, so they taught me the basics when I was in diapers. I think everyone spends much of their life looking for something that helps them cope with the world, a coping mechanism that helps explain the universe and make them understand the world around them. For me, I was lucky to find out at a very young age that dancing is the only thing that can really make me feel alive, and help me get through some of life’s tougher twists.
S: How did you get into theatre?
C: A director named Steven Anderson saw me dance at a competition and approached my mom telling her I had to audition for this play he was directing, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. My mom told him I didn’t act and she didn’t think I could do it, but he convinced her to let me audition. At my audition, he told her that I had the part, which was a pretty demanding role with tons of lines. I was only 8 and fell in love with the world of theatre immediately. I felt at home and like I had found the community I wanted to be a part of.
S: How did singing fit into performing for you?
C:  Singing was the last of the three disciplines I found a love for, just because it was the last area I started training in. I always advise younger performers to work on the area that scares them the most, because it will always be your Achilles’ heel when trying to book a job, and you don’t want to think “I should’ve trained more!”
S: I got to see you in Newsies both on tour and in the live taping. What do you do to protect your voice?
C:  Many of us travel with personal steamers, and use neti-pots when we start to get sick or congested. Touring can add another layer to that because you are constantly in different climates with different allergens, etc. I actually lost my voice and had to miss a few shows when we were in Chicago in winter, mainly because it was so dry and cold, I was dehydrated and not breathing well! It’s a constant worry for touring actors, especially with a show as vocally demanding as Newsies. Also, steer clear of extremely acidic foods (especially late at night), which can cause acid reflux and destroy your voice!
S: How do you make sure you’re performance ready in such a physically demanding show like Newsies?
C: WARMING UP. So many dancers skip over warming up (and cooling down), especially when they are young, but it is essential to train the body and keep your technique in tip-top shape. I have developed a 40-45 minute warm-up for classes I teach, that I do myself to warm myself up before a show. I also learned from touring that you must cross-train with other exercise, dancing, styles, etc. when doing a show for a long time, otherwise your body can be out of whack doing the same choreography every day for 2 years. So, I recommend trying to find classes to take or choreography to work on that would make your body move in a different way than it was on stage every night!
S: What do you want audiences to feel when they walk out of a performance after the
lights come back up?

C: I want them to feel disappointment that the lights came up and it is over! I think theatre, arts, and dance can be the escape many people need in our busy, stressful, dramatic lives. I love providing that to audiences in whatever show I am doing – so I want them to be so invested in the story and the art that they don’t want it to end!
S: What’s it like to be in a show with such a large following?
C: I can’t even put into words what the fans of Newsies mean to me. Some of the sweetest, most supportive people came into my life because of our little show, which I think makes sense because the show is so incredibly inspiring. I love that it has helped people find their voice, their strength, their passion. I love that it has inspired people to pursue careers in the arts. I love that it has opened up a national dialogue about fighting for the little guy. I have connected with so many fans on social media and at the stage doors, received countless gifts and letters and discussed life, careers, paths, plans and everything else you can imagine with these supporters. The Fansie community is a special one, and I love seeing them connect with each other and find their community. Like I said, finding a way to cope with life and its trials and tribulations is so necessary and I think the fansies have found the motivation they need in their own lives from the message of the show. I will say adjusting to having a lot of people following me on social media has been funny at times…remembering that anything posted on the internet will never go away, remembering that we are setting an example and need to use our platform wisely…. these are things I never had to think about before the show. I get a kick out of every time a Fansie shares a screenshot of some old video or something – they save everything!!! I also think it is important to share my personal beliefs and stand up for the values I am passionate about and share that with the fans. I believe they want to know how we feel as human beings, not just see pictures of us with other cast members drinking milkshakes. So, that realization (and the spirit of the show in general) has encouraged me to have a voice and stand up for causes and platforms I am passionate about publicly. I think it is important to fight for something in your life.
S: Do you have any tips for breath support while singing and dancing?
C: Yikes! I think it is something we all work on all the time. I think practice is the best path to success. Many of us practice those things separately when we should be practicing them together to improve stamina and ability. I have actually been thinking a lot about how no one offers a class in NYC where you must do both simultaneously. Hmmm…

S: As a teacher at Broadway Dance Center and a Broadway performer, do you still take
class?

