About the presenter: Taro Alexander is the Founder and Artistic Director of Our Time Theatre Company, (http://www.ourtimetheatre.org) an artistic home for people who stutter. He is the recipient of the Charles Van Riper Award. He was honored by the National Council on Communicative Disorders at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. in March, 2002. For more information about Our Time go to www.ourtimetheatre.org or email the company at: ourtime@nyc.rr.com. Taro is currently a performer in the off-broadway hit, STOMP. He played Jay in the National Tour of Neil Simon's Lost In Yonkers. He has appeared on Law & Order and in the soon to be released feature film, Vacuums, written and directed by the creators of STOMP. He is a member of the Naked Angels Theatre Company and the 52nd Street Project.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to Taro Alexander before October 22, 2002.

Our Time - a theater company for people who stutter

by Taro Alexander
from New York, USA

My name is Taro Alexander, and I am the Founder and Artistic Director of Our Time Theatre Company, an artistic home for people who stutter. I have stuttered since I was five years old and for most of my life I've let stuttering rule me. My experience of being mocked as a kid, still not feeling completely accepted by society as an adult, combined with the transformative power of theater, compelled me to create Our Time.

Our Time provides an environment free from ridicule where people who stutter discover the joy of creating and performing original theater. Our Time is a place where the everyday rush of society does not exist -- a place where people who stutter have as much time as we need to speak -- where our true feelings and ideas are validated -- where we are encircled by others who speak as we do, people who understand our humiliation and our victories.

Based in New York City, Our Time consists of two companies, teenagers and adults. The company members study acting, singing, playwriting, drumming, and dance with professional artists. Exercising these skills, we create original plays that are performed in New York City theaters, at Speech-Language-Hearing conferences, for the greater stuttering community, at conventions, schools, and for the general public. There is no audition for prospective members, no performance experience necessary, and Our Time serves its members free of charge.

As a teenager, speaking in class, asking a girl out on a date, trying to talk to a friend on the phone, were not easy for me. I was so afraid of being laughed at, mocked, or confronted about my stuttering, I spent all my energy trying to avoid a block. Most of the time that meant not saying what I wanted to say, not speaking when I wanted to speak.

It is horrible to go through life feeling like a spectator. All around you, exciting things are happening; you feel like you are not part of the club, not part of the world around you. You exist in your own little bubble, watching life pass you by. You hear a funny story; you want to add a word or two, but you're afraid it might take too long to get it out; by the time you do, everyone will have walked away. I grew up feeling trapped, alone and isolated. I did not meet another person who stuttered until I was twenty-six years old.

It is because of the arts that I became okay with who I was as a teenager and who I am now. I attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. I was a theater major but rounded out my studies with dance, singing, playwriting, and stage management. At first I found it strange that I wanted to pursue a career in the arts. I mean, here I was, scared to death about my stuttering, yet choosing to major in a field where I would be required to speak clearly and fluently in front of an audience. To my amazement, something happened when I began performing that I cannot fully explain: I did not stutter.

I also discovered that I was not alone. Many accomplished actors stutter: Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Austin Pendelton, and the late Marilyn Monroe, to name a few. James Earl Jones, for example, not only stuttered as a kid, but was mute from the ages of ten to fourteen. He went on to win multiple Tony awards, and now is known throughout the world for his voice! (Darth Vader, CNN, the Yellow Pages).

It is not my contention that acting is a cure for stuttering, nor should Our Time be looked upon as speech therapy. What performing did for me, and I now see doing for Our Time company members, is inspire confidence. Performing on stage in front of a sold out audience is a remarkable sensation. Being on stage and watching the audience rise to their feet for a standing ovation, to hear the applause and know they are for you, is a feeling of success that no one can ever take away from you. And to realize they are not only cheering for you as an actor but also as a playwright. That is the additional beauty of what we are doing. We are giving people the opportunity to see their vision come to life. From the first scribble on the page to the final curtain call. Instead of just casting them in someone else's play, and forcing them to say someone else's words. We are saying to them, "What is important to you? What do you want to share with the world?" And our job is to give the company members the tools that will enable them to transform their thoughts and feelings into an artistic creation.

I think everyone has a compelling story to tell. We are all born with imagination. We are all born with the ability to create. It is only when people begin to put you down and say, "Be quiet, shut up, you're too loud, you can't sing, you can't dance, you can't act!" And after we've heard that for a few years, we start believing we can't do those things. We stop making up characters; we stop telling stories; we stop singing songs. I think the stories people who stutter have to tell are especially interesting because we spend so much of our time trying to conceal who we really are. Once we are given the freedom and the opportunity to express what we've been keeping locked away, it is a powerful experience for both the performer and the audience.

Since I began Our Time, I have heard many stories of adults who always wanted to act but never thought they could because of their stutter. It always breaks my heart when people allow fear to control their lives and don't follow their dreams. My favorite poem is by Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly

I try to live my life by that poem. I try to never let fear stop me from doing what I want to do. And with Our Time, I am trying to pass that on to others who stutter.

