How Drama Classes Helped Me as a Person Who Stutters
When I was in elementary school, I loved summer break. My mother, perhaps used to not having her children home all day, would sign me and my younger siblings up for all sorts of summertime activities through the park district, like swim lessons, tennis camp, ceramics, and drama class. Since I’ve stuttered since a very young age (and continue to stutter today), one might assume that drama, especially speaking in front of an audience, would be an activity I would avoid. However, while the initial thought of drama class did indeed fill me with anxiety and apprehension, I actually enjoyed the therapeutic value of performing on stage in a variety of children’s programs.
I discovered I could perform on stage when I was in third grade. It was springtime, and my teacher Mrs. Glass announced that we were going to produce a play for the upcoming Easter holiday. I don’t remember the whole plot, but I do remember there was an Easter egg hunt during which the main characters, a boy and girl, asked a friendly scarecrow for the eggs hidden in his pockets. My teacher picked Harold, the tallest boy in the class, to be the scarecrow, but when he found out he would have to sing a song (“I’m just an old scare-y-crow/Scaring rabbits and the birds and so”) he refused to accept the part. As I was the next tallest, Mrs. Glass assigned the part to me.
As a person who stuttered, I was hesitant to speak in front of an audience, but I knew I could sing. Harold didn’t care about speaking but didn’t want to sing — and I was the exact opposite. However, the character of the scarecrow didn’t really have a lot of lines: he stood frozen and silent on stage for most of Act Two until the boy and girl started searching him for hidden Easter eggs; then, he came to life, spoke a few lines, sang a song about how hard it is to be a scarecrow, and bid the children good-bye. So I decided I could do it.
It was quite an experience for someone like me to stand before an audience and perform without the fear of stuttering on an upcoming word. As most people know, many stutterers don’t stutter when we sing. Sure, I had a few spoken lines, but I adopted a funny scarecrow voice, which was actually a bad imitation of Ray Bolger from “The Wizard of Oz,” and I usually stutter a lot less when I use a fake voice. Plus, I think the confidence I felt from singing carried over and helped me get through the handful of lines I had, which were mostly short like “Hey, who’s that?” or “Happy Easter!”
In fourth grade, I continued performing in short children’s plays, playing a funny doctor (“Doctor, your next patient says he’s invisible —” “Well, tell him I can’t see him right now”) in one performance and a father bird trying to teach his children how to fly in another. Back then, I tended to stutter when talking extemporaneously and not so much when reading words on a page. Even now, this seems to be how I stutter for the most part.
I convinced myself back then that even though I stuttered when I tried to speak extemporaneously, I could very fluently say the lines of a character in a play because they weren’t my words. I didn’t think them up. They were someone else’s words — in someone else’s voice. Plus, if I was a good actor, then it wasn’t really me saying those words — it was the character. The father bird didn’t stutter; the funny doctor didn’t stutter. Therefore when the words came out of my mouth, there didn’t need to be a stutter. I don’t know if this was the healthiest way to look at it, but it seemed to be working, so I didn’t question it too much.
When this mental trick worked, I felt very good about myself, for not only had I spoken before an audience, but I had also done it fluently. That summer, my mother signed me up for the park district’s drama program, which consisted of two-hour classes, Monday though Friday, for four weeks and culminated in the presentation of a full-length play. About 20 other children and I, between fourth and eighth grade, met on the first day; I was grateful Heather, the drama teacher, took role call and did not have us introduce ourselves, for I always stuttered terribly when trying to say my name.
Heather then put us into groups and had us play improv games. I started to feel a little nervous, since I stuttered more when I spoke off the top of my head instead of reciting someone else’s lines, but I told myself if I pretended to be someone else, then I should be able to avoid any dysfluencies. During four days of improv, I stuttered a couple of times, but no one seemed to care about it as much as I did. And as I was leaving class, Heather asked me, “Do you stutter less when you talk slowly?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “My speech therapists always have me talk slowly, and I usually do better when I do.”
The next day, Heather announced the play, which was a version of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and assigned the parts. She cast me as the Tortoise and told me she wanted me to do everything very slowly. I couldn’t believe my luck — it was almost like the part had been written for me. I enjoyed our rehearsals; I worked with boys and girls my age and a little bit older and never once felt like my stuttering was getting in the way and preventing me from communicating with anyone.
I practiced the lines alone in my bedroom and tried to memorize them — I had a lot of them. Whenever I felt myself stuttering on a particular word, I recited the line again but much more slowly. I did use a low, hollow tortoise voice, which helped with my fluency, but speaking slowly helped a lot, too. Our two performances went well; while I did get stage fright the night of the first performance and almost passed out before the curtain went up, everyone remembered their lines and hit their marks, and I delivered every one of my lines fluently.
I continued performing in plays and musicals in junior high and high school, and I still think dramatics has therapeutic value for a person like me who stutters. Granted, I did stutter in some productions, and I did feel of anxiety and apprehension before auditions and performances. But it is quite a rush for a person like me, a person who stutters and has feared speaking before others for a long time, to stand in front of an audience and talk with varying degrees of fluency.
Getty image by Adam Taylor.