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!
************************************************************************************

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.
*************************************************************************************

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.
***********************************************************************************

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!

37054094784_6551a9ea6f_z

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

 

Broadway · Inclusion · Lesson Plans · The Human Connection · Wise Words

We’re Right Behind Each Other #Fearless: A Lesson Inspired by Mandy Gonzalez

Mandy Gonzalez, of Hamilton, In The Heights, and Wicked fame, released her debut album in October, Fearless. She is known as the “Fearless Squad Mother,” and encourages all of us members of her #FearlessSquad to come together and be fearless. The interesting part about this is that she doesn’t mean to never experience the emotion of fear. Her intention is that it’s completely acceptable to feel fear, but to find the way to face fear and quite literally fear less.

The first time I heard this song, I knew I had to make a lesson plan from it. I wanted to use this opportunity to educate my students on self-esteem in the speech room. I began my lesson by asking my students if they could tell me what fearless means. Some of them gave me a definition. Some of them told me they didn’t know. I explained to them that to me, being fearless means being unafraid to try something new. I asked them first how they were fearless in their daily lives; at home, with their families, in the classroom. I then narrowed it down to a specific question: How are you fearless in the speech room?

The students met me with always feeling safe in the speech room, and that they didn’t have to be brave in here. So I asked them, what makes you feel brave in the speech room? I was met with so many fantastic answers, that my students and I turned it into a poster. And because I’d never have my students do something I wouldn’t do, I added to the poster myself. Below is the outcome of my lesson, which is now hanging on the wall in the speech room.

C80FEB4B-005B-40B5-87BF-318741E7D66D

Thank you, Mandy Gonzalez, for inspiring my students and myself.  If you haven’t picked her album up yet, what are you waiting for? My challenge for the week is for you to write down the ways that you are fearless. I can’t wait to see what makes you fearless in comments!

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

Articulation · Broadway · Inclusion · Interview · The Human Connection · Wise Words

Can Your Friends Do This: A Conversation With James Monroe Iglehart

Have you ever seen a performance in which you’re completely blown away by one specific performer? The performances that really make you pay attention to what they say and do and track them onstage. When it’s over, the only thought your brain can come up with is “How did they do that?” That’s what it’s like to watch James Monroe Iglehart shine onstage. I have been fortunate enough to see him in both Memphis and Aladdin. He is currently starring in Hamilton as Lafayette/Jefferson, and from what I hear, he is nailing this role. When he’s not busy onstage, he sharing onstage mishaps and jokes with his friends on social media. His energy is infectious, and we got to chat about work/play balance, the theatre community, staying intelligible and maintaining vocal health in some of the most vocally and physically challenging roles on Broadway. Enjoy

S: I have to start by asking, did Susan Egan call to congratulate you when you won the Tony for playing the Genie in Aladdin?

JMI: She did. She sure did. She was right, and she did call me.

S: My dad and I came to see that show the week it opened, and we loved it. She and I were there on the same night. There is nothing about that show that I didn’t love. It’s still my favorite Disney movie. There was so much Disney royalty in that theatre.

JMI: It was such a trip for her to come see the show and to talk to her. I’m such a fan. because not only is she Broadway’s Belle, but she’s Megara from Hercules. She is amazing.

S: She and I were talking and she started reciting some of Meg’s lines and I had to remind myself, in that moment of “I can’t believe this is happening,” that I can’t lose my mind over this, because we had only just started talking. It was an extremely cool thing to hear.

JMI: I get it. That’s exactly what it’s like. To hear my favorite Disney legends talk is such a trip. To hear Jonathan Freeman as Jafar and to get to work with him was something else. I would impersonate him to him, which was crazy! I would tease him, it was great!

S: It was amazing to see my childhood nightmare-inducing villain onstage. He IS Jafar. Just him.

S: I am just going to jump in on “Guns and Ships”, which you get to perform every night in Hamilton. Every speech-language pathologist wants to know how this song works. This is what we go to school for, and if we can understand it, we can teach are kids who have a difficult time speaking clearly how you all do it. How did you learn it?

JMI: Well the first thing I learned is that, with the French accent, they roll their Rs and they don’t use Hs. I learned the lyrics first. I had to go over the whole script and take out the Hs and the Rs, I didn’t realize how many Rs and Hs I was saying. Then I went back and put the French accent on it. I’ve had people who are native French speakers tell me that my French accent is really good. I’m very proud of it. Daveed Diggs and I talked about it for a long time.

S: I’m serious, if you knew how many of us were trying to dissect this, because it really should make sense to us. We can’t turn off speech brain, it doesn’t happen.

JMI: Once you get the rap, then add the accent, it’s about being understood. I ran it by my wife multiple times asking her, “Can you understand me? Can you understand me because it’s clear or because you know what I’m saying?” You have to have that feedback.

S: Yeah, I record my kids and ask them if they can understand themselves or if they just remember what they said. That’s their feedback.

