Inclusion · The Human Connection

I Got You, Babe: The Strong Friend

It is this wonderful time of year when we are appreciative than thankful for all of our family and friends. Sometimes, this is expressed through gifts. Others through gestures and acts of helping out. These are those wonderful friends and folks who are always there, no questions asked. Many of my students are these people to their friends. I am this friend to many, and I have many of these friends. This post begins a series of posts inspired by my students, who have been working on describing and explaining their friendships with each other.

Who am I talking about? The kids who always have a smile on their face and seem like they can take on the world. The kids who get dismissed as “fine” or “having everything together.” The friends who listen to you, day or night, without complaint. The friends and family who tell you they’re fine.

As a “fine” friend, I can tell you there are a zillion things going on. My students, when they do open up to me about their lives, are anything other than fine. They’re under pressure, exhausted and people-pleasing. They’re afraid to be real around their friends. Many of the adults are the same.

What do these people in our lives want? They want us to ask how they really are. Beyond the “fine.” They want to be seen and heard. They want to be validated. They want to be appreciated. This can be especially hard during the holidays, when they are being strong for everyone having a hard time. Listen to your strong friends. They are often the most in need of care. Listen to the stronger students, they are most often in need to positive attention and demonstrations of caring.

This week, I challenge you to really hear that “strong friend” beyond their response of “fine,” and show them some extra appreciation.


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

The Human Connection

I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night: A Thanksgiving Post

For those of us in the United States, we’ve just finished celebrated Thanksgiving. I was fortunate enough to get to spend mine with my immediate and extended family. I just wanted to take some time to post how thankful I am for this site, for my readers, adn the many amazing folks I’ve gotten to speak with.

I’m so grateful to anyone who’s given me their time and help me better understand how the theatre world works, and how to access my students through this medium. I cannot express enough how much the words you’ve all shared have impacted my students and myself.

There are no words for how appreciative I am of my students. Each one has taught me a new perspective in so many aspects of life. They’ve taught me to be silly, to value the people in your life who are “safe,” and to think outside the box. They keep me on my toes and they keep me teachable and flexible.

I have the most unbelievable family. They keep me laughing and learning. Our memories of all sorts are always at the front of my mind, and I’m loving making new ones with the youngest generation of my family.

I have my health, appreciation for myself and what I do, appreciation for the arts and all they teach, and an ability to care for myself. I have fantastic friends I can call on no matter the situation. What more could I want out of life than all of these amazing things?

This week’s challenge is for you to reflect on what you’re thankful for in your life.

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

Inclusion · The Human Connection · Wise Words

What Does It Cost To Be Kind: World Kindness Day

Those who know me well know that I value kindness above all in anyone I meet and any task I undertake. It is something I aim to instill in my students and have hopefully been successful. World Kindness Day is November 13th, and I decided to brainstorm with my students on how to observe this day. These are the pearls of wisdom my students came up with to recognize the day.

  • “Hold the door open for people who need it and smile at them.”
  • “Help someone with their locker–the new ones stick a little.”
  • “Bring the groceries in with mom and dad.”
  • “Buckle my little sister into the car.”
  • “Watch television/play a game that someone else chooses without pouting. You might even enjoy it.”
  • “Listen to the adults the first time.”

Now, these seem pretty straightforward for kids my students’ age. We all know how easy it is to be do some of these task. We may even do them ourselves without thinking about whether or not it was a kind gesture. And then there were the things I didn’t think my students would open up about…

  • “I’ll tell myself I’m smart.”
  • “I’ll be proud of who I am, regardless of what other people think.”
  • “I’ll stop being jealous of my friends.”
  • “I’ll say nice things to myself.”
  • “I’ll be proud of my work.”
  • “I’ll believe that I am enough.”

Not only did this give me incredible insight into my students and help me relate to them as people, but it got me thinking about how unkind we can be to ourselves. And when we are, it’s so, so hard to escape the negativity we cause ourselves resulting in a vicious cycle. If there is anything every human being needs, it is kindness and care. Not only on World Kindness Day, but every day. To my students and my readers: I see you, I am here for you, and I believe in you.

Your challenge for the week is to find a way to be kind to yourself and a way to be kind to others. Leave it in comments so we can all learn from one another.

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

Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

The Spark of Creation: A Conversation with Stephen Schwartz

Did you know that hope and wonder have a sound? If you are one of my students, or one of many people who are familiar with Stephen Schwartz’ work, you are extremely familiar with it. The music and lyrics behind his work are sure to evoke emotion the second you begin listening. For me, I grew up singing songs he’d written, admittedly poorly, or quoting lyrics back and forth with my family. My students can identify a few composers by sound, and Stephen Schwartz is one of them.  I have many musically inclined students who wanted a composer’s perspective, and I thought it would help to round out their theatrical knowledge that they were absorbing through my speech sessions. I have been a lifelong fan of Stephen Schwartz’ work, from Pippin to Children of Eden, Hunchback to The Prince of Egypt, and of course Wicked. I don’t believe there’s a lyricist who has leant more to my vocabulary lessons or SAT word study, which I now get to pass on to my own students. We talk about how he became interested in composing, why learning the basics in any instrument is important, writing style, and so much more.

