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Stuttering Meets the Arts In SAY’s Confident Voices Program

Too often, young people who stutter receive communication that the performing arts are not 'for' them, and therefore don’t have the opportunity to channel their incredible imaginations and voices into these mediums. And what a loss that is. People who stutter are brilliant, and deserve the time they need to speak. People who stutter deserve to be in the arts, in all of their authenticity, stutter and all. – Kate Detrick, Person Who Stutters and Director of Confident Voices
Once you prove to yourself that you can do the thing you're most afraid of, what else is possible for you? I will never, ever forget the look of joy on [that participant’s] face, or the image of him striding off stage with his arms raised in triumph. – Aidan Sank, Artistic Director of Confident Voices
Kate Detrick (left) and Aidan Sank (right) at the Songwriting Concert, Credit: Jonathan Clarke

For those of you who don’t know me personally, and affiliate me only as being a blogging Speech-Language Pathologist, you may be surprised to learn that I am also an active member of the arts community. I was raised in an artistic family that holds the arts in exceedingly high esteem, and therefore one of my earliest languages was music. I began studying the violin at age three, and continue to perform as a violinist, singer and actor to this day.


The arts shaped who I have become, and I give credit to the arts world for being a sacred space of self-discovery and self-expression. I also credit the stuttering community with these same gifts. That is why, when I initially conceived of this stuttering blog, I planned to interview PWS who work and thrive as artists. I longed to bring these two worlds together, as they both have so much potential power to destigmatize the lived experience of stuttering.


Therefore, my first profile pieces featured a number of accomplished artists who stutter: actor Jihad Milhem, musician and writer Adam Perry, folk-rock musician Steve Varney, and comedian Nina G, to name a few. Their interviews revealed a common theme: Each had found strength, purpose, community, and acceptance through the arts.


It all led me to wonder, as I so often have over the last decade, how to go about introducing more young people who stutter to the arts. How can the arts best be utilized in the work we do as Speech-Language Pathologists, as stuttering organizations, and as allies and mentors to PWS?


Enter Confident Voices, a program offered through the Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY), and led by an incredible team of two: Director Kate Detrick, and Artistic Director Aidan Sank. Detrick, Sank, and the Confident Voices program are doing exactly that: introducing young people who stutter to the arts world, and integrating stuttering and the arts.


The life-changing result of this combination for PWS has been extraordinary, and is lending evidence to the idea that the arts could hold a uniquely influential role in a holistic approach to stuttering. I recently had the honor of interviewing Detrick and Sank, as well as Derick Konan (an alumnus of Confident Voices), and am incredibly excited to share the details of our interview with readers below.

A special thank you to Kate Detrick, Aidan Sank, and alumnus Derick Konan for their work in writing out these responses, as well as the critical work they are all doing, together with SAY, to advocate for the wider stuttering community.


 

Allegra Ludwig Michael (ALM): Can you each share a bit more about your background and how you first became involved with the Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY)?


Kate Detrick (KD): I started stuttering in my early childhood and it took several years for me to even realize there was something different about me. I always wonder about that period of early brain development, when I was aware of only the visceral, physiological feeling of stuttering and had no (or very limited) socio-emotional association with it. So many of the thoughts and feelings surrounding stuttering are borne of the lived social experience of the person who stutters - of watching people’s reactions to them, of feeling rushed, of the subtle communication that your words don’t really matter as much as a fluent person’s. Sometimes I long for the purity of that period before I knew I was different, because as soon as other people started to point it out to me, I started self-editing, being fearful of speaking situations, and feeling like I was constantly performing on a hostile stage. I wonder: what would it have felt like to be able to extend that period (the period before I was receiving communication that stuttering is bad) further into my childhood so that I could make core memories around it?


I ask myself this question because in many ways this is the environment that SAY is trying to simulate for young people. For many people who stutter, including myself, a community where stuttering is accepted and celebrated as a beautiful manifestation of the diversity of human communication is both deeply needed and incredibly foreign. When I stumbled upon SAY as an early 20-something, I was shaken to my core by the idea that a place like this could, and did, exist. All the speech therapy I had had up until that point was predicated on the false promised land of fluency. I had not conceived of the concept, “It’s ok to stutter.”


I had moved to New York City right after college and one of my biggest goals was to be fluent in all my job interviews, and to dodge speaking transparently about stuttering. Reflecting back on this period now, I can see with clarity that the people who were interviewing me were seeing a lack of authenticity, a schism in the way that I was communicating that perhaps made me a less desirable candidate in their eyes. I know now that I feel my most empowered when I integrate stuttering into my identity and share it freely with others whenever I feel called to let them in on this integral, unique part of who I am.


