Taro Alexander is the Artistic Director of 'Our Time' not-for-profit theatre company for young people in New York who stammer, aged 8-18. In October 2008 Taro visited Scotland to inspire BSA Scotland/TAG Citizens' Outspoken drama project. In August 2009 BSA Scotland's Jan Anderson visited 'Camp Our Time' (self-funded and as a volunteer), to experience the similarities and differences between this and BSA Scotland's own Summer 'Scool. This article is largely based on conversations that took place during Taro's visit to Scotland.
'Our Time' seeks to give children and young people from New York environs a voice, confidence and an avenue to express how they feel in their own way. Alongside, is the desire to create great quality, compelling theatre that any audience would find moving.
'Our Time' participants meet in two separate age groups every Saturday from October-June to write their own play or musical, rehearse and ultimately perform it for substantial audiences including family, friends and the general public in a theatre. 'Our Time' also supports three older teenagers, aged 16-18, to write and direct their own one-act plays which are performed by professional actors. As well as the groups and the play writing, 'Our Time' participants have written and performed songs with professional musicians, and produced two CDs.
'Camp Our Time' is a relatively recent addition to the programme, first held in August 2008 with 27 participants, and recently repeated in August 2009 with 41 attending. It is a one-week residential for children and young people who stutter and their siblings, available to anyone in the world. People are welcome to attend as many times as they like while they are in the age range, becoming part of a growing 'Our Time family'. Taro dreams of a global community of up to 500 people coming to upstate New York from across the world in years to come! He commented,
"With camps, the bigger the better to get the feeling of power in numbers. Having people from all over the world who are 'similar to me' is just such an affirming notion. We live in a world where oftentimes we don't understand each other and the differences between cultures can create a wall. We don't often see eye to eye. Yet, when people who stutter come together, they come with a very open heart. It's a chance to gain acceptance and learn about what someone's life is like in another culture. I think that is really cool."
'Camp Our Time' offers diverse activities including performing arts workshops (e.g., acting, writing, singing and dance) and arts and crafts activities. In the afternoon pairs/trios work together for a couple of hours to write and rehearse a five - ten minute song, dance or play. Then there is time for sports such as tennis, basketball, football and swimming. In the evenings there might be a film outside, a dance party or a campfire and sing song.
Taro's back story...
"According to my parents, I began stuttering when I was five years old. My first memory was at 11 when I was taken to speech therapy for a two-day intensive group programme. I was the only kid there. The rest were adults and a lot of them had very severe stutters. I wondered if I'd be like this when I grew up and was pretty freaked out. I feared this must be the way the world perceived me and it gave me a really negative image of myself. There were tons of speech exercises to do each day for 20-30 minutes into a tape recorder. You sent them in to the speech pathologist who would send comments back. I found it very impersonal and hated it. I wanted to be out playing with my friends. After four or five months I didn't see any improvement so I asked my parents if I could stop and they agreed ...
From then up until around age 26 my main goal was to hide that I was a person who stutters. I changed words around, spoke in an accent, yawned ... Most effective was just not talking when I could sense it was going to happen. It was a very frustrating way to live. I had good friends and did well in school - though my participation centred around my stutter. When it was my turn to read I would ask to go to the bathroom. Or, if I had to read and there was a word I had trouble on, I would just skip over it. If the teacher said, "You skipped that line", I would just apologise and keep going. One of the hardest things was that it became this big secret. I was successful in hiding it - but it was isolating.
I always wanted to be an actor
I always wanted to be an actor. My father had a theatre company and my older brother became an actor but I never thought I could do it professionally because of my speech. I went to a high school for the performing arts and found that when I started acting, my confidence increased. For the most part my stutter was really controlled on stage.
I went to New York when I was 19 to act professionally, but from 19-26 my number one goal was still to hide the fact that I stuttered, particularly in the acting world. It was very tiring and I felt I wasn't being myself. There was part of me that no one knew. I felt I was fooling the world and not being honest. And I never just ... spoke. I was always editing myself.
When I was 26 I was doing a play in Colorado and for the first time I had a block. It really upset and scared me to lose control over my speech on stage. I thought I would be fired. The next day I was very anxious and obsessing about that part of the play. That night it happened again. I went to a very dark place. There was a guy in the scene with me and I told him I was a person who stutters - and it turned out that he stuttered quite badly as a kid and still stuttered from time to time! I couldn't believe it. We became really good friends and he is now the Associate Musical Director at 'Our Time'! Just meeting somebody else was an eye opening experience that started a journey of self-discovery. I started reading books, found out abut organisations for people who stutter and interviewed my parents and friends about my stutter and what they thought of it. I learned more about the history of my own stutter.
