Updated: Feb 23
"I believe my experience as a stutterer has increased my capacity for empathy... And that openness serves me as an artist. It also helps remind me that I’m capable of any challenge my profession can throw at me." – Jihad Milhem
I first had the privilege of seeing Jihad perform in a professional production of A Christmas Carol. That well-known and often told story about Ebenezer Scrooge opening his hardened heart to the true spirit of Christmas.
As the Ghost of Christmas Present (and a variety of other character roles) I found his performance to be honest, unique and downright compelling. Jihad, who has graced the stages of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, The Edge Theatre, and The Catamounts (to name a few), and who is also a talented playwright (Mosque), may surprise fans offstage as being a person who stutters.
In this interview Jihad shares his insights about being an artist who stutters, as well as how stuttering opened his own heart to the challenges of life and made him a better actor in the process. His words and story serve as an important reminder that speech should never limit a person who stutters.
Allegra: Can you tell us a little bit about your background (personal and professional)?
Jihad: Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, I’ve wanted to act since I can remember. I’m a professional actor in theatre, film, and commercials who has worked on the Front Range for the past five years or so. I’ve been working professionally since graduating Otterbein University in 2010, first in Philadelphia and New York before moving to Colorado in 2013.
Allegra: What are some of your early memories of stuttering as a child?
Jihad: I would often stutter when saying “b” words or “v” or “f” sounds. I have memories of other children making fun of me, or of me needing to explain why I spoke the way I did.
Allegra: How did friends and family respond to your stuttering while you were growing up?
Jihad: My friends and family were more supportive than anything. At times the younger people in my life were cruel--but almost always unintentionally. And thankfully I had folks in my corner who were patient and still encouraged me to speak.
Allegra: How did your family react when you told them that you wanted to be an actor?
Jihad: My dad once said, “How can you perform, you can’t even talk good.” It was a mixture of them wanting a more financially stable career for me and them being concerned that I was setting myself up for failure. Though once they saw me perform I think their initial concerns were quelled.
Allegra: What is the difference in your fluency when comparing spontaneous speech (everyday conversation) and scripted speech (acting)? Why do you think that is?
Jihad: As long as I’m acting I can usually perform with the same amount of ease between scripted and improv work. I find as long as I can find a story to connect with, my stutter doesn’t become an issue.
Allegra: Can you recount any instances on stage when you stuttered? How did you respond at the time?
Jihad: I, oddly enough, haven’t stuttered very much onstage at all. The last time I did when it wasn’t scripted, or part of the scene, was my senior year of high school after a sleepless night of writing a paper before a performance. In the moment, we kept doing the scene--some people laughed in the audience--but thanks to a great acting partner and mutual focus we got through the climactic scene of the play together.
Allegra: How has being a person who stutters helped you as a professional actor?
Jihad: I believe my experience as a stutterer has increased my capacity for empathy. That, in turn, has increased my skill set as an actor. Being more open to people who communicate differently from yourself is something that stuttering has taught me. And that openness serves me as an artist. It also helps remind me that I’m capable of any challenge my profession can throw at me.
Allegra: Do you have any personal or unique fluency strategies that you rely on to help you with stuttering?
Jihad: I find that getting adequate rest and finding ways to deal with stress in a healthy manner helps me a lot. Much of my stutter comes from my anxiety.
Allegra: Are there other people who stutter who have inspired you as an artist?
Jihad: James Earl Jones and Bill Withers always inspire me when I think of them and their artistry.
Allegra: How would you like for people you meet to respond when they hear that you stutter?
Jihad: I’d like them to receive the information with an open heart and mind--not making a big deal of it, but giving it room to be my truth. And patience with the way I speak.
Allegra: How do you generally feel that stuttering has impacted your life?
Jihad: It has taught me patience and in a roundabout way, confidence. No matter what the world may say, as long as you take the time to speak and have confidence people will listen, someone will.
Allegra: What advice do you have for other people who stutter and aspire to be professional actors?
Jihad: You can do it. Work on your craft--in this case that includes speaking. Use knowing the lines as a safety net at first, and eventually allow the work of character building and being in the moment to take over your attention and subconscious. That’s what helped me.
But most importantly, if you want it, you can do it.