It was in the midst of this period of unsuccessful interviews that I came into contact with the stuttering advocacy organizations in NYC, including SAY, and had the pleasure of being powerfully soothed, gratified, and affirmed by the grounding simplicity of being truly listened to, and truly listening. I realized I had been reaching for this feeling my whole life, building frames of reference and forcing coping mechanisms around the absence of it but always keeping a glimmer of hope that it was possible. And it was!


I worked at SAY’s summer camp and started a full-time position supporting the Confident Voices program shortly thereafter. A few years later I became the Director Of Confident Voices, and the amazing Aidan Sank joined me full-time, thus embarking on what has been the most special and rewarding professional collaboration of my life! I also have recently stepped into the Director of Health role for Camp SAY.


Aidan Sank (AS): When I graduated from Circle in the Square Theater School at age 19, one of the first things I did was work on a workshop production of a funny little musical based on the Greek story of Prometheus. Looking back, it's easy to understand the significance of saying yes to that job, as it changed the course of my life - but in the moment, it just felt like any other reading of a play.


As the director and I were getting to know one another, he asked what else I enjoyed doing, besides acting and theater. I shared that I'd always loved working with young people, and had long felt like I had an easier time communicating with kids than I did with adults. I somehow always seemed to be (and still am) the person at parties who ends up playing with the toddler in the room instead of talking to the grown-ups, and I let him know as much. The director mentioned that he worked with an organization called SAY (then called "Our Time") that did theater with young people who stutter, and asked if I might be interested in volunteering as a Teaching Artist. I didn't have any frame of reference for stuttering and knew nothing about it, but he seemed like a lovely guy and I was open to working with young people of any kind, so I said yes, and in the process changed the trajectory of the rest of my life.


When I arrived at SAY for my first session, I was immediately struck by the quality of listening in the space. I'd never been in an environment where everyone truly had as much time as they needed to speak - where the pace was slow, where silence was celebrated and interruptions were non-existent. There was a sweetness and a warmth that permeated every interaction that felt genuine, and I could tell that folks were listening to genuinely understand, not just to "perform" listening. I could feel right away that this place was special and different, and everything that I have discovered over the past 11 years here has only confirmed that initial impression.


Over the next seven years, I continued to pursue a career in theater and acting, all the while continuing to work with SAY on the weekends. As the years progressed, I realized more and more that this space and this community was the thing that brought me the most joy, and the place that I could make the largest difference. When the opportunity came up in 2018 to step into this role co-directing SAY's arts program, it was an immediate yes for me. Creating art with and supporting young people who stutter in the process of discovering their own power has been the greatest experience of my life so far, and I am so deeply grateful to that director of Prometheus, unbound for inviting this 19-year-old actor he'd just met to join this extraordinary community.



ALM: What is the Confident Voices program, and what led to its inception?


KD: Confident Voices is SAY’s after school and weekend arts program for kids and teens who stutter. It is a safe space, a brave space, and an artistic home. It is a place to be seen, heard, and loved. It is a space for listening. It’s a space where we can stutter as openly as feels comfortable to us, and everyone has as much time as they need to speak. And it’s really ok to stutter.


Songwriting Concert, Credit: Jonathan Clarke

Those are the foundational elements! More specifically, Confident Voices has three seasonal programs. This year the offerings are our Fall Song & Spoken Word Project, Winter Storytelling Project, and Spring Mentor Project. Kids and teens who stutter work in small groups together to collaborate on devising original arts pieces, guided by one of SAY’s incredible Teaching Artists. We also do a lot of just hanging out in groups of various sizes, whether it’s everyone who’s enrolled in a session or the small group of close collaborators, talking about life, stuttering, video games, basketball, movies, school, travel destinations, friendships, TV, fluffy animals, what we did the past weekend…etc. It’s an arts program, but arts is merely the vessel that we use to carry our voices as we reflect on the big and small questions in life. Celebrating our identities and being in community with people who stutter, while making some cool art, is the goal.


Virtual Storytelling Project, Credit: Kristina Ferlich

Because of the innovation that the past two years have demanded of us all, we are now offering a robust online version of Confident Voices! It has been transformative for us to be able to serve any young person anywhere who stutters. And of course we are continuing to build and go deeper with our NYC in-person community.