I found that people either really did not care about my stutter or they were fascinated
I found that people either really did not care about it or they were fascinated - which was not the response I anticipated. I mean, some people said, "Yeah, I know." They had nothing else to say: It was not a big deal. Whereas others, when I started telling them all the things I did to not stammer, were very compelled by it: they found my stuttering interesting. That was unbelievable - this thing that I passionately hated, they found interesting! That made me look at things in a different way and was very liberating. And so this led me to discovering the stuttering community in New York City. I went to an open house and there were about 30 people, all speaking very positively about stuttering. I didn't say a thing but was very impressed, if a little freaked out. I thought "Who are all these people who are so OK with this?!" There was a slow process of wondering, "Am I going to be part of this community?", as I had previously fought so hard to be separate from it.
In the meantime, I decided not to act any more and started to teach full-time. I also auditioned for 'Stomp', my favourite show. The people in Stomp are the coolest - and the interesting thing is they never speak. They use percussion and comedy to communicate. It has a very multi-cultural cast with all sorts of people making all kinds of music. I thought, "This is what the world should be about - everyone coming together, all kinds of people, without words, being as one." I loved the show when I first saw it. I never thought about being in it: I wasn't a drummer or trained as a dancer. But years later my best friend saw a flier about open try outs so I went. I didn't get in first time but was put on their 'A' list and a year later I auditioned again and got in. I was thrilled to be in a show I loved - and for the first time on stage professionally, I didn't have to speak. That gave me the confidence to stutter around my cast mates because it didn't matter. And to me I had reached the pinnacle of being 'cool', which I was obsessed by my entire life!
While on tour I met someone who later became my wife. The process of being in the show, doing something I loved and falling in love meant that in a deep sense I started to feel more confident in myself. I was open in my relationship about my stuttering in a way I had never been before and she was very accepting.
A wise friend said, "Think about what you want to do for the rest of your life. What impact do you want to have?" It came to me - a theatre company for young people who stutter - where people who find it hard to express themselves can create what they want in their own voice. In June 2001, back in New York, I wrote a four-page proposal about 'Our Time' and showed it to members of the stuttering community. I also called three speech and language pathologists (SLPs), though I was wary because of my experience as an 11 year old. The response was amazingly positive. Everyone said, "What a great idea - there is nothing like this out there."
My hope for members of 'Our Time' is that they become more of who they are in every way
My hope for members of 'Our Time' is that they become more of who they are in every way: in their stammering, how they look, how they dress, their personality. You have to begin to accept yourself in a very profound way to be a happy person. Of course there are bits that will feel challenging and frustrating, but when you're alone in your room and ask yourself, "Am I content with who I am and my place in the world?", I hope most of them would say, "Yes", or at least working towards that. I hope that the self-hatred goes away and the self-doubt goes away and those feelings are replaced by self-esteem, confidence and courage. All of us can choose to live out of the fearful part of ourselves or the courageous part of ourselves. I'm choosing to go down the courageous path and I hope the kids at 'Our Time' are choosing to do that too. I couldn't care less whether their stutter increases or decreases. I care that they become effective communicators. I 100% believe that you can be a very dysfluent person and be a very effective communicator. Most of the SLPs I've met agree that treating the whole person and being OK with who you are is most important. If you choose to work on your fluency you can. I have nothing against being more fluent. If somebody wants to work all out to become more fluent, I'm all for that. But if that's not what you really want, then why should you be forced to do that by your parents or society? It's your voice. Hopefully everyone can start from a place of thinking, "I'm pretty great but there's some things I'd like to learn." I think I'm a good person but I'd like to have a stronger upper body so I might go to the gym, but it doesn't mean until your body is strong you hate yourself. And you know, people who go to the gym can be pretty serious about it, working out for 2-3 hours. It doesn't mean they think they are not a good person. It's the same as speech and language therapy. You can practice for many hours and won't achieve your goal immediately - but you are still a good person.
If pressure is put on kids to become fluent and they don't, they feel they've failed in the eyes of their parent or speech teacher. We run a really big risk of scarring them so that, even if they become fluent, their selfconfidence is shattered. I really believe if someone believes in themselves and that they can do something, they can - you see it over and over."
Article from Blether, Summer/Autumn 2009