“Theatre Is a Great Equalizer”

Alzheimer’s, Humor, and Actors Who Stutter

We live in fairly liberated times, but we still struggle with a number of taboos, including stuttering, dementia, and death. Todd Cardin, Philadelphia actor, standup comedian, and playwright, took on both dementia and the fear of dying in his daring Alzheimer’s: The Musical, a one-act play. It tackled these serious subjects with honesty and a sense of humor rarely featured onstage.

Based on his experiences with his father, who had dementia and was going through the sundown phase in life, and his mother-in-law, for whom he and his wife are currently caring, Cardin wrote a comedic musical, premiering at Philadelphia’s Plays and Players under the direction of William McKinlay, with a cast of the Actors International Theatre (AIT), founded by director Katherine Filer, a successful professional who also stutters. In the program, she described the goal of theatre for actors with speech impediments: “We focus on the stuttering community and the message that they, too, can insert themselves into the world of acting. Ultimately, we aim to show our audience that there is nothing in life that can hold us back.”

She then asked playwright Cardin to develop a musical for her actors. He decided to tackle it and recalled, “I met with her group of five actors and created the script for Alzheimer’s: The Musical, based on the ages and personalities of the team.”

AIT lets us hear voices of those who are rarely heard in the theatre. None of the actors who stutter ever thought that one day they would do what scared them the most in life, namely to perform plays and musicals on stage. 

Theatre As a Great Equalizer
Fringe festivals are often the only places where companies with actors that come with vocal or physical disabilities can perform. AIT is such a company that lets us hear voices of those who are rarely heard in the theatre. None of the actors who stutter ever thought that one day they would do what scared them the most in life, namely to perform plays and musicals on stage.

Two examples: AIT actors Katherine Filer and Carmen Shapiro. Both experienced childhood and adolescence as trying periods. Stuttering kept Filer from developing friendships. She avoided social situations and felt isolated. During her professional life, she had to develop strategies to communicate effectively, in spite of her stuttering.

However, both women made major breakthroughs. Filer, who became a public speaker, proudly shared, “I have spoken in front of over 250 people combined at the NSA [the National Stuttering Association] and at Friends [“a national nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering young people who stutter and their families”]. I also spoke to over 800 people about my commitment that "each and every voice [in my groups] is heard—not just those who stutter.”

Shapiro underwent speech therapy for years to practice relaxation techniques, even though she didn't feel handicapped. “I just happened to have something I needed to work on the same way that others worked on their math or reading skills.” However, she admits feeling “very embarrassed and disappointed with myself as stuttering was always the elephant in the room when I started to talk,” especially when she got nervous—“stuttering like crazy.”

Her breakthrough came when she became aware of the power of acting. “I never thought about doing theatre, but I was inspired by last year's production at AIT. I took it on as a personal challenge to face my fears of public speaking and performing in front of an audience.” Shapiro found rehearsals were easier because most of the cast are people who stutter. “Our stuttering was never an issue.” She even went a step further and told, not only family and friends, but also her coworkers and bosses about her acting in Alzheimer’s: The Musical and, to her delight, “received an overwhelming amount of support.”

Four actors on stage
Alzheimer's: The Musical. L-R: Marissa Moschetta as nurse Sarah; Bill Collins as Jeff, Maurice's younger son; Jerry Puma as Maurice, the old Broadway actor; Mitchell Trichon as Warren, Maurice's older son; and Carmen Shapiro as Dana, Warren's wife. Photo by Carolyn Stanish

Rehearsals and Performances with Actors Who Stuttter     
Shapiro, a gifted AIT actor who stutters, describes the process of rehearsing a new play: “It is not that my stuttering increased or diminished, it was just different every time. For example, I was surprised when I stuttered in a line that I had never stuttered on in previous rehearsals. And I didn’t stutter on places where I would have expected to. I found that if we started rehearsing in the middle of a scene, I stuttered more than if we had started the scene from the beginning. Overall, the more we rehearsed, the more I was exposed to the different ways of getting to each part, and in time I stuttered less.”