The Confident Voices program was created as a way for young people who stutter to bring their uniqueness, their talent, and their gifts to the stage. Too often, young people who stutter receive communication that the performing arts are not “for” them, and therefore don’t have the opportunity to channel their incredible imaginations and voices into these mediums. And what a loss that is. People who stutter are brilliant, and deserve the time they need to speak. People who stutter deserve to be in the arts, in all of their authenticity, stutter and all. Confident Voices is here to serve as a safe space for people who stutter to stand in the middle of the stage and claim their artistic identities. And to boot, if they choose it, to channel their thoughts and feelings surrounding stuttering into art. In short, people who stutter are a specifically cool bunch, so when we have the time and space to express ourselves and to explore our imaginations, magic happens.



ALM: What impact have you seen from bringing together children who stutter with an arts-inspired program?


KD: It’s common for people who stutter to have never met someone else who talks like them. People who stutter are often covert (hiding their stuttering) and so even if you do come into contact with one of the 70 million people in the world who stutter, you might not know it. This can be so isolating, and a lot of people feel like they’re the only one. I certainly felt that way.


One of the things that makes Confident Voices a powerful community is the magnificent simplicity of seeing the reflection of yourself in someone else, perhaps for the first time. It is so deeply affirming, and the effects unfold in real-time. It’s sort of like magic. Combine that with the fact that people who stutter often have a deep and hard-won sense of self-knowing, an incredible capacity for reflection, and an unusually sharp perceptiveness, and these qualities are often borne at least in part of the feelings of isolation that can be present when you have never met someone else like you. Do you see where this leads us? People who stutter are uniquely gifted artists, because they have something to say! There is intricacy and complexity in their artistic voices because of the tenacity that is developed, moment by moment, as people who stutter move through their lives.


The opportunity to come together and feel like you are part of something, that you have something essential and raw and important in common with the others in the community, and to be encouraged to explore the dimensions of that thing collectively and collaboratively…this is the stuff that makes the community so powerful, so rejuvenating, and so FUN!


Teen Short Play Performances, Credit: Mike Chiodo

ALM: Can you share a particularly salient memory or experience from Confident Voices?


AS: There are scores and scores of these tucked into my memory, and it's quite the task to pick just one, but I'll share the first that popped into my head. It was during a performance we were doing a few years ago at our summer camp, Camp SAY, and a new teen participant with a stronger stutter had stepped up to the stage in front of an audience of hundreds, to share the piece that he and his group mates had created. His role in the piece was short. He essentially entered the stage and said maybe three sentences and then exited, but once he finished his lines, something extraordinary happened. I watched from backstage as this young man's face lit up with deep and glowing pride, and as he exited he put both fists up straight in the air, walking all the way to the other side of the stage with his hands raised in true and joyful celebration. It didn't matter that the play was still going on, or that he had dropped out of his character. He'd just stood on stage and said lines that he wrote and had stuttered beautifully through them and it was a pure, unadulterated moment of personal success for him. Because once you prove to yourself that you can do the thing you're most afraid of, what else is possible for you? I will never, ever forget the look of joy on his face, or the image of him striding off stage with his arms raised in triumph.

Teen Short Play Performances, Credit: Mike Chiodo

ALM: Do you have any suggestions for how other organizations, local community chapters, and SLPs can support people who stutter through the arts?


KD: On a foundational level, it all begins with providing systematic reinforcement within these communities that the voices of people who stutter, and most importantly - stuttered speech, is worthy of being monumentalized and reflected into art, and people who stutter deserve a place among artists. Stuttering does not need to be erased from the persona of “artist” - art is ultimately about authenticity, and people who stutter often feel that stuttering is one of the most authentic parts of themselves.


For allies and facilitators, this can look like encouraging clients and constituents to believe in their own ability to participate in the arts. It can also look like implementing arts-based exercises into these environments - things like drawing, acting, free-writing, story-building, to name a few. If this feels new, we recommend starting by identifying one arts-based exercise or game that you, as the clinician or facilitator, feel comfortable leading. Consider the elements of it that could/should be tweaked in order to make it more accessible and safe for people who stutter (i.e. no time limits), and develop a way to introduce the exercise that makes it clear that this is a safe space for stuttering and trying new things. This is a first step towards demystifying and democratizing the arts for people who stutter who may be new to it.


Other than that, a (non-exhaustive!) list of ideas to fill up the space with art:

  • Attending shows (plays, musicals, gallery openings, concerts, etc.) as a group (bonus points for throwing in some voluntary stuttering in the midst of this!)

  • Bring in artist guest speakers. Prep them in advance with “Stuttering 101” to help them be good allies during a Q&A

  • Host a fun, low stakes table read of a play (bonus points for exploring the possibility: What if these characters were people who stutter?)

  • Encourage people to enroll in an acting (or writing, drawing, etc.) class and check in frequently to process the experience and the feelings that may arise specifically for people who stutter in that environment, discuss how accessible the space is feeling, etc.