Stef: This blog of mine has become sort of a family affair, and I have to start by asking questions from my mother. I wouldn’t know your work if not for her. She wants to know how long it took you to write “What Is This Feeling,” and is it based on a sibling relationship?

Stephen: Actually, it’s funny she should ask that because it’s one of the songs I found most tricky. I had four versions of that songs over the course of the show before I figured it out. There was always going to be a song in which Elphaba and Glinda were responding to the idea of being roommates. Winnie Holzman, the book writer, had the idea of doing a falling in hate/hate at first sight song. Taking all of those love at first sight songs and rewriting them. It was not one of those songs that came instantaneously. I remember after my third version asking Joe Mantello if we needed that song there. The relationship isn’t really based on anything other than instantly falling in hate with someone. If you think about it, the clichés for love are similar— “What is this feeling? My face is flushing,” and so on, but instead of feeling love, they’re loathing each other.

S: Wow, that’s a really interesting backstory. She and I were convinced that was based on sibling rivalry.

S: No, that was Winnie’s idea about falling in hate. She had the idea and it ended up working out.

S: I am so excited to share wit my kids that songs take as many drafts as writing. I don’t think they realize that.

S: Writing a song for a musical is storytelling. Some songs come easily and some take longer.

S: The other thing my mother really wanted you to know is that she is extremely appreciative for your work with Children of Eden. My brother played the role of Father in a high school production, just as he was going off to college. She really appreciates you sharing the parent perspective in “The Hardest Part of Love,” especially as she was going through it. It was very timely for her.

S: Thank you. As parents we fear the empty nest, and that was a way of expressing it, whether or not it actually happens.

S: My students want to know how did you become interested in writing and composing for theatre?

I was always interested in music. Musical ability is genetic, and it’s something that tends to show up very early. My parents tell me that I used to ask them to play specific records as a toddler. When I was six, my parents had a friend who was a composer and he was working on a show. When we visited him, he’d play what he was working on for us, and my parents would then say that I’d go over to his piano and pick out what I heard him play. He suggested my parents put me into piano lessons, and that’s how that started. I knew at eight or nine that I wanted to write for the theatre after seeing one of his shows on Broadway.

S: How is it different for you when you’re collaborating with someone else, versus doing all of the work yourself?

S: It’s not really different in that the goal is the same. It’s storytelling using song. When I’m doing both music and lyrics, it’s maybe more fluid, and I’ll switch between mediums. These days when I’m collaborating, and mostly it’s with Alan Menken now, we still start with,” What’s the assignment? What story are we telling?” I try to come up with a title, because I think it helps with structuring the song. Alan will write music first and then I put words to it.

S: When you’re composing and writing lyrics, which comes first for you?

S: It really works fluidly and moves back and forth. Maybe I’ll write some lyrics or a chorus and that will suggest some chords. Sometimes it works in reverse of that order. It changes from song to song, there’s no set formula.

S: My students want to know if writing comes easy for you, and what happens when you get stuck?

S: Writing is not easy, I think, for anyone. There are bursts of inspiration and times when you hit a wall. You have to keep going and just get words on the page. Something to break the lock down. Stop and do something else—go outside, take a walk, something unrelated to the task so your unconscious mind can think freely. You don’t want to be at a computer, you want to be doing a physical activity. If it’s a day where I’m planning to write, I won’t start with my computer, or it ruins the flow for me.

S: Many of my students are in orchestra or band and are learning the basics and would rather just play what they want than learn what’s being taught. What would you say to them?

S: That’s how everyone feels, but the truth is you can do both! You can have time to play and explore—that’s valuable. But if you don’t do the basics and practice, you won’t get better. The more you master the tedious stuff, the more you can do what you want. This applies to practicing for anything, sports, arts, what have you.

S: How does it feel knowing you’ve shaped so many lives through your work, either in theatre, film, or both?

S: Obviously, there are reasons people become writers, and part of that is to be able to communicate. Knowing that in some cases that I have successfully communicated with someone, it’s very gratifying.

S: That’s what your work does, it communicates the message of the show very well. And I’ve used your work to teach vocabulary, social skills, you write very smart lyrics that lend themselves to these topics. I’ve had to be careful using Wicked, though, since some of those words aren’t real.

S: That’s something to explore with your students, too. Winnie brought up that the story takes place in Oz, which isn’t exactly the same as our world, so the language wouldn’t be exactly the same. She created these Ozisms that appear throughout the script, so I started incorporating them into my lyrics. The whole point of that was that it was understood that we weren’t in our world, we were in a different place.

