Exclusive: SPRING AWAKENING's Daniel David Stewart on How it Took Losing His Voice to Find it on Broadway
Last month, only a few days into previews, Stewart received the news that he'd suffered a vocal hemorrhage, and would be forced to remain completely silent for three weeks - forcing him to miss SPRING AWAKENING's opening night on Broadway.
After weeks of vocal rest, Stewart returns to the stage tonight in the beloved musical. In a new column he exclusively penned for BroadwayWorld, titled 'FINDING MY VOICE (Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and SHUT THE HELL UP),' Stewart, takes a personal dive into his journey to New York with 'AWAKENING', detailing the frustrations of losing his voice, how he learned to find the silver-lining, and what it means to return to the stage alongside his cast mates.
You can read the column in full below.
This is the story about how the "Voice of Ernst" became Voiceless, and how it just might have given him a second lease on life.
Okay maybe that's a bit over dramatic, but there's a reason I got into this business in the first place.
I'm an actor, giving voice to a deaf actor on Broadway, and currently, I can not speak. But I can listen, and I can write, and I have something I want to say.
A week and a half ago, I was at the doctors for the fourth time in eleven days, desperately waiting to hear the verdict on whether I would be healthy enough to perform in my first opening night on Broadway. I sat there thinking "This has got to be it. I've got to get some answers...I haven't spoken a word in two weeks. Something's gotta give."
I sat there twiddling my thumbs, my throat numb from the awful spray that was carefully shot to the back of my mouth. I breathed deep and waited for the answer.
Let me back track a moment.
At the start of this year I was asked to pick a word to encapsulate what I wanted this year to be about. After careful deliberation and carpal tunnel tingles, from logging word after word into my phone, (true product of my generation that I am), I chose the word "authenticity". A word seemingly NOT of my generation.
I chose this word because I felt like it was something that had been lost on me the last few years as I pursued my career in acting.
The irony of the choice is something I didn't notice at first, but its become apparent to me over the last few weeks.
You see, since the moment I started down the arduous path of performing, I've always preached one word. I would hold it up like a shining beacon of a light, a holy grail of sorts, for all the Knights of Camelot to chase after. "If I ever wrote a book on acting", I'd say to the more patient of my friends, "I would put one word on the first page and keep the next 50 blank. That word is "Honesty"." I'd say this proud and knowing, as if I had one of the secret answers of life already figured out. Then I would finish by saying, "If you could learn to be honest on stage, or in front of the camera, that's truly 85% of the work." I would smile, the way a kid does when their teacher calls on them in class and they feel like they've nailed the right answer. "Honesty". The answer to life. The fixer of all things. I put it on the highest pedestal imaginable. This saying I had was a rather easy sentiment, and I secretly felt that if I put just the right spin on it, I could make it sound as if no one had the thought before.
It has always been one of those "go to" phrases of mine. Something I recycle over and over again, until the weight of it becomes lost somewhere in time. Yet still I would say it, proud and loud. Feeling like Luke when he finally learns how to use the force. It was as if I became my own personal Yoda. "Follow this, and succeed you will, Young Padowan..." Except in my galaxy, it tends to cause the rolling eyes. Not the wise, understanding nodding of heads.
Getting back on track.
It was only until recently, that I realized that those two harmless words, which I've spouted more than any other this past year, are basically interchangeable. Maybe not interchangeable, but at least like some pair of rare, conjoined twins, who's bodies combine and feed one another.
Here I've been preaching honesty all my life, and then trying to find my authenticity, as if they were two, separate entities. Different side quests on the same path to glory. When really they're one in the same. Neither can exist without the other.
This year, I've been telling anyone in possession of a body, that I feel like I'm "finding my authenticity". Wearing that phrase like some proverbial badge of pride. "I'm working on myself, therefore I'm a good person. I'm attacking my flaws, fighting the good fight, and all this on the cusp of adulthood. Aren't I Great?"
But it wasn't until I finally learned to shut up and listen, and I mean truly Shut Up and Listen, that I started learning how to find either of those words. "Honesty and Authenticity"
Almost 2 months ago I moved out to New York to begin the journey of a lifetime. I was coming out to fulfill a childhood dream of mine, on several fronts. 1: I was starting rehearsals for a show that would be my Broadway Debut.
2: It was the first revival of one of my favorite shows EVER.
3. I was moving out to New York, on a job, with a purpose, and a paycheck.
"What?! This can't be real!" I thought, "This doesn't happen! Not like this. Not this fast!"