S: Everything I’ve seen you in, and in your current role in Hamilton, you have always had such an infectious personality. How much of that is you, and how much of that’s what’s written?

JMI: It’s my personality. That’s what I enjoy doing, bringing as much of myself to the show as possible. With Hamilton, I knew I couldn’t do what Daveed does. Our styles are different. Daveed told me to do my thing. And it works. This is the second time I’ve stepped into a role people have called “iconic,” and both times I’ve been given the space to bring myself to both roles.

S: What’s it like being told repeatedly how big these roles are?

JMI: The fun part is people telling you, as if you don’t know what you signed up for, but the challenge is, “What can I bring to this?” The Genie and Goofy are my favorite Disney characters. I had to do that role. With Hamilton, I wanted a challenge. I auditioned the way I would do it, and if they liked it, great. And they did. What I get to bring is my baritone voice, where all the other male leads are tenors. So Jefferson now sounds very different. And it’s so much fun to play both roles every night.

S: My students and I want to ask you about Burr’s Corner. They’re so impressed that you’d share a mistake and own them on social media. They want to know how you build that confidence.

JMI: We find it hysterical. We know Hamilton has a strong social media presence. We enjoy people knowing how the show works, because people want to know what the onstage mishaps look like. It was created by Brandon Victor Dixon while playing Aaron Burr. We all went with it. Other shows do it too to explain mishaps now. When someone messes up, most of the time the audience doesn’t know it, but if they do catch it, we can explain it in our own comical way. We know exactly what was supposed to happen. It’s our way of explaining it. Messing up is a part of life. You’re gonna make mistakes. You may as well learn from them and laugh at them as well. So, you got up in class and said the wrong thing; it’s fine, it’s funny. Be able to laugh at yourself. We enjoy laughing at ourselves because it’s funny. Enjoy it and have fun with it.

S: The rule in the speech room is that you have to be able to laugh at yourself. We don’t take ourselves seriously.

S: I feel like I’d be able to recognize your voice anywhere after Memphis and Aladdin. How do you take care of it, especially in these shows with these big performance numbers, or Hamilton which is just going a mile a minute for over 2 hours?

JMI: I learned that one of the best things for your voice is sleep. I’ve realized that with microphones, you don’t have to project too much. I can belt with the best of them, and I can be loud, but the reason Jefferson speaks in a lower register is partially to protect my voice. I make sure I warm up before and after the show, and I’m pretty chill once I’m home for the night. I also have a wonderful voice teacher who helps me.

S: What is the work/play balance between you all—we’ve seen the pranks and scaring each other on social media! Especially with scaring Nik Walker.

JMI: We play for a living. It’s recess for a living, but we have to take it seriously. Have fun with the job. In high school, I scared people for fun. That was what I did. Now keep in mind, I’m scared of everyone. I watch horror movies only in my own home where I can scream at whatever happens because I’m loud and it’s scary. I’m so aware, because I’m looking for it, of people trying to scare me. The fun part is, Nik has been trying to get me back since the forst time. I have now scared him officially on social media seven times. The best part about last night was he saw me, he caught me, and he made the fatal mistake of turning his back on me. I’m fully expecting to get it back, though. And I think Don Daryl Rivera will help Nik. Because I scared Don Daryl Rivera for three years over at Aladdin.

S: Was it you who inspired LJ to do it?

JMI: Yes. That was my doing. Because once I left, DDR didn’t have anyone to scare. And you have to have fun in your job. Especially when you’re doing a serious show like Hamilton, you have to have some levity. Did you hear about the fly incident?

S: Yes, you told that story on The Hamilcast.

JMI: It happened again! Same scene, this time with Daniel Breaker. He said the same thing happened in Chicago. Same audience reaction. We did our best not to break, and we didn’t stop rapping. Turns out, flies are attracted to shiny things, and when you’re bald, the light reflects off of your head. Same scene, same place.

S: Since I’m already talking about The Hamilcast, you brought this up when you spoke with Gillian. I didn’t know how much I needed you and Lesli Margherita to do something together. Can that please happen?

JMI: We want it to happen. We’d have to be onstage together. We wouldn’t be able to follow each other. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it’s going to be fun.

S: You guys were onstage at different times at BroadwayCon.

JMI: BroadwayCon was the best time. That is something that’s just gonna keep getting better and bigger every year, because everyone is going to want to be a part of it if they’re not already.

S: Have you always been really good at rebounding from onstage mishaps or was that learned?

JMI: I’d been doing that since I was a kid. I did improv and you have to be able to bounce back since I was a little kid. With freestyling too, you can pretty much get out of any situation if you’re thinking fast on your feet. That’s what improv and freestyling is.

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

JMI: I’d challenge them to do what they’re procrastinating doing. What they want to do, but they say they don’t have time to do. Make the time and see what happens. After they try the thing, they’ll actually know how they feel about whatever they’re putting off to later.

