Katherine Filer was nervous. Performing on stage for the first time is nerve-wracking enough, but for Filer it was going to be harder: She stutters.
She approached Kathe Mull before the first performance of Edward Crosby Wells’ Tough Cookies at the Adrienne Theater in February. “I just threw up,” she said. Mull had a one-word reply: “Congratulations!”
“At that moment,” Filer says, “it was gone from me. I had no worries.”
Filer is one of three actresses in Together We Act, a theater company for stutterers founded in September 2011 by David Shinefield. Shinefield, an Elkins Park native, started the company after acting in plays as an undergrad at Yeshiva University. The experience was “life-changing” for Shinefield, a lifelong stutterer: He had no issues delivering his lines flawlessly, and decided he needed to share his experience with other stutterers.
He asked around. He got the membership list for a Manhattan stutterers’ group. (“I pretty much spammed everyone on the whole list,” he says.) He placed an ad on Playbill’s website. It all came together: Together We Act performed two shows in February and workshopped the play at the convention of the National Stuttering Association this summer. Now, they’ll perform Tough Cookies for Fringe audiences at the Adrienne on Sept. 8 and 9 at 7 p.m.
Filer saw Shinefield’s ad in Playbill last year and immediately picked up the phone. “It was automatic,” she says. “I thought about it later.” She convinced her friends to sign up, too: Lucy Reed, a speech pathologist in New Jersey, and Sue Camlin, whose daughter Dawn Falato is an actress and director in town. The three had never acted before, but were willing to try.
“When I was younger, every day I would wake up afraid,” Camlin says. “Am I going to have to speak? Is somebody going to hang up on me? Am I going to be able to say what I want to say in a restaurant, or am I going to have to order something I don’t even want because it’s easier to say?
“That giant fear takes over your life. We wanted to have stutterers and other people see that you can do something you’re terrified of. There are a lot of stutterers who are hiding out.”
Tough Cookies — a dark comedy about a poisonous relationship between a mother, — daughter and their neighbor — doesn’t feel much different than any other play, except for occasional stuttering. Reed doesn’t stutter at all during performances, and Camlin barely does. Director Kathe Mull “never mentions the stuttering,” Filer says. It happens if it happens, and after a few minutes, awareness of it fades out.
Filer and Reed co-founded the South Jersey chapter of the National Stuttering Association in 1998; they and Camlin say the play is an outgrowth of their work in helping stutterers overcome their fears.
“At first it just sounded like fun,” Camlin says. “Then I realized it was much more. It would be a way of showing stutterers what they can do and what is possible.”