The woman who shied away from speaking in public now believes: “Theatre is a great equalizer. Once you are on stage, it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from. You are part of something larger than yourself and you have to do well for the others. Stuttering is the least of your problems when you are there; the show must go on, and you have to keep it moving.”

Asked about her reality of acting and singing, especially on opening night, Shapiro admits, “I was very nervous. But everyone in the audience knew about us. I had people from all aspects of my life there, pulling for me and ready to have fun with me. Not because I stutter, but because I was daring to do something many of them would never do, even though they are fluent! Even my boss's boss was very excited for me and is bringing a group of coworkers to see me perform.” Shapiro concludes, “Not only has [acting] helped me with my stage fright, but I feel like I came out of my stuttering closet. I don't have anything to hide anymore, and I feel incredibly free and comfortable with myself.”

A cast photo
The cast of Alzheimer's: The Musical with Todd Cardin, the playwright. Photo by Shaun Smith.

A Special Gift to the Stage
What makes the production of Alzheimer’s: The Musical unique is not only the serious subject matter and the humor and hilarity with which it gets treated, but the fact that the actors stutter in their daily lives—even though, on stage, one could hardly notice anything, certainly not when they were singing—under the caring guidance of music director Mark Pasquini, who accompanied the ensemble with his guitar.

Cardin, an actor and standup comedian who has been called “a mad comic genius” by director McKinlay, centers his musical on Maurice Green, an aging Broadway star (played with high energy and wit by Jerry Puma) who tries to come to terms with his most challenging role, unable to distinguish between facts and his rich imagination, especially when it comes to sexual encounters with famous Broadway actresses.

The musical takes place in the home of Warren, Maurice’s son (played by Dr. Mitchell Trichon, co-founder of Stutter Social and a faculty member of La Salle University where he teaches and supervises speech-language pathology students). Maurice’s wife Dana (performed by the earnest Carmen Shapiro) tries to keep some sense of normalcy in the family, even when Jeff, her brother-in-law (the entertaining Bill Collins), who has problems of his own, arrives and upsets the emotional apple cart with their aging father Maurice. To build a bridge between the world of a senior with Alzheimer’s and a regular family with children, the couple hired Sarah (the compassionate Marissa Moschetta), a down-to-earth social worker who sees through Maurice’s shenanigans and brings him back to reality—at least for a few moments at a time.

I found it moving that a small company like AIT, which “employs actors with disabilities with the goal of altering global and personal perceptions of limitations,” is actually donating some of the proceeds from this world premiere of Alzheimer’s: The Musical to the National Stuttering Association and the Alzheimer’s Association.

Theatre for People Who Don’t Like Theatre
Asked about his goals for this musical, Cardin explained: “I wanted to touch on the fact that although a person might lose their memory, they are still a person. They still have value. You can create happiness, even though [people with Alzheimer’s] may not remember an event, but the feeling of being happy is still very real. Humor is the only way to get through this [difficult situation]. If you didn’t laugh, you’d have to cry—which I do at times.”

Cardin, who started his own ETC Theatre with his wife Emily Cardin over ten years ago, has written 27 original plays, ten of which made it to the Philadelphia Fringe. “I am trying to create theatre for people who don’t like theatre,” he confessed. “Most of what I write is seeped heavily in pop culture references, sitcom type of humor, and is light hearted.” Cardin actually wrote Alzheimer’s: The Musical in two nights, and the songs in another. “I work pretty fast,” he said. “This is my first show that another theatre company has produced. I’ve handed the script to Bill McKinlay, the director, and let him make it his own. He changed the music, and punched up the script. I love collaboration and seeing the visions of others come to life.”