S: I can’t wait to share that with my kids. They’ll all learn something from it, especially the kids who don’t love hearing “no.” I’m so grateful I was raised being told no.

JMI: What’s interesting is the real world doesn’t say “yes” all the time. And I’ve also learned your parents aren’t intelligent until you get older. When you’re a kid you know everything. The older you get the smarter your parents get. And your feelings as a kid are certainly valid, because they’re yours, but we all learn as we grow up that our parents know what they’re talking about.
*************************************************************************************

I had so much fun with this conversation, and a lot of it reminded me of how I found my love for theatre initially and why I continue to love it. It’s the people who make you lean in, take note, and take action on what you really believe in. I am eager to see what my students stop procrastinating on, what I myself stop procrastinating…that’s a never-ending list, and what you all decide to do next. I will be here cheering you on every step of the way.

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

 

 

Articulation · Fluency · Inclusion · Interview · Language Comprehension · The Human Connection · Vocabulary · Wise Words

Why We Tell the Story: A Conversation with Shockwave

As a speech pathologist, I am very fortunate to work with a vast array of students, all of whom have unique abilities that set them apart from the rest of the student body. Because of this, I also get to help them achieve their goals both within and outside the realm of speech. A large portion of my caseload are students working on their articulation skills, be they fluency, oral-motor function, or speech sound production. Because these goals can take some time to accomplish, I am always looking for ways to motivate my students and keep them engaged. One of the tools I’ve used in my speech room is beatboxing—no I don’t personally beatbox, but I do use videos to show my students all that they are capable of.  It occurred to me during planning that I always go back to what’s age and grade appropriate, that I was going back to  Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan’s work, especially from hos work with The Electric Company and his live shows for kids. While I was getting ready for this academic year to begin, I thought it would be fun to talk to someone who came from the world of beatboxing, and Shockwave was generous enough to speak with me about his experience as a beatboxer, what the culture is about, and how he incorporated it into educational programming with the reboot of The Electric Company.

S: Beatboxing seems like a solo act, but you’ve done it with other performers. How do you take something so individualized and make it into a collaborative effort?

S: There’s a solo element to beatboxing, and there’s a collaborative element. I’ve performed with both soloist beatboxers and musicians who are beatboxers. Keep in mind, beatboxing has its roots in hip-hop, and there’s a sense of competition in that that’s just inherent, and that can lend itself to beatboxing. If you’re performing with someone who’s more of a soloist, it can be more challenging because they could choose to zero in on skills they know are impressive. I’d like to consider myself more of a musician in terms of coming up with my own material. My goal is to find the fit somewhere in between being the soloist and being the musician. There are thousands of videos online where I could learn how to do sounds, but I would rather improvise and create something that feels natural to me than learn that way. I’m more interested in telling a story and the theatrics of beatboxing. To me, that’s more exciting.

S: In order to do what you do, you really have to think outside the box. How do you come up with new sounds to add to your repertoire?

S: Truthfully, a lot of it is from improvisation. My first real job as a beatboxer was as a house band  for a variety show for performers and comedians, so I did the music for their entrance and exit. Every show I got  a chance to perform, and that was based on a word from the audience. Say the word was snowstorm. I’d get up there and act out what it would look like and sound like if I were going through a snowstorm from walking outside to opening the door to coming inside and warm up. So it really is storytelling. The sound I’d make for the door opening would come from the back of the throat, and other sounds come from here as well, like a baby crying, and some of this I didn’t realize until I was improvising on the spot.

S: For the majority of my students working on speech sound production R is the most difficult to produce because it’s not visible like /p/ or /b/. Is there a sound that’s difficult for you in beatboxing?

S: I always thought /th/ was the hardest sound.

S: Really? Harder than vowel sounds? I teach that one as if you’re biting your tongue, but that’s probably too over-exaggerated to perform. Are vowels or consonants more difficult?

S: Well, in beatboxing it’s different. There are sounds I hear other people make, for example really deep bass sounds, that don’t feel like they fit with my personal style. What I like to do are more drum-like sounds, keeping a rhythm, knowing when to become quieter or just a sound that’s crazy. To me, that can be a distraction and takes you out of the performance, especially because I like to accompany others rather than be that soloist. I’d rather keep the focus on whoever I’m working with; that’s just my style. I like to save the sound effects for storytelling elements.

S: Do you have any tips for maintaining speed and rhythm and staying intelligible. This is something a lot of my kids are working on.

S: The Electric Company is a wonderful thing. We made a bunch of lessons on everything you could think of, including how-to’s and explanations. There is a skit out there themed around taking your time, and it’s not really any different when you’re speaking or beatboxing. This video was actually for reading comprehension purposes with a focus on breaking the reading wall where learning to read turns into reading to learn. It explains that it is not only acceptable but necessary to slow down and take your time.

S: We say that all day, every day in school.