Yet, there I was packing, and fretting over how much of my life I actually wanted to take with me.
I should've been walking on air. I should've been blessing the sky 10 times a day and screaming from a mountain top, how lucky I am to be alive in this moment. I'm working with people who literally changed my life growing up, and I'm doing it on one of the biggest stages imaginable, with the coolest group of people in the world. This ragamuffin collection of young spirits that came together from all over the country to tell a truthful story in an epic way.
But something was cold. Missing.
People would ask me how I felt and I would surrender the standard, ubiquitous, "I'm blessed", or, "We're all so lucky just to be here". I'd say these things in my slightly over privileged, white-bread, actor voice, and put on my best sheepish smile, as to evoke, "Young Bright Eyed Kid Who's Just Oh So Flabbergasted By His Luck". But it always felt like a projection of what I wanted to feel and not the real thing. I can't tell you what I actually felt. There might have been a sliver of that wide eyed boy, but I imagine my feelings mostly manifested themselves as deep-seeded anxiety, and fear, as displayed by the eye twitch that developed two days before my flight, and continued throughout the following weeks.
I was (and am) working on the Broadway Revival of Spring Awakening with Deaf West Theatre Company. An incredible company that bridges the gap between the hearing, deaf, and hard of hearing, creating an experience that can be enjoyed by all these cultures simultaneously. I'd seen their work before, and had longed to be apart of the show since the first day I saw the casting notice flash across my Backstage Search .
I went in, auditioned, was offered a part, and actually for a second had to think of my answer. "Was I ready to jump into...whatever this was?" I wasn't sure. I almost said no. Partly out of fear, mostly because of pride. I had no idea what voicing another actor would be like. I was scared of being lost and unseen like the man behind he curtain. It was with prodding by friends and me snapping out of my own judgement haze that I realized this show represented everything that got me excited about performing in the first place. So I finally said "yes" and dove into the murky waters that would end up changing my life.
We rehearsed in an old church in North Hollywood and a couple months later we were at our 99 seat theatre home, right off of skid row, in the heart of Downtown LA.
During that initial run, I was not in a great place. I might have been working with one of the most incredible casts and creative teams I'd ever worked with, but I was also learning that those long-hidden, dark parts of myself, that I had prided in not having, were still, very much, apart of me. Vanity, fear, jealousy. All my demons came out to make appearances at the forefront of my brain and I became mired in my own selfish thoughts. The same thoughts that almost stopped me from doing the show in the first place. I was frustrated. Where was that guy who had always said "I'm just happy to be doing the art."? The guy who was in it for the long haul and didn't care when success struck? Why had he been replaced by this person who seemed to just want his moment to bask in the sun? Or was this the real "him" all along? The self loathing and doubt got out of hand and I started falling pray once again to that old arch nemesis of mine, "Overthinking". He had his grip around my neck this time, and wouldn't let go. Then to add more fuel to the fire, my agency at the time, parted ways with me right before opening night. Seemingly for no reason other than I wasn't important enough to them.
By the end of the run, I was drug out, and simultaneously looking forward too, and dreading, a break. I knew I needed a change. It seemed like the universe kept throwing obstacles at me. Begging me to learn a lesson that I was unable or unwilling to learn. Hell, I was desperately just trying to figure out what the lesson was to begin with. "Was it the jealousy? The vanity? What needed to stop, for luck to finally start turning my way, and why couldn't I just accept how fortunate I was in the first place to be a part of something so beautiful."
That's what led me to that fateful acting class and that crucial word, "authenticity".
It's also what caused me to approach every subsequent production of the show with an impending sense of fear.
"Is all that loathing going to come back? Am I once again going to perfect the role of my own worst enemy and fall into the black hole of my thoughts?". I kept lumping the show in with the mental state I found myself in the first go around, and it was sapping my excitement.
I think this is why, when people kept asking me the fated question, "How are you feeling?", I truly didn't have the right words. So I replaced them with the ones deemed seemingly appropriate, "I'm Great. Lucky. #soblessed"
You see, my hesitation wasn't coming from my fear of the big stage or this incredible, beautiful, moment in my life. I was scared of me. I was scared of sitting alone in a room with my thoughts and not having the comforts of home to protect me.