I am sick and tired of seeing people who stutter portrayed as idiots or used as comic relief. We all know about Porky Pig. Last summer's box office hit, Pearl Harbor, was yet another example of how Hollywood can contribute to the negative stereotyping of people who stutter. One of its characters is a person who stutters. The audience goes wild with laughter every time he blocks. At one point, he asks a lady to dance. She replies, "Have you always stuttered?" "Nnnnnno, I only ssssssssstutter wwwwwwwhen I'm nnnnnnnnnervous." I couldn't believe it. Not only is this movie depicting a person who stutters as a clown, it is also misinforming the world about stuttering.

But wait, it gets worse: later in the film, he asks the same lady to marry him, and she says yes. After he is married, he, miraculously, doesn't stutter anymore. Wow, I don't know why we all didn't think of that! Forget all the years of therapy and hard work; let's just get married and not be nervous anymore.

But wait, it gets even worse: when Pearl Harbor is under attack, he runs into the barracks attempting to awaken his sleeping comrades. Unfortunately, he has a block and can't get the words out. The bullets fly through the window, killing a few of his friends. I guess he got nervous!

We live in a fast and harsh world: make your point quickly, loudly and clearly, or you won't be heard. At Our Time, we change those rules ... creating a place where we do things at our pace, where we speak without fear of interruption, or having sentences finished for us. Every time we open our mouths to speak, we are fighting a battle. The only way we can lose is by hiding in a corner and watching life pass us by. It is time for the world to hear what we have to say, using our voices, our humor, our compassion, our insights. It is time we tell our story.

So, here's the quick story of our first year: The first day of Our Time was October 20th, 2001. It was a glorious day. It was the beginning of a dream. On that day, we had no idea what to expect. We certainly did not know how quickly our dream would become a reality. The teen company met every Saturday afternoon for four hours. The adult company began in January and met every Monday for three hours.

One teen member came each week from Albany, New York, three hours away. I could not believe she was willing to travel that far to be a member of Our Time. Before this experience, she had never come into the city by herself. I remember after one of our first rehearsals, she needed to catch a taxi to the train station. She had never hailed a taxi before. Another teen volunteered to help her. I watched them go downstairs together. He stepped out into the middle of the street and yelled, "Taxi!" While stuttering on most of his words, he told the driver she needed to go to Grand Central Station. I felt so proud of him. He was the hero. He rose to the challenge, not allowing stuttering to stand in his way.

It was quite moving to see how quickly Our Time became a family. In my fifteen years of working with young people, I have never seen a group of teenagers take care of each other the way they did. They treated each other with respect, kindness, and compassion. During one rehearsal, a young lady in the company began to tell us about how much she was picked on at her old school. She got very emotional and began to cry. I looked around at the other teens and wondered how they would respond. One by one, they each told her how they, too, had been teased, made fun of, and even beaten up because of their speech. It was almost like a competition to see who got picked on the most. What was amazing was how they were able to take a fragile situation and transform it into a series of humorous and triumphant stories. They were sticking up for their company member. They were becoming an ensemble theater company. They were becoming a community.

We spent the year creating and rehearsing two original plays: Stories From the Cardboard Box, written and performed by the teen company and Like Fingerprints, written and performed by the adult company.

In March, we were honored for our work at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. by the National Council on Communicative Disorders.

In June, we performed our inaugural show to three sold out audiences in New York City. Three days later, on June 12, we were featured on the front page of The New York Times Arts section.

Two weeks later, we traveled to California to perform our show for another sold out audience at the National Stuttering Association's annual convention. An hour after the show was over, it was straight to Disneyland! And let me tell you: there is nothing more fun then taking a group of kids to Disneyland for a little post-show fun in the sun!

Two weeks after the California show, on July 13th, National Public Radio aired a feature story about Our Time on Weekend All Things Considered.

And on October 5th, 2002, we will begin Our Time Year Two. We have added new members, an additional day, and a new program called Our Times, a newsletter that will give the teens a chance to express their feelings and stories in another medium. We will be performing our show again on December 13th, at the City of New York's Graduate Center, where they are holding a symposium on Ethics and The Tudor Study: Implications for Research in Stuttering.

Our future dreams are exciting. We are currently in search of a permanent home in New York City. As well, we look forward to bringing our show to a city, town or village near you! We want to make a difference in more people's lives. We want to spread the word: people who stutter can be successful at whatever we choose to do -- stuttering will not hold us back.

In only our first year, we have heard so many people say they wished there was an Our Time when they were growing up. Well, now there is! We don't want people who stutter to grow up feeling trapped, alone and isolated as so many of us do. Now there is a place where people who stutter can say the words we want to say.

I would like to leave you with the lyrics from a song written by Lindsay Campbell, the teen member from Albany. When we began creating Stories From the Cardboard Box, she said she wanted to write an inspirational song. Well, not only did she do that, but this song served as the finale of the show, with the entire teen company singing in unison on stage.

How did I feel?
How did I get here?
You learn and grow from your mistakes
Why did I choose
This scary journey?
To do what I love, I have what it takes

I've got the power
I've got the strength
I've got the courage
And a little bit of faith

Just listen to your heart
It will show you the way
Just listen to your heart
And you'll be okay
And you'll be okay

What is my life?
What is my future?
The road I take is never clear
Who will I be
When I grow older?
Will I still have so many fears?

I've got the power
I've got the strength
I've got the courage
And a little bit of faith

Just listen to your heart
It will show you the way
Just listen to your heart
And you'll be okay
And you'll be okay

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to Taro Alexander before October 22, 2002.

September 20, 2002