S: Another thing they can do is break the words into chunks. Break the words into chunks and then put them together chunk by chunk until it sounds like a word, and then the kid will never forget the word.

S: What about getting frustrated?

S: My first instinct would be to take a break so you don’t have a negative outlook on the task. Go do something you know you can do, and come back to it with a fresh take. And this is for anything, really.

S: Yeah, my go-to is usually going back to a sound the student has mastered to build confidence back up, and come back later or maybe even in a future session. Do you ever get frustrated when you’re trying to add something new to your skill set?

S: When I was practicing music, I’d have moments of frustration. Honestly, I’m not practicing beatboxing an hour a day anymore. I really like for it to be natural, and I guess with that there are fewer opportunities for frustration. I could go online and learn from other people, but I like this part of my talent to remain as pure as it can. I work with what I have and prefer to discover that in my own way.

S: To completely shift gears on you, like everyone else I am a big fan of Hamilton. What was it like for you to record your part of “An Open Letter” for The Hamilton Mixtape?

S: I got a demo version of the song, and it was just lyrics. It was what Watsky recorded as a raw data file. Figuring out what the beat should be for that track took some time. It then occurred to me to contact Bill Sherman, who is the Musical Director for Sesame Street, and worked on In The Heights and I worked with him on The Electric Company and we figured it out together. I started with a sample that became more complicated as the song went on, and it only got better by working with Bill and getting his input.

S: I love that you weren’t afraid to ask someone else’s opinion. That doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

S: Yeah, that’s important.

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

S: I’d challenge the students to think of their own character or alter-ego who also is working on what they’re working on. This way they accept the character, accept their challenges, and identify the steps the character takes to work on that skill. So, if it’s R, they accept that it’s okay not to get it right all the time, and they set their own goals as to how the student can work towards making it their superpower. It shows them it’s okay not to figure the skill out immediately, they just need to be determined. They can draw the character, write their story, and really get invested in the character they’ve created. And if these kids are friends with each other, maybe they can find ways to intertwine the story, so they interact and help each other. This way it becomes more lighthearted and engaging.
*************************************************************************************

I hope you all got as much as I did out of this conversation. Coming from the speech world, I thought this would be a conversation that focused on articulation and the mechanics of beatboxing. I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Shockwave’s approach to the medium, and using it in comedy and storytelling. Our conversation gave me some exciting ideas for lessons for all of my students, and I cannot wait to watch my students embody the alter-egos they’ll create with this challenge. It gives my kids a sense of ownership over their skills and their goals, and provides a visual component to assist them as they continue their work in speech, in the classroom, and in the community. I’m taking it on myself for some of my professional growth goals. I linked through the videos we mentioned throughout the article–do yourself a favor and go check them out. To learn more about Shockwave and his work, please visit his website at www.shockwavebeatbox.com.

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

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

Keep It Positive: A Conversation with Laura Heywood

When I first started using social media, it was to obsess over all things Broadway and theatre. I took to the internet because my friends didn’t necessarily share my passion, or I’d already talked their ears off over Wicked and Newsies or whatever I had just seen, and I wanted to find my “found family” I missed having from my own theatre experiences. There is truly nothing like the family that a cast and crew can create, and I found an account that not only talked about all things Broadway, but was always a source of positivity when I needed it. I have been very fortunate in that all of my interactions on social media have been this way, but Laura Heywood set the bar for others pretty high. Online, she’s known as @BroadwayGirlNYC, and over the course of multiple exchanges, I knew I had to talk to her once I started this blog. We talk about her social media presence, how theatre came to be a part of her life, and where her endless positivity comes from.

S: Was theatre always in your life or was radio how you got started?

L: I come from a pretty theatrical family. My dad sings, and he got it from his mother. She performed professionally as a church singer. About ten minutes from where I grew up, there was a local theatre that does three musicals every summer. It was mostly Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and I was exposed to a lot of classic musicals that way. We had season tickets, and I got to see a lot that way. My grandmother also did some local theatre and we’d always go see her in whatever she was doing. Sometimes, we’d go into San Francisco to see the Best of Broadway series. I started doing acting classes in after-school programs when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until middle school that I really got into it. I found a commercial acting class for kids as a teenager, and I loved it. I took to it really naturally and I got to be a part of the end of the year showcase. Through that, I actually ended up getting a commercial agent. When I was 13, I came to New York the only time before I moved here and saw 5 shows in 4 days. I went to college on an acting scholarship, and I immediately immersed myself in theatre. I volunteered for productions and signed up for a lot of different classes in different levels.

S: How did radio come into your life?

