I stared out to the railing of the balcony, a spotlight setting my chest ablaze. My stomach and ribs expanded, and hot air rushed into my throat. My arm raised a pointed finger toward the light as 4,000 pupils squished to refocus on my face. The air in my abdomen reversed its flow, and my mouth cupped properly around the syllables of my next line. Then suddenly my brain blinked. My jaw locked. My diaphragm froze. My vocal folds flexed, trying desperately to make sound. I tapped my heel to distract my brain from the glitch.
“C-c-c-clever...” The word finally leapt from my throat, and I spewed the rest of the sentence as sweat beads formed across my body. The lights went black, and I turned and walked offstage. I leaned against the wall facing the mirror off Stage Left of the Majestic Theatre and recognized a familiar expression clouding my face: shame. Fear, defeat, grief, and depression on spin cycle, tumbling through my mind until I am washed of all of the confidence I’ve accumulated over my lifetime.
I’m a Broadway actor, and I stutter.
Despite almost a century of research, the condition remains an enigma to science and medicine. One theory suggests that a neurophysiological abnormality could be a possible cause. Speech originates in the left hemisphere of the brain, but evidence shows people who stutter process language in multiple areas of the brain at once. These areas conflict with one another resulting in the brain being unable to send clear instructions to the muscles involved in speech motor function. A stutter results in the repetition, prolongation, or cessation of sound in speech.
There are over 70 million people worldwide who stutter. That’s about twice the population of Canada. Like most people who stutter, I’ve struggled to speak since I was a child. In fact, five percent of all children stutter while developing their speech. In the majority of these cases the stutter fades away. Mine didn’t.
Growing up I was surrounded by a very supportive family. No one finished my sentences for me. No one huffed and puffed and told me to spit it out. My sister would call my friends on the phone for me because when I called, their moms would hang up before I got out what I wanted to say.
In high school, I auditioned for a production of Much Ado About Nothing—mainly because my girlfriend was auditioning for the part of Hero, and I wanted to play Claudio. I locked myself in my room and recited my audition speech for hours. I could easily lose myself in the emotion of the scene. I felt like I was someone else—someone who didn’t stutter. I auditioned and was cast as Hero’s father. I can’t remember much about performing my first play apart from wincing while watching Hero kiss her Claudio, but I do remember not stuttering. I don’t even remember a fear of stuttering. I remember feeling normal. Without fully understanding why, acting equipped me with valuable skills in which to speak fluently. My stutter didn’t go away entirely, of course, but through acting I found ways in which to calm the fear and anxiety of speaking and possibly even the neurological pathways competing in my brain to produce speech. Acting taught me to focus on what I wanted to say and why rather than how I was going to say it. Shakespeare taught me the musicality of speech. Because music and speech originate in different areas of the brain, most people who stutter are completely fluent while singing. The iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s text allowed me to form speech in an entirely different way than I had before. The words flowed more easily when I used the rhythm of the text and focused on the emotion of the words.
Twenty years later, I have shaped my life around the theatre. I have a degree in music and musical theatre from Oklahoma City University. I moved to New York after graduation and began auditioning. I booked a few jobs in ensembles and got my Equity card. I made my Broadway debut in the first revival of Les Misérables.
I continued to hone the valuable skills acting taught me in high school with acting classes and voice lessons in New York. Acting help me craft a shield against my stutter. Breath, vocal technique and character development combined to form some type of meditative calm that helped me maneuver the minefield of words my stutter planted in front of me while speaking. Sometimes, for a fleeting moments, I even forgot about my stutter entirely.
My career began to grow. I toured the country with The 25th Anniversary Production of Les Misérables. I was offered a principle role in one of the most famous shows on Broadway; Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera. I got married. My wife and I celebrated my new job. I raised my acting shield and maneuvered my stutter at work and lowered it with my wife at home. And then that one night onstage, it happened. I stuttered.
I stared into the mirror in the wings of the Majestic Theatre. I took a deep breath, straightened my lapel, and went back out onstage feeling like the little kid who had just been called upon in class and couldn’t answer. Each subsequent performance, I tried to patch up the shield acting had always provided.
I realize that it wasn’t only my stutter from which I was shielding myself. When I stutter there is more than just mixed signals crossing in my brain. There is a gripping fear that tells me to avoid, to hide, to stay silent. Perhaps, what I need to grow as an actor isn’t perfect speech, but an embrace of speaking in the face of fear.