I was scared of eating myself alive and not being able to take in the rush of the journey as it happened to me. All I wanted, was to be able to appreciate all the good fortune that had come my way, and not have my thoughts cannibalize every great thing that was happening, as I'd watched it do in the past. So I made my trek to New York and swept all my fears under the rug as we got into the swing of rehearsals. "I'll deal with you later." I thought, "You don't control me! I'm a fearless warrior, fighting in the battle of a lifetime!". These are the things I told myself as my eye twitched, and I stayed my steady course, pretending nothing was wrong, and fortifying my mental walls.
Two weeks later and everything seemed to be on the right track. The show was taking its shape. People were getting excited. Most of my "White Walker Thoughts" were held North of the Wall, and it was starting to look like a brand new chapter, both for the show, and me. I had grown up. I was a new human. A better human, than I was a year ago. Things would be different. But people don't prepare you for the little twinges of disappointment that come within the swirl of excitement. The feeling of getting lost in the fray. The fear of losing sight of who you are. These are real feelings. True moments of uncertainty that are completely valid. The funny part is that almost everyone feels them, but most of us are too afraid to come forward and talk about it. Too frightened of being looked at as ungrateful or callous. I tried not to flinch. Everything was fine. I had made it this far. Just keep a steady course. I worked on grounding myself daily, and tamped down my emotions until everything felt fairly normal. Normal comparatively, considering I had just moved my life across the country in 3 weeks. Yet the eye twitch remained.
The weeks rolled on like freight train, constantly moving toward its destination, and rarely stopping for fuel. For a second it seemed like we might lose sight of the heart of the show and everything we were working towards. But just as we've done time and time again, we rallied together, and found a way to make magic happen right under the wire.
Love, determination, and passion were our fuel, as we pushed through to the start of previews and suddenly, there we were, with over a thousand, living, breathing, souls in front of us every night. Some of them wide-eyed, some tired, some crying, some sweating. People from all walks of life were coming to listen to the story we had to tell. Wanting to be moved. Wanting to be transported. Wanting to see how we pulled off this magic trick. Less than two years ago I was looking up to these same big lights saying, "One day I hope to move other people the way you move me.", and now I was standing there. I had found myself in that rarest of positions. The moment a dream of yours, actually becomes a reality.
How do you react?
What's the next step?
I'll tell you what I wanted to feel. Catharsis. I wanted to feel those walls I had built crumble. I wanted there to be some great release that shook me to my core. I wanted to feel accomplished. Yet I knew I would feel none of these. How can I celebrate when there's still so much work to be done?
I couldn't appreciate the moment. It wasn't the pinnacle yet. "It's just the launching pad for something else", I thought. "Some other feeling." I knew it. I hadn't found it yet. But I would. Maybe it would be when I'm talking to James Lipton in 10 years, or maybe when I win my first major award, or maybe on opening night. But I would find that cathartic moment. I knew it. Everything would come together in a perfected moment of bliss that would make the movies jealous. Trumpets would play in my head and my missing piece would be found. The one I had been searching for, for oh so long.
My heart wanted all this, but my head thought otherwise. It wasn't realistic. Life is filled with endless moments. We're constantly reaching out to heal some wound. To fill some void inside us. If we spend our lives in pursuit of that one cathartic moment, we'll lose all the nuggets of truth along the way. So we just have to do our best to keep living in every moment as fully as we can. Experience life as it's happening to us. Then those instances of true feeling and deep connection might present themselves. We can let them sneak up, and surprise us. If we're looking ahead, everything will become too calculated, too controlled, to elicit anything that's actually meaningful.
It's a way of living that I love talking about and have never fully practiced, and it's what has had the ability to keep me at arms length from these moment to moment experiences, I so desperately desired.
Then three weeks ago something wild happened.
A crack in the veneer.
A strike of lightning that would split my world wide open.
We were in the midst of a brutal week of rehearsals and performances, and heading into the weekend. Everyone was doing their best to muster some energy to get us into the next 6 performances.
It was just another performance, like all the others. I remember thinking, "You know what? This Broadway thing isn't as hard as I thought. I can do this no problem", when crowd quieted and I went to sing the last song of the show.
I smiled bright, took a breath and opened my mouth to sing.
Mostly air with some stilted sound.
My eyebrow cocked to one side, I took a breath and tried again.
I tried to calm myself. "It was just fatigue finally setting in. It's fine. I'll go home and rest and everything will be fine."
How little I knew.
The next two days were difficult to say the least. Four shows, singing on a voice that wasn't wanting to work properly. No amount of humidifier or health pills could break through. But it was okay. I had made it through the weekend. "I'll just go get some medication and everything will be fine." I sat at the doctors that Monday morning, three days before my twenty-second birthday, the nerves finally getting ahold of me. She spayed my throat with her tingly, serum of death, and I waited patiently as she scoped my vocal chords.