C: I do! As often as I can! I have been teaching a lot at BDC, so I definitely find myself fatigued from dancing in my own classes, but class is so important. I still take my own class as if I am a student, and add to that the pressure of all the students watching you – it helps me stay in shape! But, I do believe taking class from other artists is key to staying artistically open, flexible and smart. The best artists are the 80-year-old actors who still take class multiple times per week. No one is ever perfect, and you can learn something from every single teacher out there.
S: How do you create your choreography? Music first? Steps first? Idea first? Improv?
C: It varies. I usually have to be inspired by the music first, which usually sparks a
story, which I then create the steps to tell that story. As a choreographer, you’re often not afforded the luxury of that order, so many times you MUST choreograph to certain music designated for the show or piece, to tell a specific story. So, one must be flexible and realize that creativity must be able to flow in any order. It’s challenging but also very exciting to try to use the body to tell a story. It sounds simple, but it can be so complex and challenging to convey a message with only the dancing.
S: What have you learned from dance that you wouldn’t have learned from another
activity that can be applied to your daily life?

C: I think dance helps you to “step out of your shell” more than your average career. I get up in front of thousands of people and tell a story with my body. I am not particularly confident, but I have to fake a confidence in that situation. I think the ability to step on to a stage (or even in a class) and put yourself out there builds courage, confidence, self esteem and leadership abilities. In every walk of life, you have to put yourself out there, so training as a dancer helps you get over the “stage fright” side of things like that, and even find enjoyment in those jitters.

S: What does choreographing do for you that dancing others’ choreography does not, and what does dancing others’ work do for you that choreographing does not?
C: I have found such joy in creating choreography. As a dancer, you are not always in tune with the choreography you are performing, even as mightily as you may try. But, being the creator of the choreography you can create whatever accents, rhythm and storytelling devices you want, which is really refreshing! I have actually never felt as nervous as I do when my choreography is being performed, it is oddly exciting. You’d think being on stage would be more terrifying, but somehow sitting in the audience watching my work being performed is even more nerve-wracking. On the other hand, as a dancer, it is liberating to not have to worry about every single thing on stage like a
choreographer does, but just focus on your personal contribution to the piece. It’s that ability to let go and narrowly focus that makes a dance/scene successful – when every artist on stage is narrowly focused on successfully conveying their story, the whole piece sparkles (and the jittery choreographer in the audience smiles)! Right now, I am enjoying an amazing balance of dancing and directing/choreographing and it is so exciting to bounce back and forth and experience the joys in both sides of this art form.
S: How do you switch your perspective from yourself to a character and back over the course of a show?
C: It’s funny – I teach my students a very simple trick I came up with. Obviously, in rehearsals and development of a show, you need much deeper character study and research and exploration, but once the show and character are in your body, I recommend saying one word (in your head) that describes the emotion you should be having in the piece you are about to perform to focus your energy and remind yourself what you are doing, and to put the backstage antics that may have just happened on the back burner of your brain. I think this simple tool can help remind an actor of the exploration they have done on the character and the work they put in to prepare for this scene, and forces them to be in the moment and not take the situation for granted by fooling around or not being in the scene the second they step foot on stage. Of course,
this is something we all aspire to, I am definitely not perfect. But, I think having the goal of telling the story and being in the moment every single time you step on stage is the best goal to have.
S: As a performer, it’s your job to collaborate with others and work as a team. What advice can you give to my students on that?
C: BE NICE. The people who work are the nice people because people want to work with them, they want to collaborate with them, they want to be stuck in rehearsals with them 10 hours per day. I’ve worked with some people all over the nice spectrum, and can honestly say I think being nice is more important than being talented.
S: Do you have any suggestions on how to be a productive member of a team?
C: Listen and be patient. This isn’t war or politics. It’s musical theatre. Enjoy the process. Try something you know isn’t going to work. Stay in your lane! (I have a hard time with that one sometimes. But, it is important to realize that you are one cog in a very large wheel. Even if you are trying to be helpful, you may just be making the situation more difficult.) So, do YOUR job and let others do theirs. Don’t give people notes unless you’re the dance captain or something. Don’t correct other people. Don’t step on toes. Just do your job and try to do it to the best of your abilities EVEN IF someone else’s mistakes makes it harder. Again, be nice. Be patient. Don’t get too caught up in what is “right” – just go with the flow and learn to love rehearsals and changes and notes. Be flexible.