L: When I was a sophomore, I ended up signing up for a radio show after not getting cast in a show. I had been interested in radio for a long time as a fan. I had a knack for winning radio contests. I thought I wanted to do a radio show based on a cappella music, because I love a cappella music. One of the people I interviewed for Build was Deke Sharon, who had performed at my high school, and he’s gone on to do all the arrangements for In Transit and Pitch Perfect. Before I left for college, he gave me twenty CDs that had been sent to him though the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America. Every college group was making CDs, and the CASA newsletter published my address to send CDs to be put on the radio show. Rockpella had sold out a show in Seattle, and gave me tickets to give away on my show and asked me to be the onstage personality for their show.  I realize that hosting a show on the small scale of a college radio station was great practice for me. I loved doing radio because it was its own kind of performance, and it was a really nice outlet. I got a job in radio right out of school through a university connection, and that launched my radio career. Radio had become my thing, but I certainly hadn’t given up on theatre. I got on the press list for the Best of Broadway series through work. This was all in San Francisco, and I had experience in sports and music radio. But I always watched the Tonys every year with my Grandma, it was our thing, but I never imagined myself being in theatre. I liked the spotlight, I liked the attention, and it was a really comfortable place for me to be. Through freelance work, I got a job at Sirius radio and moved to New York. At first, I waited to see the big ticket shows of the season. It wasn’t until Spring Awakening came along that I started going to shows more frequently. I lived right by the theatre and could be in the rush line. That’s when BroadwayGirl started with social media.

S: I forgot BroadwayGirl was anonymous.

L: Yeah, for six years. It was kind of an accident, I just never put my name on it or said it was me. I didn’t think it’d be a big secret, or that anyone would care. Friends of mine started figuring it out. I realized it could be a fun gimmick as a social media convention.

S: In my district, Mindset by Dr.  Carol Dweck is required reading for staff. How did you find out about it?

L: I got into Mindset from Mark Fisher Fitness. I met him at TEDx Broadway, and he runs a gym in Hell’s Kitchen, and he’s spoken about corporate culture and how to combine two things you love into a new thing. This was right after leaving SiriusXM to focus on BroadwayGirl full-time. And I was going to go into social media consulting, and had been approached about that. He thought I’d be a good fit for his business. This place is a Growth Mindset factory, and they call themselves ridiculous humans. It was here that I realized I was seeing results based on their method. I learned that the credit I got didn’t matter, but the results of my hard work that was no one else’s meant everything to me. It taught me the benefit of progressing of working toward something that was hard at the beginning and became rewarding over time.

S: Is that how you came to start using language frames?

L: I’ve always loved words. Very early, I learned the technicalities of language. My dad would ask me questions like, “Do you know what time it is?” and I’d tell him. He told me that that wasn’t the question; his question was a yes or no question. The follow-up question would be “What time is it?” I learned very early to pay attention to the words people were saying.

S: You’re one of the few people I know who has been able to successfully turn her passions into her career. Is that a mentality you grew up around or is that a skill you developed over time?

L: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where my parents had jobs they loved, and they had a lot of hobbies. They always did things that they loved, and I grew up seeing people that had the resources to do things that they were passionate about. I think the example was set for me that there was no reason not to do what I found fun. I don’t know that anyone ever told me to pursue my passion as a profession, but no one ever said not to do that. I didn’t see any reason not to choose something that made me happy. I’m aware that this is a privilege afforded to me, and that not everyone grows up in, and I’m am very grateful to have been able to grow up in a family that encourages me to do what I love.

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

L: I’ve been telling myself recently, whenever I meet someone who is different from me, be that in their life experience, their world views, the language they speak, that “You’re important to me because you’re different from me.” It’s easy to get stuck in confirmation bias, through social media and everyday interaction, in situations where everyone around you agrees with you. I find that I learn the most about myself through interacting with people who are different from me. I would challenge them to see people who are different from them as an opportunity for them to learn about themselves, and to see every human interaction that they have as a lesson.
***********************************************************************************

I am very excited to see how my students and readers take on this challenge, and what they gain from it. I really enjoyed getting to hear about Laura’s perspective on life, and the history of @BroadwayGirlNYC. Hearing about her unique journey is not something I’ll soon forget, and I’ve learned plenty from her, be it through social media or her interviews Build Series. You can find her on all social media at @BroadwayGirlNYC, and I definitely recommend checking out her website at http://www.lauraheywoodmedia.com/. If you have yet to read Dr. Carol C. Dweck’s Mindset, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. It’s a game-changer for sure, and I’m so glad it’s required reading for my district.

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

Broadway · Inclusion · The Human Connection · Wise Words

The Picture Show: A Conversation with Aaron Rhyne

When I was six or seven, my father had purchased my annual dance recital video, and we watched it as a family. We had just finished the opening number and I said, “I didn’t know the stage looked so cool!” My mother explained that those were the older girls who competed, thinking I was talking about the routine I had just seen for the first time. I corrected her and said, “No! I didn’t know the lights changed colors and made the stage look pretty! Did my dance do that?” Now, I don’t remember what my own routine looked like that year, but I do know that’s when I first started paying attention to technical elements. When we saw shows, I was aware that if all I saw were actors on a stage—no sets, costumes, or scenery–I would be having a very different experience and reaction to what I saw. My favorite show of the 2016-2017 Broadway season was Anastasia. This holds true for many reasons, but I have yet to stop talking about the choices made by the creative team on this production. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Aaron Rhyne, the Projection Designer for Anastasia, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and Bonnie and Clyde. We talked about what projection design can be, his creative process, and what working on the creative team is like for him.

