Performing arts student Nye Russell-Thompson tells us about his one-man play giving people an insight into living with a stammer.
“Hey, person who stammers with social anxiety and low self-confidence: don’t be shy, get up on stage and talk at 300 people or more.”
How nice it would be if we could all do this from the beginning - someone tells us to “just do it” and we do so without batting an eyelid. For me, for a long time, this was impossible. The mindset of a person who stammers can often be a cocktail of over-thinking: trying to find vocal strategies that actually work, worrying about how long it takes to get a sentence out, becoming frustrated, self-berating and upset, and so on.
I’m Nye Russell-Thompson, a name I still occasionally stumble over. I’ve had a stammer from a young age and still find it difficult to say exactly what I mean. Stammering, in my case, led to social anxiety, which I feared I was going to have to live with forever, without any hope of improvement.
I have been involved in theatre and drama since high school, and I recently completed a Performing Arts degree at the University of Chichester, where marrying my introverted personality with extroverted stage personas and characters has become a new strategy for dealing with my stammer. My third year featured a module on solo performance. Required to devise and perform a one-person theatre show, I decided to draw on my own experience, examining the thought process of someone who stammers, and that elusive goal of clarity.
In the piece entitled ‘Just a Few Words’, I play the only on-stage character. A simple, stark aesthetic communicates an uncomfortable nervousness. A stuck record player sits under a harsh white spotlight; the character stands under another white spotlight to the right, squinting uneasily in the brightness. The intention is to give audience members the opportunity to understand what having a stammer is like, through a relatable character arc of a person who stammers becoming increasingly frustrated with himself whilst trying to tell another person how he feels about them. As I created this character based on personal experience, I refer to the various strategies I have used, such as whispering, relaxing, articulation and (my personal favourite) ‘going posh’, where I fake a ‘Queen’s English’ accent.
The tone of the piece is innocently comedic, with humour delivered through the awkwardness of my character trying to tell an unseen special someone about his love for them. As it progresses, he picks up signs that suggest vocal strategies and provide encouragement. When the character still can’t break his stammer to say what he wants to, the signs that detail his inner thoughts become abusive, serving as devices to undermine my character’s intentions. Towards the end of the performance the signs take on a personality of their own, seeming to become aware of the fact that it’s all just a performance, and pointing out the fact that since I spent a lot of time writing them as props for the piece (especially the insults) I am essentially using my character to insult myself in front of 200 people.
The audience response was unexpected and overwhelming. People said that they hadn't realised what it could be like to have a stammer.
I performed ‘Just a Few Words’ for the first time in November last year to a mixed audience of members of the public and students from the University of Chichester. In that particular show, there was a point where the audience, who had been laughing along with the awkward but endearing character, suddenly became aware of the subtext that drives itself to the forefront: under the innocent, modestly funny surface sits the segregation my character had been defining since the start of the piece, in that he is the odd-one-out, lesser and alone with his impediment, hating himself for not being able to get words - so clear in his head - out of his mouth.
The emotional response to this from the audience was unexpected and overwhelming. People informed me afterwards that it had made them cry, that they hadn't realised what it could be like to have a stammer and the problems it can cause for one’s self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. This was inspiring, warming and exciting to say the least. With new-found confidence in my own work and confidence as a performer with a stammer, this has spurred me on to prepare the piece for a more public audience. As I develop it, I hope to give people with speech impediments and problems with self-confidence the comfort that they are not alone, that it can get easier to deal with. I also hope to spread understanding and empathy among people who don’t stammer.
I hadn’t realised that I could use theatre to turn my speech impediment - which had frustrated and worn down my confidence for much of my life - into a performance opportunity. I’m looking forward to making more people laugh, think and, essentially, understand.
From Speaking Out Summer/Autumn 2014 edition, p10
Update:‘Just a Few Words’ has since been performed at the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton on 28th August 2014, and through three weeks of the Edinburgh Festival in August 2015.