S: How did you develop your teaching style?
C:  I attended Oklahoma City University, which offers incredible training in dance pedagogy – the art of teaching dance. I gained a lot of insight and perspective on how to construct dance classes and be encouraging and obtain results from my courses at OCU. But, also through admiration. I, myself, love taking class. I see what makes people respond to every teacher I take with and study it. Figuring out what makes people love someone’s class, style, choreography or show is part of figuring out what style you want to have when teaching, rehearsing, choreographing or directing. I see what I like, what others like and try to tailor my own leadership as a choreographer or teacher to fit what I think works best. I have had the privilege of being a student of some fabulous and inspiring teachers my whole life, so I definitely try to make my teaching style a mixture of all my favorite teachers’ qualities.
S: What’s your most memorable performing experience, either onstage or as an audience member?
C: Filming the Newsies movie was and will always be one of the most exhilarating nights of my entire life. The audience was SO excited and gave us so much encouragement and support. It was so moving. I cried so many times when I came offstage. It was one of those experiences that everyone in the room will never forget.
S: Every week I give my readers and students a challenge and encourage them to try new things. What would you challenge them to do?
C: Stare at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself 10 things you love about yourself. Do it seriously. We spend SO MUCH TIME trying to improve ourselves and fix things about ourselves, and SO MUCH TIME getting told we aren’t good enough, tall enough, smart enough, young enough, skinny enough or whatever enough….but we are ENOUGH. So I think some self-love is a good way to reteach your brain that you are worthy of compliments and love. Look, we are all capable of way more than we are today. We are all capable of way more than we will be tomorrow. But, we are also capable of loving ourselves while working through that process with high aims. It’s okay to be working on improving yourself and your abilities. Secret: you will never be the best at anything. There will always be someone better, so don’t be so hard on yourself because when all those NOs come in, you have to love yourself enough to look in the mirror and say YES. And show up tomorrow for more work. The more you say YES to yourself, the more likely someone will agree with you some day. But you have to say yes to yourself first.

I am so grateful to have been able to interview Chaz. Staying in my lane is certainly something I need to work on, and everything he discussed in terms of dance resonated with me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, once a dancer, ALWAYS a dancer. I can’t wait to give this challenge to my students and see how you all take to it in the comments. I know I look forward to it. When I was dancing, it was always easy to criticize myself in the mirror—that’s why it was there, after, all, to correct yourself. Those thoughts don’t always leave just because you’re not standing in front of the mirror in the studio anymore. I thoroughly enjoyed the positivity that came pouring out of this interview, and I hope you did too!

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

Inclusion, Interview, Performances, The Human Connection, Wise Words

I Started The Story: A Conversation with Jeremy Basescu

FAs a kid, my favorite way to play would be to run around with my friends and we’d all collaborate on a story. It was probably from something we saw on television, but we’d keep the characters and make up our own plot. It was a lot of “What happens if ______ instead of ________?” I now know it’s something I continue to do when discussing my favorite books, television, and theatrical experiences with my friends. It never occurred to me, in all of my imaginative play, to actually write the story down, and follow the arc of it to completion. These were ideas that generally ended when recess did, unresolved and frequently forgotten. Thanks to Laura Heywood’s appreciation for Story Pirates, an organization which takes children’s ideas from the page to the stage, I got to see what seeing an idea through to resolution would look like. I spoke with Jeremy Basescu, a Producing Director for Story Pirates about their different programs, accessibility to all students, and how this process instills a love of writing stories in the students it reaches.

S: How did you get into theatre?

J: I got two degrees in playwriting, and I got to be a working playwright in New York for a few years. From there I had gotten into directing. I’ve loved theatre since I was a kid. What excites me the most is theatre that jumps off the stage at you. There’s something about theatre coming to life that was really appealing, and I got to experience that in a couple theatre companies in New York. One day, I took an internship in grad school with Story Pirates at what we call an “After Dark” show, and ten years later, I’m still attending those shows. There’s something magical in the way that the stories come to life onstage, and the energy of the performance is so precise and exciting, you can’t help but be drawn in by these kids’ stories.

S: I agree. I love it when theatre makes you engage with the world. How did Story Pirates come about?

J: I came into it about 3 years in. There were several Northwestern graduates who happened to be around when this came together, that had all performed in a student group in college. They’d learned a technique of taking kids’ stories and turning them into sketches and songs, and wanted to do it professionally and across the country. The question came about ‘How do you come up with a name that if a child heard it, they’d be interested?’ If you told a kid “I work for Creative Writing Incorporated,” they may not be interested. If you told them you worked for “Striking Viking Story Pirates” they’re going to want to know what that is. So that’s still our name on a lot of documentation, but we’ve been officially been calling ourselves Story Pirates for a while now. We are taking the buried treasure that is kids’ ideas and words, stealing it, and turning their ideas into stories that keeps them invested in writing stories.

S: When did Story Pirates come about?

J: Story Pirates started in 2004. We had done some work with P.S. 154 before that, but officially began in 2004.

S: Is there an age limit to this program?

J: Initially, it was a K-5 assembly. Very early on, we started doing things like Pre-K classes, birthday parties, and were getting interest from schools that went into the upper grades. We taught improv classes with high school and college, professional development for teachers. Our programs have really grown; we still have the assembly we started with, but we also do year-long workshops with schools as the students write their stories.