S: How did you get into theatre?

A: I guess I was sort of enamored with it in high school. I was in plays and I studied it in college. I started at Fordham studying acting, and quickly changed to directing. When I graduated, I ended up doing a lot of video work and that’s how I found myself in projection design.

S: Do you remember what your first show was?

A: My family has all these stories about how I just loved shows as a kid. Even at eight months old, moving around to music. I think I was always just excited by seeing shows. The first show I remember seeing was a community theatre production of Annie.

S: Anastasia’s going to be a lot of people’s first show. Does that change how you approached your part in it?

A: It doesn’t change how I approached designing it. The story and the relationships between the characters guided me in designing the show. I didn’t really think about that until after it was finished and seeing how it’s impacting audiences. But now, I think it’s really cool that that’s going to be someone’s first show, and that my work was a part of it.

S: How would you explain projection design to someone who’s not familiar to it?

A: It can be a lot of different things: it can be projectors, LED walls. It’s graphics and videos and animations and how those are all applied to the theatre in various ways. Maybe it’s something historical and you’re looking for footage. Maybe it’s like Anastasia and it’s based on photographs and it’s based on real events and places. Maybe it’s completely original and it’s all new animation. Basically, it’s video-based set design. You’re creating an environment for something to take place but your tool is video, not something physical.

S: As a part of the creative team, what advice do you have for being a productive member of a collaborative effort?

A: It becomes second nature over time. When you’re learning to do that, there’s a tendency for it to become competitive or someone feels like they’re not being heard, but with time the best collaborators all bring the best ideas to the room. Mine is video, the writer writes the material, and so on. If we all approach it together, the process is just love because we’re all working towards the goal of telling the story. Once everyone realizes that it isn’t competitive and you’re all together, it’s an incredible experience, and that is why I love what I do.

S: I also got to see your work in Bonnie and Clyde. How different was it working on Anastasia versus Bonnie and Clyde? Do you do research?

A: For Bonnie and Clyde, everything was about research and finding material from police records and imagery from real events and that impacted the design and the show overall. While Anastasia is based on real people, it really is a fairytale, so it’s very different. The goals and the rules for every show is determined by the team, and it varies based on what story you’re trying to tell.

S: For Anastasia, was there any pressure on you to replicate what its shown or represented in the animated film in terms of your design?

A: We were inspired by two movies, the animated feature being one of them, and then these are also people that did exist. The animated film made a bigger impact than we realized, and yes, I wanted to have the visuals be as exciting as the animated film, but the animated film is different and iconic in its own right. It’s Don Bluth and it could look silly to see a hand-drawn images onstage surrounding everything else in three dimensions. I wanted to create something stunning and beautiful that would be on par with people’s feelings towards the animated film, but I wanted it to look more real with the actors onstage. It’s fantasy, so the colors are exaggerated, and everything has a more beautiful hue and look to it than you’d find in reality.

S: Can the actors see the projections onstage?

A: You can see it, but it’s designed to look of the best quality from the audience’s perspective. The actors can see the image, but you don’t get the full scope of the visual until you’re looking at it from a seat in the audience.

S: Would you encourage younger kids to pursue technical theatre or projection design?

A: The new generation of kids are growing up in and around so much technology and are well-versed in it from a very young age. I expect that the next generation of theatre creators will find new and exciting ways to create and design shows. I think anyone interested in it should go for it. I think we’ve just cracked the beginning of its potential.

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

A: I encourage people to go and see things that they might not think they’ll like. In television, it’s easy to find what you like, and if you don’t like it, you can change it. You can’t do that with theatre. You go, and you get to experience it in real time and you go on the journey. If you love fairytales, then you’re going to love Anastasia. Find something that looks off or strange—those are the pieces you can fall in love with, and you never would’ve expected that.
*************************************************************************************

To say I was excited for this conversation is an understatement. Aaron’s work has been truly transformative each time I’ve seen it, and it makes you feel like you’re right with the story in its world. If you get the opportunity to go see his work in Anastasia, do yourself a favor and go—bonus points if this isn’t normally the sort of show you go for. I’ve never felt such magic in a theatre as I have while watching what Aaron created for this show. I can’t wait to give his challenge to my students, and even expand on it to fit school—reading books they might not normally pick up or playing with kids they don’t always play with at recess. This challenge is a great way to expand anyone’s world view, and I look forward to see how you and my students approach it.

