About the presenter: TARO ALEXANDER - Founder and Artistic Director, is an accomplished actor who has stuttered since the age of five. He has been a professional actor and teacher in New York City for 16 years. In recent years, he has been widely recognized for his work with people who stutter. In March 2002, he was honored by the National Council on Communicative Disorders at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he received the Charles Van Riper Award. In July 2005, he gave the keynote address at the National Association of Young People Who Stutter (Friends) conference in Cleveland. Alexander performed for 4 years in the successful Off-Broadway smash STOMP. Other acting credits include appearances on NBC's Law & Order, and the National Tour of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers. Alexander has previously taught master classes in Cincinnati, Houston, Jackson, and Toronto, as well as at the University of Michigan, the University of Indiana, and New York University. He is a member of Naked Angels Theatre Company. He would like to thank the Our Time company members for their courage and trust. He is proud and honored to be married to the amazing Leigh Pennebaker and is overjoyed to be the father of Jackson Miles Alexander, born June 11, 2007

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2007.

A Magical Place, A Magical World

by Taro Alexander
from New York, USA

"Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it."-- Bertolt Brecht

I have witnessed the power of art to shape reality. Through the vehicle of Our Time Theatre Company I have seen art transform the lives of young people whose voices had been too often ignored.

When Julianna Padilla joined the Our Time Pre-Teen company two years ago at the age of seven, she was very shy and hesitant to speak. A strong writer and dynamic dancer, it was clear how intelligent, precocious, creative, and talented she was from the beginning. However, these qualities were often obscured by her tendency to remain silent, at the fringes of group conversation. I knew it was her fear of stuttering, or more precisely, the fear of being judged for her stuttering, that was holding her back.

A little over a year later, Julianna strode out to the middle of a stage, and alone, stood in a pool of spotlight before an audience of hundreds. Stuttering frequently, and with the utmost grace, poise, and articulateness, she commenced the 2007 Our Time Benefit Gala, honoring Peggy Lipton.

Julianna's confidence was electrifying. As I stood in the wings and watched her command the attention of the audience with her incredible eloquence and self-possession, I realized that I had tears filling my eyes, but this was not the first time I had seen such a beautiful transformation in a young person.

Newfound courage of this caliber is something of a theme amongst the members of Our Time. In fact, it is the rule - not the exception. And that is no accident. Here's why:

I believe that given an environment of listening, understanding, acceptance, and unconditional love, young people will be confident, empowered, motivated, and compassionate; able to achieve anything they want and surpass all expectations.

I have stuttered since the age of five, and in the fall of 2001 I set out to create such an environment. I founded Our Time Theatre Company, a non-profit organization based in New York City dedicated to providing an artistic home for young people who stutter. Our Time offers a setting where young people who stutter discover the joy of creating and performing original theatre and music. There is no audition for prospective members, no performance experience necessary, and Our Time serves its company members free of charge. The Our Time company is comprised of young people who stutter ages 8-19, who study acting, singing, playwriting, drumming, and dance with professional artists. Exercising these skills, the company members create original plays and music and perform them in New York City and around the world. Through its performances, Our Time educates people about the challenges and misconceptions of stuttering using theatre as a tool to demonstrate the vast capabilities of a group of people that is often misunderstood. At the same time, Our Time's message of universal acceptance and the power of listening transcend the boundaries of the specific issue of stuttering, motivating audiences to appreciate and celebrate everyone's unique voice.

Our Time was founded so that young people who stutter would have a place to learn, grow, and communicate without fear of being judged or ignored. Our Time is a place where the everyday rush of society does not exist. It is a haven where people who stutter have as much time as they need to speak, and where their true feelings, ideas and dreams are validated. Our Time is a place where kids who may have been afraid to speak in other settings are encouraged to express themselves, with the assurance that what they say will be heard, acknowledged, and respected. In this nurturing environment, it is understood that as long as a person is speaking from their heart, they cannot be wrong, and others will listen to what they are saying, no matter how long it takes for that person to say it.

At Our Time, it does not matter if it takes you two minutes to say your name, it does not matter if it takes you three minutes to say one line in the play, it does not matter if it takes you five minutes to ask one question. As long as you are communicating from the heart, you are supported, encouraged, and celebrated. In fact, we put the following phrase on all our printed material: The performance will be anywhere from 2-10 hours depending on the actors' fluency. Of course, the performance does not come anywhere close to ten hours (usually the entire show which includes a series of short plays by the pre-teens, an intermission, and a full-length play by the teens, lasts about two and a half hours). The purpose of that phrase is to let people know that they are entering into our world. And if they have a problem with someone stuttering on stage or off, they are in the wrong place.

It is truly astonishing to see what happens to these young people when they are given the opportunity to let their light shine. I could not be more proud of the members of Our Time. They are my friends and I love each and every one of them unconditionally. I hope and wish so many things for the company members of Our Time. I hope that they continue to live out of courage and not fear. I hope they never let stuttering hold them back, and if they do, I hope those moments are short lived.

The power of the Our Time philosophy transcends the subject of stuttering, and it transcends theatre. The members of Our Time, operating with the tools of this philosophy, have become ambassadors of courage and openness. During our first three years we worked with teens who stutter, three years ago we added a pre-teen company, and as we enter our seventh season, I am thrilled that we will be able to reach more people worldwide. In August of 2008, Our Time is planning to begin Camp Our Time, an arts camp for young people who stutter and their siblings from all around the world.

Camp Our Time's mission is twofold: it will primarily be designed to provide a fun, supportive, and beautiful environment where young people who stutter can express themselves in their own time without the fear of being ridiculed. Camp will also provide these conditions to the siblings of young people who stutter, while teaching these siblings who do not stutter how to better support their brothers and sisters. In all camp activities, the standard Our Time principals will be applied: everyone will have as much time as they need to speak. No one will be rushed, teased, put-down, or cut-off. Campers will gain the confidence they need to be successful in the upcoming school year and beyond, regardless of the way they speak. Camp Our Time will be an environment where campers' voices and ideas will be heard and validated. By opening this opportunity to siblings of young people who stutter, camp will bring the siblings closer together and foster better understanding between them.

(For more information on Our Time Theatre Company, including Camp Our Time, please contact the Our Time office at 212-414-9696 or moreinfo@ourtimetheatre.org, www.ourtimetheatre.org.)

I believe the following words sum everything up better that I ever could. Here are the lyrics from a song written by the 2006-2007 Our Time Pre-Teen Company. The song is titled Magical Place ...

There is a magical place called Our Time
When you step right in you will be loved
There's freedom here in this place called Our Time
No one makes fun of you
You will be loved

Let there be love in the world
So it can touch everyone
Let there be freedom in this world
If there is love everyone would be happy

In these lyrics I see art as the ultimate tool shaping reality: The voices of future generations summoning a world where unconditional love reigns supreme.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2007.

September 9, 2007
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