She looked at me after and told me with a calm, casualness, "You've had a Vocal Hemorrhage and need to be on complete vocal rest".
My hope was still high in the sky. "This is New York! This is Broadway!" I thought. "They can just pump steroids into my neck and I'll be fine, right? I can be cured in a matter of days!" I quickly learned over the course of four subsequent visits, two weeks, and some wild medical bills, that this was not the case.
I also learned that this could've also happened from me clearing my throat, or sneezing a little too violently on the street one day. This was, as it turns out, just a bit of bad luck.
Ah "Bad Luck"...my old friend. You hadn't made this big of an appearance since I broke my finger and totaled my car in our last production. Both in the same week.
But it was all going to be okay. "I'll just miss the reviewers and be in by opening. It'll be hard but I can kick this, I know it. If I pray and think enough good thoughts with conviction, all will be well. I've read The Secret! Well, okay...I didn't read it. But I skimmed it! I got the general point! Think good thoughts and good things happen. Put out the energy you wish to get back! I can do that."
I also needed to ascribe to this philosophy because, one of the pesky things about this particular injury, is that there's nothing you can really do to help, outside of resting and drinking water. So I settled down and started waiting and hoping. Which for someone as impatient as me, is like watching paint crumble off the ceiling, while listening to a Lana Del Rey song, in slow motion.
But something happened. I quickly realized I had never been quiet for a whole day before. Let alone a week. Let alone two weeks! I realized just how much I talk, and just how little I actually need to. A self-proclaimed "monologuer" who used speech as his foremost method of communication, I remembered what someone had told me earlier this year.
"Daniel, you know you have a lot more power if you speak less? It makes your words twice as important when you actually say them. Quietness suits you."
This is what I thought of, as I stood at the back of the house, watching the show go on without me.
I was dumbfounded.
Why does it always seem to happen to me?
Why am I always the butt of the joke?
The lights went down and I watched.
Trying to make sense of this whole catastrophe.
Then something beautiful happened. An epiphany of sorts.
I watched my fellow actors struggle to communicate to the gruff school teacher on stage. I watched them fight and scrap and battle their way to be heard. I watched them stand tall against the world, against the idea of what affliction meant, and an ironic laugh threatened to overtake me.
In one of the most chaotic moments of my life, I'd been forced into silence, and somehow found myself face to face with the heart of the show, I've loved for so long. The parallels between the journey of these characters and my fellow actors started piling up, and a weird beautiful symmetry started to take place. Like a butterfly finally emerging out of its cocoon, it was as if the world was presenting itself to me, anew. I was finally starting to find those moments I was looking for. Those moments of honesty, those moments of authenticity. I started realizing what true sisters these words were. How inseparable they are in their nature. Then all at once a new word came to me. Hidden in plain sight all this time. A word that's been at the forefront of discussions I've taken part in for more than a year, and yet I had never realized it was truly missing, until it was gone.
I didn't have a voice.
Even though my actual voice was injured, my internal "voice" was suffering as well. It felt borrowed. Not real. From the things I've read. Ideals I wanted to emulate. People I admired. But none of it was truly mine. Nothing struck the heart of me. It's everything I've been searching for this past year. Through my art. My relationships. My own personal goals. Once my mouth was finally closed I was able to start developing my sorely misused tools. I learned to listen. I learned to watch. I could find that missing piece, because I had opened myself to the world around me in a way I had never experienced before. Suddenly the things that were of real importance started becoming clear.
The best part was that I had a new form of communication I had been cultivating for a year, that became very useful in this crucial moment. ASL had now become my surrogate 1st language. I began signing everything. In a position where I truly needed to use it, I didn't stop. I got better at my ASL in one week than I did in months of casual use. I was in two separate worlds. Disconnected from the actual stage, but all the while, finding this new connective tissue with the show I had never known before.
I had been performing a show with a cast of deaf actors who I love and care for more than I can say. I'd lent my voice to them and they'd lent their hands to me. We'd been working in tandem to tell this beautiful story about what it's like to be misunderstood. To feel like you can't communicate. All of a sudden I was thrust into a world where I couldn't communicate, getting a first hand look at some of the frustrations my friends have faced their entire lives. To say it's been humbling is an understatement. It's been a radical realigning of my wants and needs both as an artist and a human being.