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

Inclusion · Lesson Plans · The Human Connection · Wise Words

Ruling Your Kingdom and Owning Your Title: A Lesson Inspired by Queen Lesli

Ever since I was introduced to her work, I have been very much inspired by Lesli Margherita, or as she’s known on Twitter Queen Lesli. Let me start by saying 1) All Hail the Queen and, 2) Queen Lesli Margherita, you have an open invitation to come on this blog whenever you’d like—you’re such an inspiration to my students and myself. Now that that’s out of the way….

I once heard her explain the concept behind her title of Queen as giving herself the title no one else would give her. In an interview in 2014 on The Theater People Podcast with Patrick Hinds, she encouraged the listeners to give themselves their own title, “Whether it’s King, whether it’s Queen, whether it’s Supreme Ruler Of My Room. What’s going on in other people’s kingdoms doesn’t matter; be you, and you rule your own kingdom. Recently, she was on The Hamilcast with Gillian Pensavalle and stated how important it was for people to take control of their happiness and their lives. Take these statements and Ms. Margherita’s positive and hilarious social media presence, and I came up with this lesson plan.

We were learning about character traits, self-esteem, and kindness, and I declared myself the Supreme Ruler of The Speech Room. As my students laughed at me, I asked what they’d call themselves. The students wrote their titles on name tags, ranging from royalty to most hard-working to best at practicing their sounds. As they completed this portion of the exercise, I drew a castle on my large whiteboard, not a great castle, but it had a moat and a drawbridge. This was the Supreme Speech Castle. I told them that whenever we were in the speech room, they were in the speech castle, and they would have to represent their titles. I asked how they would want their titles described, and words they would not want to be called. The breakdown looked like this:

Positive Character Traits Negative Character Traits
Kind Mean
Responsible Rude
Hard-working Selfish
A good listener Annoying
Friendly A Quitter
Fun Boring
Funny Unfair

 

The next thing I did was ask my students how they demonstrated each positive quality towards other students at school. Each student shared their anecdotes about how they were kind and fun and hard-working, and some even explained why they were those things. I then asked about how they acted when they were confronted with a negative character trait, and how it made them feel. I was met with frustrated, annoyed, upset, and unheard. I explained that it was for these reasons, we wanted to work hard not to demonstrate those characteristics, and that we did want to show off how kind we were. I shared that someone (Queen Lesli Margherita) once shared with me (via something she said on The Hamilcast), that when confronted with these negative experiences, we could just pull up our draw bridges and ignore what was going on in other kingdoms. Not our kingdoms, not our castles, as one student said.

My challenge to them is to continuously show off their positive attributes and to draw up their “moats” when faced with negativity. My challenge to you this week is threefold: 1) Come up with your title and leave it in comments if you’re feeling proud of it, 2) Decide on character traits you’d like to be known for and show them off, and 3) When faced with negativity, instead of feeding into it, draw up your moat and make your kingdom the happiest place on Earth. Straighten your crown and rule your kingdom. You can learn more about Lesli Margherita at http://www.leslimargherita.com/ and on Twitter at @QueenLesli, and I strongly suggest you do. You’ll laugh, you’ll learn, and you’ll learn how royal we all are.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

–Stef the StageSLP

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

Becoming Someone New: A Conversation with Arielle Jacobs

Perspective-taking is a large focus for the students I work with in my speech room. We work on understanding the teacher’s expectation and what they think while they’re giving instructions, and understanding the perspective of other students. I’ve always believed that the best way to understand someone is to put yourself in their position. Arielle Jacobs has gotten to understand the perspective of so many strong characters in shows like Wicked, In The Heights, Aladdin, and soon to include Between The Lines. We talk about her nonprofit organization that promotes community between girls, and the many wonderful roles she’s gotten to play all over the world.

S: How did you get into theatre?

A: I started singing in my local church choir and I thought I wanted to be a pop singer and told my mom I wanted to take voice lessons. I had already started dancing at the age of three, but at seven, I started singing lessons in San Francisco. Through this, I learned not only how to sing all the pop songs I wanted to sing but also musical theatre songs. I fell in love with the storytelling in the musical theatre songs and going on that journey. My first voice teacher also ran a song and dance troupe called The Razzle Dazzle Kids, and my brother joined me in doing this, and we got to do shows all over the Bay Area.

S: It’s kind of a family affair with you and your brother both acting. What was that like growing up?

A: Yeah it was! My parents weren’t involved in theatre at all. My dad’s mom was a cabaret singer in the 1940’s, and my mom’s dad has a beautiful singing voice, but he never performed. He’s 91 years old now, and still sings for fun.

S: You’ve played a lot of iconic roles including Nessarose in Wicked, Jasmine in Aladdin, Nina and now Vanessa in In The Heights, to name a few. What were those roles like for you?