  • Attend a SAY show! (Check out say.org or email Kate@SAY.org and Aidan@SAY.org for info)

Advocating for a space in the arts for people who stutter begins with us, people who stutter, and with our allies. Let’s envision this world together. Give yourself permission to play, to explore, and to create. We deserve it.


Spring Mentor Project, Credit: Jonathan Clarke

 

Our interview with the Confident Voices team continues here with a special guest: alumnus and person who stutters, Derick Konan. Konan, age 20, graduated from the program in 2021, and shares a few of his takeaways below.


Derick Konan (middle) at the Songwriting Concert, Credit: Jonathan Clarke

ALM: How did you first find out about Confident Voices and join the program?


Derick Konan (DK): I had no idea at all that there was a program like this for people who stuttered until my social worker in eighth grade reached out to me about it. I never even knew that people stuttered like me until I heard of this program. I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was in a world with people who stutter and was shocked to think that I had a chance to meet other people like me! My social worker reached out to my mom who then told me about it. When I found out, I was quite shy on the outside about it but elated to think that I could meet people like me who stuttered. I would finally not be alone.



ALM: Can you describe your experience during those initial meetings? And how did your experience change as time went on?


DK: I was very shy at first, and had no idea what I was going to be doing in the program until I walked in. My first day was so fun, it's burned into my memory. I remember walking into the studio, and meeting Kate and Aidan, and Travis (Robertson), and other TAs who were attending at the time, and continuing to feel so shy. I didn't really talk much at first, but as time went on we got to create a bunch of art and I was able to find out things about myself that I didn't even know I could do! My experience changed the way I see myself, and that change remains with me to this day. I am always happy to join any SAY program and just let myself be who I am.

Derick Konan (far right) at the Songwriting Concert, Credit: Jonathan Clarke

ALM: What was the most surprising and/or inspiring moment you experienced during your time in the program?


DK: My most surprising and inspiring moment was my first time on stage. It was the first year I had done the program and it was the mentor program, if I remember correctly. I had so much fun creating the story we were going to be presenting. The one thing that really shook my bones was going up on a stage, in front of people. It was something I had never done before. I was never the one to go out of my way to act, or sing in front of anyone. I was so shocked that I could even do it! I was so nervous that I almost didn’t want to go up. One of my TAs at the time told me that even he gets afraid before going up on stage, and to go up and just be my best self. This gave me the confidence to go ahead, and allowed me to share my first ever experience on stage with people I didn't know. This first experience on stage was a defining moment that made me want to be an actor today, and it’s something I am still doing to this day!



ALM: Did participating in Confident Voices have an impact on your overall lived experience of stuttering? If so, how?

DK: It did. Over my years of stuttering I was always afraid, and sometimes I still am. I am always learning new ways to accept my stutter. Overall, I feel very confident about my stutter now and am not as ashamed as I was before. I always felt like I was weird or different when I stuttered. Now I feel like I am just a person with a special skill. Stuttering is something I can do that no one else in the world does exactly the way that I can. I have learned that only one percent of the world stutters, so I do feel very special because I am part of that rare minority. Confident Voices allowed me to tap into my stutter and own it. I can talk the way I do and be proud of it, and I can take as much time as I need without being rushed.



ALM: What would you like others to know about the arts and stuttering? And what would you like others to know about performing on stage and stuttering?


DK: Stuttering is very normal for people who stutter. I want people to know that stuttering doesn’t make anyone less human. Stuttering is a rare and beautiful thing that makes any person who stutters unique. Especially in the arts, it can be a beautiful thing to own about yourself. When you feel confident to be anyone you want on stage and do anything you want on stage with a stutter, it feels like you own the world. You can reach for the sky, and do and be anything you want to be.


For me, stuttering on stage made me more confident to continue getting up in front of an audience. Every time I get the chance to go on stage, it feels so good when I just let my words out in the world and people are there to listen. The stage is a big place where your voice is the loudest and it makes me imagine that everyone in the world can hear it. That is what makes us, and this experience, so special.


 

*To learn more about Confident Voices, and for enrollment info regarding the next upcoming program, the Storytelling Project (starting in mid-Jan 2023), visit: https://www.say.org/programs/confidentvoices/


The Confident Voices blog can be found here: https://sayconfidentvoices.tumblr.com/


The "SAY Scroll" asks program graduates to answer the question, "What is your best advice for young people who stutter?" These responses are recorded and edited by Aidan Sank, and can be found at:

-2022: SAY Scroll

-2021: SAY Scroll


To reach out to Kate Detrick, contact her at: Kate@SAY.org

To reach out to Aidan Sank, contact him at: Aidan@SAY.org


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