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

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

The Human Connection

Conceal, Don’t Feel: Processing Emotion in the Speech Room

“The cold never bothered me anyway,” is a line from the hit song Let It Go, that I, my students, and undoubtedly you dear reader, are all too familiar with. Unfortunately, I also believe it’s a mentality or students believe they need to adopt for any situation they’re placed in. I like to believe I have a very good rapport with my kids, and that they can come to me with anything. Most of them take advantage of this, and it’s a gesture of trust I appreciate more than anything in the world. Of my student who do come to me with what is bothering them, it will take anywhere from four to nine exchanges of “Is everything okay?” “Yeah. I’m fine.” before a student will get to the root of what is bothering them.

I’m an empath by nature, which probably comes from my experience with my own emotions. In all honesty, I can only remember experiencing any emotion in a big way; everything has always felt like an end-of-the-world event, be it positive or negative. On top of this, I feel the need to relive the emotion and its event over and over and over, analyzing, reanalyzing, and overanalyzing everything, with many different conversational partners. There is no such thing as trying to figure out how I’m feeling on any given day, which has led me to be attuned to others’ emotions. Which brings me to how I help my students process their emotions in the speech room….

  1. Do You Want To Talk About It?
    The first thing I do is ask the student if they want to talk about it. The next thing I do is decipher their answer. Sometimes, no means not now, but give me five minutes, and sometimes it means no. Usually it’s the former if they’re distracted or out of sorts for the remainder of the session. Yes is a much easier reply and doesn’t require analysis.
  2. Let’s Just Take A Minute.
    I let my student either choose from three calming activities to gather themselves if they don’t want to talk but need to regroup before working. This can be drawing, sitting and doing nothing, or taking a few deep breaths–whatever works for the student. This gesture allows us both to focus where we need to be focused and move on.
  3. Do You Need My Help?
    If the student wants to talk, after assessing the situation, I always offer my help, which the student is always able to accept or refuse. I do this so the student knows that they are never alone in any situation, and that I will help guide them to the best of my ability within my role in the school, and know that I value them and their needs as a person first.
  4. Plan Next Steps.
    This is fairly self explanatory but, if the student needs my help, we plan our next steps. We map out who needs to be notified, what exactly is bothering us, how to handle the situation, and potentially how to resolve it if the situation is ongoing. I like to hear the student’s action plan first, and then see if they want my advice.
  5. Follow Up.
    In a day or two, I’ll check in with the student to see how their plan worked. If they tell me everything is good, then we’re done. If not, we go back to step 4 and work on a new plan.

So much pressure is put on students now, both intrinsically and extrinsically, that I am always checking in and taking their emotional temperature. If I’m an adult and can’t always deal with my own emotions, I can only imagine what my student, who is struggling with expressing himself is feeling. My challenge to you this week is to go out of your way to check on someone else’s feelings, even if there’s nothing wrong. Check in with other people because you genuinely want to know how they’re doing, and go beyond the “I’m fine.” You’d be amazed at the world of good it will do you both.

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

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.
****

 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.

************************************************************************************

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

 

Grammar, Language Comprehension, Lesson Plans, Pragmatics and Social Skills, Vocabulary

I Wish I Could Rewrite This Story: Intersections in Spoken and Written Language

If it isn’t obvious by now, I am fascinated with storytelling. Many of my upcoming guests and I will be discussing this particular topic. Once upon a time, I thought I’d write–most likely become an author. At the tender age of seventeen I believed I wouldn’t be creative enough, despite teachers encouraging me in the opposite direction. Little did I know I’d enter into a profession that requires more writing than I can handle some days!

That is not the reason I write this post. I chose to write this post to discuss the translation of spoken language into written language. This is a complicated subject for many of my students, since most people write the way they speak. Their formal writing pieces may be less formal because they’re children, with vocabularies to match. This is not at all a negative, it’s wonderful. Have you ever read a child’s writing? It is straight to the point and you feel exactly what that child was thinking in that moment. Their writing is magical. Through speech therapy, it’s my job to stretch it. Below, I’ve bulleted what my students and I work on to enhance their writing without ever picking up a pencil–thank you, Occupational Therapists!

  • Vocabulary
    It really amazes me how influential vocabulary can be. it takes “good” to “excellent” and “mad” to “furious.” Through teaching with shades of meaning, and emoji images, I’ve taught vocabulary beyond the basics. My students know I have an expectation for their individual vocabulary skills. Usually, I’ll say, “We all know that word, can you give us a new ____th grade word for us to learn?” This gives them the opportunity to expand, practice, and show off their vocabulary. It makes the student feel like a vocabulary rock star.
  • Grammar and syntax
    This is how I teach perspective and pronouns. Are you telling me something that happened to you or your friends? When did it happen? Did you cook breakfast or did your dad? How do you think he liked waking up early to do so? The students know this is where pronouns come into play as well. We explore verb tense and the use of complete, compound, and complex sentences. There is an entire world to explore here that could be another post entirely.
  • Main idea/key details
    I usually get into this when we talk about our weekends in our first session of the week. Each student tells me about one event that occurred during their weekend. I ask them what the most important part of the story was. If they tell me instead their favorite part of the story, I ask if that’s what the whole story was about. Frequently, I’m met with “Oh! No, the story was about how I won my soccer game by scoring the final goal. The goal was just my favorite part.” The trickiest part is differentiation between the two “I”s: Important and Interesting. Important refers to the main idea and Interesting to the details. Once they get this concept, it’s wondrous what the students can unlock in their minds and the stories that come pouring out!
  • Sequencing/Thought Organization
    Every story has a beginning, middle and end. It’s very difficult to teach this skill. I should know, my own stories as a child used to be all over the place with muddled transitions, so this is my favorite area to work on. This is where the students decide how they want their characters to feel and act. We do this with the “Somebody Wanted But So Finally” model of sequencing. There are so many wonderful graphic organizers for this model, and I can always find one accessible to my students. We also get to delve into their intentions, how they want the piece to make its reader feel, how the characters feel, and how we ride that emotion from one wave to the next, and why their emotions change. This is a great opportunity to work in a social skills lesson.
  • Retelling
    I love hearing my students share their final drafts–or any drafts–with me. I get to hear how they want their story presented, including its tone and the structure they’ve assigned it. This lets me peek into my students’ brains and see where their creativity leads them, which is always a magical moment for me. It also gives me a moment to evaluate their strengths and areas of difficulty in the above mentioned areas, which is great for goal-building later on.

I love it when areas of what I love overlap,like in this instance. I hope you enjoy the posts coming your way from some truly amazing and kind guests. My challenge to you this week is to target your biggest challenge currently–in writing, in work, in life–and find a strategy that works for you to help you with it. Mine will be keeping my house clean, just keeping it real.

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

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, The Human Connection

Celebrate You to Elevate You: Takeaways From BroadwayCon 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

—Stef the StageSLP

Broadway, The Human Connection

Everything I Need To Know I Learned At BroadwayCon

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

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

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

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