A: They’re all great roles. They’re all different and challenging and fun. They’re hard in different ways, and I love that every one of them has been a learning curve for me. I enjoy getting a role and figuring out my connection to that character. I remember getting the role of Nina in In The Heights and feeling confident that I could connect to her struggles, but getting Jasmine and learning how to be a Disney princess in a musical comedy was really different, and even getting to play the sassy girl as Vanessa in In The Heights right now is totally different and exciting for me. Nessarose in Wicked is a great role too. She spends only thirty minutes on stage in that entire show, but it’s more challenging than you’d think. It was the most physically demanding show I’ve ever done, performing in a wheelchair on a raked stage. What I love about all of those roles is that they’re all strong women, and that’s been a joy. There’s a delicate balance between being strong and also being graceful and kind.

S: Is it as magical for you to play such fantastical roles like Jasmine and Nessa as it is for the audience to watch you portray those characters?

A: It really is. Those girls are meaningful to me and to the audience. Hearing the audience gasp when the carpet flies in Aladdin was my favorite part of the show.

S: As I’m talking to you, you’re currently playing Vanessa in In The Heights in Virginia, and Karla Garcia, who’s been on the blog before choreographed it. What’s it been like to learn from her?

A: This was the first time I’ve met her, which is funny because we have so many friends in common. I love her, and she’s a genius. She makes everything look so easy, and she leads by example. She has this policy of ‘If I’m going to make you do it, I’m going to do it first.’ She’s a great leader, has such a bright joyful energy, and always made sure we felt comfortable doing her work.

S: You are about to play Delilah McPhee in Between The Lines. Jodi Picoult is my favorite author, and I love Between the Lines and Off the Page. What can you tell us about that project?

A: That I’m really excited for it, and that the creative team is amazing. The musical writing team are two awesome women, and our choreographer is Lorin Latarro (who choreographed Waitress on Broadway). The show really looks at the world through the lens of a fairytale, and also through the harsh reality of today’s world, and how one can balance those two points of view. It’s a story of female empowerment, and choosing a life that you design.

S: How is performing a scripted show different from your recent cabaret show A Leap In The Dark?

A: That one was scripted too, but it was autobiographical. It was more of a one-woman show than a concert. It was alternating between songs and monologues using stories from my life told in a very theatrical way. I got to play the people in my life and I got to act my way through past events in the present moments. It was challenging and very cool. I got to sing a lot of songs I’ve performed in shows that I’ve done, and sing some new songs, too. We recorded the whole show to be released as my debut album.  You can find it on iTunes and Amazon soon!

S: How do you take care of your voice?

A: I get a lot of sleep. I avoid going to loud places. I warm up every morning, and then again before the show, and cool down the voice after the show. I have a lot of recorded warm-ups from all of my teachers, so I have a lot of exercises to pull from. I’m starting to do some private vocal coaching and teaching masterclasses as well. I really enjoy teaching what I’ve learned about singing healthily and acting honestly and creatively.

S: Can you talk about the Girls’ Camaraderie Project? How did that come about?

A: The Girls’ Camaraderie Project is run by women from different genres in the performing arts, who come together and run a workshop for girls between the ages of ten and thirteen in New York. I started it because I had a horrible middle school experience and most women I talk to have said the same for their experiences. I wanted to see what I could do to improve that. I have always thought that our personal wounds could be the key to our individual purpose on the planet, and a way to serve others while healing ourselves. In other words, our medicine is our purpose. Our workshops focus on teamwork and collaboration among young girls, helping them understand and treat each other better.  A lot of other non-profit organizations are focused on empowerment, which is great, but I saw a lack of organizations that focus on unity and trust among women, which starts around this age. Getting women to trust other women, to feel safe around each other, that’s the goal.

S: What would you say to your elementary school self?

A: I was pretty guarded, and rightly so. I talk about this in my one-woman show, but keeping that guard up made me crave a creative outlet, which got me where I am now. I think I would tell her that everything has its purpose, and not to doubt yourself. I think I would tell her even if it feels like you’re alone right now, you won’t always be alone, and you will learn to trust people again.

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

A: I would say that the way you look at every situation determines your response, and that when you are emotionally struggling, you can usually find evidence to believe whatever you want to believe. Look at your life and think about what you believe is true. What story are you telling yourself about the circumstances of your life? Are you telling yourself a negative story, or a positive one? I challenge them to always be on the search for evidence to confirm a positive story, and seek out some reason to feel good. Choose that story for yourself and have faith that it is true.

I really admire Arielle’s perspective on finding the good in everything, and can’t wait to see how my students take this challenge. I am so excited I got to speak with her, and will definitely be looking out for her in Between The Lines at Kansas City Repertory Theatre this September. If you can go see this show, please do—I know I’ll be trying to get there myself. Lucky for all of us, Arielle’s one-woman show, A Leap In The Dark, has been recorded, and I can’t wait for that to be released as well. This was such an insightful conversation, and I hope others gained as much as I did from it. Let me know how this challenge went for you through comments!

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