Jeremy Hays – I stared out to the railing of the balcony, a spotlight setting my chest ablaze. My stomach and ribs expanded, and hot air rushed into my throat. My arm raised a pointed finger toward the light as 4,000 pupils squished to refocus on my face. The air in my abdomen reversed its flow, and my mouth cupped properly around the syllables of my next line. Then suddenly my brain blinked. My jaw locked. My diaphragm froze. My vocal folds flexed, trying desperately to make sound. I tapped my heel to distract my brain from the glitch.
“C-c-c-clever…” It finally leapt from my throat, and I spewed the rest of the sentence as sweat beads formed across my body. The lights went black, and I turned and walked off stage. I leaned against the wall facing the mirror off stage left and recognized a familiar expression clouding my face: shame. Fear, defeat, grief, and depression on spin cycle, tumbling through my mind until I am washed of all of the confidence I’ve accumulated over my lifetime.
I’m an actor and I stutter. Like most people who stutter I’ve struggled to speak since I was a child. A lot of children stutter while developing their speech, and eventually it fades away. Mine didn’t.
Growing up I was surrounded by a very supportive family. No one finished my sentences for me. No one huffed and puffed and told me to spit it out. My sister would call my friends on the phone for me because when I called, their moms would hang up before I got out what I wanted to say. My dad would put his arm around me, rub my back and say, in his thick, Oklahoma drawl, “You can do anything you put your mind to, son.” My mom gave me strength. She is gone but sometimes I can still feel her hands pressing me against her chest, her lips burrowing a hole into the top of my head.
Coping with stuttering as a child is a solitary endeavor. I didn’t meet anyone else who stuttered until I was 30. Entering a new grade in school was always hard. Sometimes when a new teacher would call on me in class she would assume the struggled pause before my answer meant I was caught off guard and wasn’t paying attention. I was paying attention. I knew every answer. But I wasn’t about to speak unless I absolutely had to. Eventually everyone caught on. I caught on, too. I figured out how to replace easier words for harder ones. Sometimes I would discreetly tap my toe to find a rhythm for the sentence I was trying to say. These little tricks helped get the words out. But I still felt apart. I was a child seated in the cockpit of a giant hollow machine. I was working the levers as quickly as I could.
Then, in high school, I auditioned for a production of Much Ado About Nothing mainly because my girlfriend was auditioning for the part of Hero, and I wanted to play Claudio. I locked myself in my room and recited my audition speech for hours. I could easily lose myself in the emotion of the scene. I felt like I was someone else—someone who didn’t stutter. I auditioned and was cast as Hero’s father. I can’t remember much about performing my first play apart from wincing while watching Hero kiss her Claudio. But I do remember not stuttering. I don’t even remember a fear of stuttering. I remember feeling normal.
Twenty years later, I have shaped my life around the theater. I have a degree in music and musical theater. I moved to New York after graduation and began auditioning. I booked a few jobs in the ensemble and got my Equity card. I made my Broadway debut. The jobs were never constant but my ambition was. I continued to take acting classes and voice lessons. I continued to stutter in my daily life, but I learned to maneuver it to the point where sometimes, for a fleeting moment, I even forgot about it. I dreaded making phone calls to customer service or ordering take out, but I had fashioned some sort of shield against my shame and fear of failing. It was a shield I didn’t let down for anyone until I met my wife.
The first time I saw her was at a Memorial Day barbecue in Queens. She was across the host’s backyard in dark, fitted jeans and a blue sleeveless top. She was holding a Dixie cup with both hands, and her straight hair hung partly covering her sunglasses. She was smiling a penetrating, mischievous, and warm smile. She wasn’t looking at me, and I couldn’t see her eyes, but they told me “I am the love of your life. Everything is about to change.” As I walked across the yard to talk to her my shield activated, and I said, “Hi,” followed by an endless string of fluent words. It was weeks before I allowed myself to stutter in front of her. I would stop myself before it started and pretend I forgot what I was going to say. If a sound twirled around in my mouth I would laugh and say “Jeez I can’t speak today.” The thing is, I knew it wasn’t an issue for her. I had nothing to be afraid of. Her eyes, now visible, told me I was safe, that I was home. My shield was just for pretend.
My career began to grow. I toured the country and was offered a principal contract on Broadway. By then we had married. My wife and I celebrated. I started my new job. And I loved it. I learned how to raise my shield when I was at work and lower it when I came home. And then one night on stage, it happened. I stuttered.
Acting, I was always insulated from stuttering. Learning the lines I would have a few flubs, but when the lights came up, I spoke. Maybe the neurological glitch in my brain was distracted by performing. Perhaps acting was some type of meditation that temporarily rewired my brain. Whatever it was, one night on the stage of the Majestic Theater, in front of a packed house, it stopped.
In that moment, it was clear that my story was not about how, through sheer will, I patched up my shield and spoke again with ease. And it wasn’t going to be my story.
The shame and fear were so intense that I couldn’t go to work the next day. Because stuttering wasn’t just about my disrupted speech. It was about who I am, and who I want to be. When I stutter I’m not worried about what someone thinks. It isn’t the confused look on another person’s face that tells me I shouldn’t speak. It isn’t the awkward silence when I struggle for a sound that tells me I should give up. It isn’t the innocent laughter from a new acquaintance that tells me I should laugh, too, change a word and just move on. It’s about me and the fear of what I can’t do. My stutter constitutes a clear, fluent, deep voice in my head that tells me to avoid, to hide, to stay silent. It echoes through my body and shakes the doubt from its hiding places within my tissues.
My wife is pregnant. We are expecting a girl. I can feel her wiggle when I put my hand on my wife’s stomach. She has opened my heart wider than it can possibly stretch, and I haven’t even seen her face yet. My love for her requires all of me: the good, the not so good and the parts I’ve spent a lifetime hiding.
I’m coming to the end of my Broadway run. I find it harder and harder to speak fluently as my last show draws near. I think about when the next job will come. I think about diapers, and health insurance, and SIDS, and birthing tubs, and bills. I think about how I need to grow as an artist; how I need to be the best father to my little girl; how to somehow turn this love so massive that it cannot be concealed into fatherhood. Anxiety and stuttering have always been good dance partners.
Or maybe my stutter is worse because I’m just tired. Eight shows a week for three years is a rare blessing in my profession, but it is taxing in multiple ways. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
But I think there is something more important than fluent speech that my brain has set its focus on. My wife is sleeping soundly next to me. Her t-shirt is stretched across her round belly. The dog is nestled in the crook of her knees. I place my hand on my wife’s stomach and close my eyes. I can feel that inside of her, my daughter is sleeping, too. I imagine her warm and weightless floating in the womb. Her tiny Michelin Man fingers curled into fists and resting on the sides of her head. Her eyes—replicas of her mother’s— squinting closed.
Those eyes tell me everything. They tell me that I am safe, that I am home. I can’t see them but they are telling me, “I am the love of your life. Everything is about to change.”