Stutterers burst on the stage - not stuttering

Director Kathe Mull watches actresses Katherine Filer (left) and Lucy Reed during dress rehearsal at the Adrienne Theater. In this scene, Reed was interrupted while painting her toenails.
Director Kathe Mull watches actresses Katherine Filer (left) and Lucy Reed during dress rehearsal at the Adrienne Theater. In this scene, Reed was interrupted while painting her toenails. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 16, 2013

During a rehearsal Monday night in the sanctuary of a Cherry Hill church, Lucy Reed spoke each of her lines smoothly.

"Jo, you were different," she said, a small audience listening from the pews of the Unitarian Universalist Church. "In high school, you were a regular hell-raiser, and still everybody liked you. All those boys chasing after you."

When her speech isn't scripted, however, Reed isn't so fluent. She stutters.

So do Katherine Filer and Sue Camlin, who will join her onstage at the Adrienne Theater in Philadelphia on Sunday and Monday nights in performing a one-act play put on by a nonprofit theater company that aims to give acting opportunities to people who stutter.

The three women, all in their 50s and 60s, have never acted before. In the past, their stuttering had served as a barrier to public speaking, from skipping sessions of reading aloud in grade school to worrying about telling a gas station attendant what grade to pump.

Now, they are confronting those fears by performing Tough Cookies by Edward Crosby Wells, a play about a woman, her mother, and a longtime neighbor hashing out deep-seated conflicts and anxieties.

While Filer stutters during rehearsals, Camlin does so less, and Reed not at all.

"I just feel really comfortable," said Reed, a speech-language pathologist from Glassboro.

The same was true for David Shinefield, the founder of Together We Act, which is putting on Tough Cookies with $11,000 in donations raised online. As a student at Yeshiva University, Shinefield was amazed when he didn't stutter while auditioning for a part in Of Mice and Men.

Before graduating, Shinefield, now 22, had started Together We Act. Last year, the nonprofit put on its first one-act play, featuring three men who stutter. None did onstage.

"Everyone was thinking, 'Is this a big sham?' " Shinefield said of the audience's reaction. Any doubts were resolved during a question-and-answer session, when the men returned to stuttering, he said.

Even for actors who don't stutter, the fluency they experience onstage is rarely sustainable, said Joseph Donaher, program director of research and academics in the Center for Childhood Communication at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"In acting, you're practicing and memorizing a specific set of lines that you've recited over and over again. The rhythm tends to help the person move forward," Donaher said.

The problem is that spontaneous speech "is rarely that rhythmical," he said.

It's difficult to permanently address stuttering - a neurologically based condition that starts in childhood and affects 1 percent of the population - for similar reasons, Donaher said. Using speech therapy techniques before speaking feels artificial to many stutterers.

Everyone who stutters also does so differently, meaning there's no one strategy to address it, Donaher said.

But one trait many stutterers share is speech-related anxiety, Donaher said.

To be effective, therapy "has to address the emotional component," he said. "And accepting the fact that you stutter."

The director of Tough Cookies, Kathe Mull, hasn't tried to stop the women from stuttering. "We just don't address it," she said.

New York-based Mull got involved with the play by responding to an ad Shinefield posted online.

"I thought this would be an interesting way to work with people who had never been in the theater and show them that world," she said. "I knew that we were going to be starting from scratch."

Memorizing lines was a challenge. Filer, a network consultant and life coach from Sicklerville who started the South Jersey chapter of the National Stuttering Association, is nervous when she thinks about two of her lines, each seven lines long on the script.

But she isn't embarrassed about how she might say them. "We say, 'Kathe, what if we're stuttering?' " Filer said. "She'll say, 'Well then, stutter.' "

For more information on tickets for Sunday and Monday's performances, visit www.togetherweact.com.


Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232 or mhanna@phillynews.com.

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