The playwright presented the deteriorating stage actor as a kind of modern Don Quixote. Director McKinlay describes Maurice, the man with Alzheimer’s, as “an insane old man reduced to ashes by humility and defeat. Sanity, it seems, is not so much a fixed line in the sand as it is an early morning fog through which we all must pass at some point.” McKinlay admits, “I welcome the onset of Alzheimer's in my later years. Every day will be a brand new day filled with new faces! Perspective! Welcome to my world—we have cookies!”

'I am trying to create theatre for people who don’t like theatre,' he confessed. 'Most of what I write is seeped heavily in pop culture references, sitcom type of humor, and is light hearted.'

Leaving the Theatre with Mixed Feelings
The audience spontaneously rose to their feet at the end of the show. We had witnessed a musical that dared to touch on several taboo subjects, and we had seen actors who live with the awareness that they stutter—a moving experience for all of us.

After the show, I talked with quite a few audience members, the charismatic AIT director, and the actors. All of them—audience and artistic team—brought an extra dimension to this production that I only experienced whenever I saw performances by Philadelphia’s Amaryllis Theatre, a company that features actors with and without disabilities, especially deaf, blind, and paraplegic actors who moved me to tears with their performances of classic plays. Similarly, this Fringe audience of people, who have friends or relatives who stutter or are living with dementia, clearly identified with the actors and everything that the Alzheimer’s play stood for.

I left the theatre wondering how I would lead my life if I got hit by dementia or Alzheimer’s—moving back and forth between fragments of realities, fears, and dreams. And my mind began to stutter.

FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES

Stuttering and Drama

Organizations
Friends Who Stutter: A national organization that offers support for children and teenagers who stutter.
National Stuttering Association: Support, self-help and advocacy for all people who stutter.
SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young.

Publications
Hanna, Maddie. “Stutterers burst on the stage—not stuttering.” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 16, 2013.
Inspiring Singer with a Stutter on American Idol. Jan 17, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3mNl335uHg
McQuade, Dan. “Using the stage to overcome stuttering.” CityPaper Philadelphia, September 5, 2013.
“Stuttering on the Stage.” Our Time Theatre Company: An artistic home for people who stutter, which "provides an environment free from ridicule where PWS discover the joy of creating and performing original theatre" (located in New York City).

Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Drama

Organizations
Alzheimer’s Association, the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer's care, support and research.
Dementia Society of America.

Publications
Croombs, Louise. “Dramatherapy for Dementia.” Dramatherapist, 2010.
Evans, Lowri. “Drama with dementia.” ArtsProfessional, May 21, 2012.
Garrett, Kay. “Drama therapy can coax Alzheimer's patients back to reality, briefly.” K-State Perspectives, Fall/Winter 2006.
Hill, Julianne. “Improv For Alzheimer's: 'A Sense Of Accomplishment'.” NPR, August 15, 2011.

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As I was asked to be the music director for this musical, I couldnt wait to sink my musical teeth on this experience. The beautiful thing was I had a chance to work with the stuttering community and to take songs that were arranged in a way where I took certain key signatures and used them with full cooperation of the cast and made them sound wonderfully spirited. The egos were not there...so they loved working hard with me...and took instruction with excitement.... they approached me for even to perfect the rhythms and phrasing...without stuttering at all. We had a fun time...changing the songs, with input from director and Jerry...who being a fellow musician....egged me on to work in tandem to have a great sound. I found it challenging but extremely rewarding to see these special people grow....artistically and personal accomplishment...and never look back. Thanx Mitch...we nailed it!!! and the rest of the gang!!!

I have never heard of an actor or a performer with a stutter that is not part of their act. I find it interesting how people who stutter can perform, especially singing, and hardly stutter if at all. I can see why it is hard for them to want to perform but are discourage from it because they are fearing they may stutter during it and people may judge them. Also, it seems like the rehearsal process may take a while, especially in the beginning and depending on how severe the stutter, and may be difficult for the actors to keep on tract after the stutter during a line. It is great that there are companies out there that help people with stuttering do things they love like acting.