S: And I get to use the Ozisms to have my students explore their creativity and define words on their own. Going back to “What Is This Feeling” and “I’m Not That Girl,” I’ve taught girls that it’s perfectly acceptable to be nice to each other, and to diffuse girl drama. Your songs tell stories and teach lessons at the same time.

S: Oh, that’s great!

S: Is there a difference in how you approach writing songs for film than theatre?

S: It’s pretty much the same. If I’m writing for film, I’m aware of the fact that it’s a motion picture, and that the characters aren’t standing still and singing. It’s all about storytelling through song.

S: I can tell you, the animation and music for Prince of Egypt felt like magic and so cohesive.

S: There was a lot of collaboration between myself, the people writing the screenplay, and the story artists. We aren’t always in the same room, and it’s a four-year process for something like that. There’s a lot of communication there.

S: Do you get any say when it comes to finding the vocal talent for the animated movies, because those were some spot-on choices.

S: In an animated picture, yes, I get some input. Sometimes the studio decides. But everyone has the same interest in making a good movie with voice actors who are going to deliver a solid final product.

S: I think Brian “Stokes” Mitchell was a brilliant choice for “Through Heavens Eyes”. It definitely impacts the way I hear and interpret the song. Did you have him in mind when you wrote the song?

S: No, but he’s brilliantly talented. I knew him and he was everyone’s first choice.

S: Your musical style is clearly influencing my students, who influenced you growing up?

S: I had a lot, and what people think of my style is an amalgamation of that. I played a lot of classical piano growing up, so Debussy, Beethoven sonatas, and Bach. I think there’s an influence from there. My parents had a lot of cast albums that I listened to, and also a lot of folk music I enjoyed. Then there’s The Beatles and the singer/songwriters from that era, through the eighties. It’s what I respond to that comes in my style of music.

S: My students want to know why you think arts education is important.

S: The key thing is that I feel that our society is lacking empathy. It shows up in all parts of life, politics, day to day behavior, everything. There is a lack of perspective taking, and that’s something we get from arts education. We get that from music and painting, not just performing. You have to question everything, and we lose out on that without arts education. On top of that, everyone is in their own echo chamber right now. Encountering and creating art forces you to overcome that. There’s a big focus on sports in our schools, and I enjoy playing sports, but that is the perspective of winners and losers. If there’s one thing we really don’t need more of right now, it’s that lense. Art isn’t about that

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

S: Exposure to the arts and other people’s lives and perspectives. Find a way to access that and learn about the world around you beyond what school can teach you in facts and STEM.  Talk about your observations and what that’s done for you. There’s a big world around you, go beyond the screen and notice it in different ways. Don’t necessarily eliminate anything, just go beyond it.

I was over the moon when this conversation took place, and I’m still so fulfilled by this conversation. I am a very big fan of Stephen’s work, in case that isn’t obvious, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. My students gained a lot of insight about what goes into the process of composing a show, and the driving force of storytelling. They took a lot of comfort in knowing writing isn’t something that’s supposed to be easy. I look forward to taking on Stephen’s challenge by seeing more art that maybe I wouldn’t have exposed myself to in the first place. I look forward to hearing how my readers take on this challenge as well.

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

Inclusion · The Human Connection

Masquerade: Halloween Across Abilities

Get ready for the paper faces on parade coming by your house! Halloween is fast approaching, and it’s likely that you’ve already engaged in festivities this weekend. I thought it might be worth exploring what Halloween could look like to the students I serve, and how to interact with them.

For the child who stutters:
Please be patient. Let them say what they want to say. They’re so excited to say “Trick or Treat,” and have been looking forward to it for weeks if not months. Also give them the time to say “thank you.” The look of joy and gratitude on this child’s face will make your night.

For the child who says nothing:
Maybe they’re shy. Maybe they  don’t have the words to communicate. Maybe they know all the non-verbals that go along with tonight. This may be a less-frequent inclusion opportunity. Welcome their participation along with the other kids’.

For the child with food allergies:
This can be a tough holiday for those with food allergies. I keep alternatives to food–spider rings, keychains, small trinkets of that sort, for these kids. In the spirit of inclusion, it allows these kids to participate in the fun. Want more on this topic? Visit this site to learn more about the Teal Pumpkin Project.