Im starting to find that young ruffian. The one who looked at the world in wonder and attacked his wants with pure motives. He's been hiding in me for some time and I feel him coming back out to play. I'm finding my lightness again. My fun-loving spirit is coming back for a return engagement. I'm developing an ability to shrug off things that would've sent me into a spiral for days. All of this because I just took the time to sit still in a room and listen to my thoughts. It's a refreshing change from the young man who started this journey a year ago.
This new me is done hiding.
He doesn't want to run anymore.
He wants to feel it all.
The other night I ran into a friend of mine on the street in front of the theatre. He had heard about what happened to me and I started signing to him out of habit. Josh (my counterpart) who I've voiced for this last year, asked if I needed him to interpret for me and thus he became the "voice". An incredible full circle moment that in the moment caused me to exclaim. "This is f%#^ing crazy!" A year ago I could barely communicate with the deaf community. I was flying by the seat of my pants, and was just praying I could get by. Now I was in a position where I could only communicate with the deaf community. A radical switch, which had my heart pounding and my head spinning.
I started teaching some simple signs to my friends as to communicate better, and I was finding a new confidence I'd been lacking.
This whole time I didn't realize the secret wings this show had given me. It's not only given me a home away from home, but a way to communicate when my voice fails me, and my voice has been failing me a lot longer than I initially thought.
Don't get me wrong. Even with all this self discovery and realization, plus the added bonus of actually being able to see this beautiful little beast of a show we created, I was hurting. It's been hard for me to not be on stage with this amazing family. I had to keep reminding myself, "They're still there. They're still your family. The world isn't ending. Life isn't crumbling to pieces." In fact it was quite the opposite. I feel like I've been rebuilt. My heart. The way I communicate. My voice. The butterfly has fully emerged and is getting the first chance to flap his wings.
So last week I was at the doctor for the fourth time in eleven days. I sat there thinking, "This has got to be it...I've got to get some answers. I haven't spoken a word in two weeks. Something's gotta give."
I mustered all my good thoughts and then got my answer. I was told I was going to miss my opening night performance. A moment I'd looked forward to since I was 13 years old. The culmination of a year of hard work and dedication. A moment that could've held that mystical cathartic power that the "old me" so desperately wanted. It's news that could've sent the "me" from last year into a very deep hole, but after the weeks I'd experienced, I had an overwhelming feeling in my gut that...I was going to be just fine. So I looked back at her and simply nodded. The world remained the same and life resumed as normal. Among the news of me not going on, I was also told that I dodged a bullet. This injury can sometimes take months to heal and even then, there was a chance it wouldn't fully recover. So just the fact I'd make a full recovery was gift enough.
A few weeks ago I was lost in my own insecurities and taking for granted all the beautiful chances I've been given over the past year. It's amazing how your outlook changes when you realize what a gift it is, just to have the ability to speak. You begin to see how easy the things, we didn't even realize we love, can be taken away. It's made me appreciate all the moments I've missed, that much more. My friends, the home this show has built, the wide eyed people taking in our story every night. I'll never dampen their significance ever again.
I watched proudly from the back of the house on opening night. Dancing along and throwing my energy back at my friends with vigor. That night I was there biggest, if not loudest, cheerleader. It was my turn to be the wide-eyed kid, as I practiced my newly cultivated skills of listening and watching.
As the show progressed, a great weight was lifted off me and I found myself contented.
I didn't need the opening.
I didn't need the recognition.
I didn't need proof of my importance.
I just needed to stand there and breathe and let the world around me in.
I carried that with me throughout the party and deep into the night.
Which brings me to today.
Tonight. A week after opening and more than three weeks since this all began. I'm going to be on stage singing, and acting with my family. It's as if the storm has passed and I'm stepping into the quiet new dawn.
Happy because the person who's stepping on stage, with this profound group of people, tonight has a lot more to offer than he did a few weeks ago.
He has a new voice.
One that's more powerful than ever before, and he wants to use it the way it should've always been used. To live his life to the absolute fullest and embrace every single moment he's given as hard as he can, because sometimes you only get one chance and things can slip away so easily.
It's not always easy to live life quietly, feeling the ground beneath our feet, and letting the small moments surprise us. It's easier to put up our walls and plan out our future beat by beat, forcing it into submission. We don't realize that sometimes if we just stop, shut up, and listen, we can find the things we've been truly missing. The things that might define us for years to come.
Oh, and for those of you who were wondering. That eye twitch I was plagued with for almost a month has magically disappeared. Imagine That...