S: Elementary school is my demographic!

J: We love working with that age, because we’ve found that the kids aren’t afraid to be silly and creative. We’ve also found that, if you can get the kids interested at a young age in writing, it can stick with them as they grow up and go through school, and we love to see that.

S: From what I’ve seen, you guys are primarily based in New York and Los Angeles, do you travel?

J: We work with about 300 schools each year, mostly in those areas or around those areas. We also go to performing arts centers across the country and visit 15-30 national venues a year. We also have a podcast and a couple books coming out, so we’re starting to be able to reach a lot more kids beyond where we can physically go.

S: So, how does the program work?

J: Every program is different, and there’s a big range.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as an assembly or two, where we perform stories from kids across the country.  Sometimes we spend a few months with a school, starting with an assembly, going into the classroom to run creative writing workshops, and ending with a big culminating show that features new stories by the kids in the school.  We love to surprise the kids whose stories we’re performing, and get a huge cheer from all of their friends and teachers when we announce their names, just before we perform eh story for the very first time.  But our favorite part, actually, is that we get to give each and every kid author a personal, handwritten note that says how much we loved the story.  We make sure every kid gets one, whether we perform the story or not.  It’s called Story Love, and it’s one of the most important things we do.

S: The fact that you recognize each student is amazing. I’m sure the kids love it.

J: We have amazing volunteers from all over who help us with this, from fraternities and sororities and big companies to daily volunteers who just want to help us do this.

S: What does this look like in terms of accessibility for students who don’t get the story-writing process?

J: Those are the challenges we really find motivating. Sometimes we only have an assembly, and that’s it.  We want that to be as multi-sensory and appealing as possible. If we get to come back, we work with the teachers and make sure they have whatever they need to make the process clear and simple. When we’re in the classroom, we meet with the teachers ahead of time and ask about the needs in the room, and we work our curriculum around those needs. For example, if we were working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, we consult with people who can help us with that, and we will fit our plan around them.

S: How do you work with special populations like students on the autism spectrum who can be very literal and have more difficulty with perspective taking?

J: We like to get the kids on their feet and make it as experiential as possible. We want them to create characters, and they might do it physically. How would that character walk? Talk? And we find that making it about acting makes it more natural for the students to understand. When choosing the stories we perform, our directors choose 5 out of the 150 submissions we get, and more often than not, the stories chosen aren’t necessarily from your general education population. And the directors don’t know which kids have which needs. We’re constantly asked, ‘How did you know to pick that student’s work?’ and we can honestly say we chose it because it was creative and it inspired us.

S: Collaboration isn’t always easy for kids. How do you get them to work collaboratively within your programming?

J: In the room, that’s about making it a part of the process. We explain you may have great ideas and tons of them, and you can totally write that story, but we’re writing as a group and we’re going to make sure all ideas get equal weight and will somehow get contributed into what we’re doing. Most of the time, we’re not performing a story verbatim. Words become songs and dialogue. We ask the kids afterwards if that’s their story, and we’re frequently told it isn’t exactly but that we understood the student’s story. We want to honor the author’s intention always.

S: That has to be the most rewarding thing to hear.

J: It is. We tell them it’s their story, and we just turned it into a performance. To hear we understood them, there’s nothing like it.

S: I was speaking with our mutual friend Laura Heywood, who first introduced me to your program. She gave me a great idea for a question to ask you: How has becoming a parent changed your perspective on the programming?

J: I have two kids, a second grader and a three-year-old. In one sense, not at all, and that’s in the sense that the performances are still as clear and funny and important as they’ve always been to me. Where it’s changed is reading the kids’ stories and seeing the work the kids are doing with us, and how we’re affecting the kids. For my seven-year-old, I now see how she is developing her linguistic and thought processes, and sometimes I read something so similar to something she’d do or something drastically oppositional to something she’d write. I get to see what’s similar across ages and what’s different. I didn’t have that frame of reference before.

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

J: I’d challenge them to write a story. Write an original story entirely from their own imaginations. That may be something that comes easy, that may be something that is a step by step process. Start with a character. Who are they? What do they want? And see where that story takes you.
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I really enjoyed speaking with Jeremy and learning more about Story Pirates. You can learn more about them at storypirates.com.  And as if that wasn’t enough, they have a book  coming out in March!

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I am very much looking forward to what my students create. Their curiosity and wonder never ceases to amaze me, and only creativity can come from this exercise. Let me know what you decided you write in comments—I can’t wait to see where your imagination took you!

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