For the child who wants to have a conversation with you:
Engage with them! They want you to have fun, too. It may be that they’ve been doing some linguistic rehearsal to practice their conversational skills. This is a great night to engage with them, a real treat for you both.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it is all in the spirit of each person celebrating has a happy Halloween. May yours be filled with noting but treats. And as an extra treat, the pumpkin carving designs in the post’s image is from my dear friend Andrea at Coloring Broadway, and you can get your own pumpkin carving templates here

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

Broadway · Interview · The Human Connection

Best Face Forward: A Conversation with Douglas Otero of Intermission Beauty

One of my favorite parts of any theatrical experience and even every day life is makeup I fell in love with makeup many times in my life: watching my mother put it on every morning and waiting for the day she’d let me have my own, getting ready for recitals, auditions, and shows, and discovering products I really love. Makeup can change my entire day and my entire mood. With that said, imagine how ecstatic I was to discover Intermission Beauty. If you’re new to this brand, it is a small business founded by Douglas Otero who has created a line of Broadway inspired makeup and skincare. And an extra bonus: they’re cruelty free. After watching my students begin to express themselves through makeup, while doing the same myself, I knew I had to talk to this line’s creator. We talk about how he got into theatre, what drew him to makeup, his cruelty-free philosophy and more!

Stef: How did you get into theatre and performing?

Douglas Otero: I got into theatre and performing during high school. I always had the performance bug, and used to put on magic shows for company that used to visit my family when I was little. In high school, I met the right people and an amazing music teacher who guided me along the way. I found my first voice teacher, one thing led to another, and I started auditioning for Broadway shows, theme parks, and cruise ships.

S: How was your interest in theatre connected to your makeup artistry?

D: I have always loved makeup. When I got tired of working as a waiter, I decided to free-lance as a makeup artist. When I was in shows, the girls would ask me to help them with their makeup, even if I was getting ready myself!

S: What inspired your line Intermission Beauty?

D: My love of Broadway mostly, but my love of animals and protecting them. That’s how the Broadway Diva series came to be.

S: Your line is cruelty free, which is important to myself and my students. Why did you choose to make your line cruelty free?

D: Again, my love for animals is huge. Ever since I was born and came home from the hospital, I had pets; dogs especially. I’ve seen a lot of what happens with animals and testing cosmetics I want that to be a thing of the past. Especially in this day and age with so many other ways of testing products.

S: How long does it take to match a name to a color, and which comes first?

D: There isn’t a particular time frame. It’s all inspiration and how much I may love a show.


S: What should people know about makeup artistry that they don’t already know?

D: That it isn’t really always what they see on a YouTube channel. Everyone is different and not everything works on everyone. You also have to be realistic about what you’re trying to achieve as a consumer or makeup user. Some make it harder than it is.

S: Creatively, what does makeup design do for you that performing didn’t, and what did performing do for you that makeup design doesn’t?

D: It’s actually not that different! Although I do miss being onstage, it’s pretty similar. I’m using art to create and put it out on display for everyone to see. Whether I’m working with a celebrity for a red-carpet event or creating a new shade, it’s being consumed by many people. I feel with the makeup, people are at least getting to take something with them that they’ll use and enjoy. Hopefully they end up coming back for more.

S: What would you want your consumers to know about Intermission Beauty or how the products are created that they may not already know?

D: That I’ve gone to great lengths to put out the best products I possibly can. Considering I’m a small business with no investors and creating everything on my own dime is something worth saying. I’m very proud to say that.

S: Would you encourage kids to explore their creativity through makeup design and theatre? How could they get involved?

D: I’m all about allowing kids to express their inner creativity. It’s where they will really get to see what they do and don’t like. I was never forced to do anything and don’t think kids should be. If they want to take an art class, let them. If they want to take a dance class or a singing lesson, support them. At school, volunteering community theater, or if they’re old enough to work at a makeup counter or even do makeup for a community theatre or high school theatre—those are all great ways to get involved.

S: Every week I challenge my students to get outside of their comfort zone, what would you challenge them to do?

D: Stand up and sing a song for someone, or for a group. Do someone else’s makeup, or even your own. Similar to public speaking, not everyone is comfortable doing these things. If you want to be able to perform you should be able to get up and do it for a crowd. In the case of makeup, you need to be comfortable touching someone else’s face. Both are areas where you need to be outgoing, sure of yourself and your skills, and unafraid to get your hands dirty.

I am really excited for my students to break out of their shell through Douglas Otero’s advice. This was a great conversation with a lot of insight into makeup design, and how creativity can be displayed in so many different ways. I can’t wait to see how my readers take on this challenge in comments!
In case it wasn’t already clear that I love this line, I currently own four lipsticks, two liquid lipsticks, and the lip scrub and balm are absolute staples in my makeup bag. Those last two are heaven, especially in fall and winter months. The next time you’re looking for makeup for your next production or a day-to-day look, check out Intermission Beauty at @IntermissionBeauty on Instagram, and you can purchase the products for your own collection at I personally am a repeat customer and love what he’s doing for the animals with these products.


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


A Dancin’ Man: A Conversation with Andy Blankenbeuhler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S: That makes so much sense to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S: Are your kids into the arts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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