Noah Cornman is bringing it all back home. The 1992 Irvington High School graduate, who joyfully remembers “growing up on the stage of the Irvington Town Hall Theater,” returned in 2016 with his wife, Kerry, to raise their two children in the village that inspired his lifelong love of theater.
It runs in the family. Cornman’s sister, Maddie, is an actress and playwright. Their father, Michael, was chair of the Irvington Theater Commission for many years. The Town Hall elevator was dedicated in memory and honor of Noah and Maddie’s mother, Irene (who passed away in 1986), for her efforts to make the theater accessible to all; an unassuming yet omnipresent plaque bearing her name accompanies students, performers, and visitors riding up to the theater each day.
Professionally, Irene worked with special needs children, which left an indelible impression on Noah. She also sang and played guitar. The theater “spoke to me,” recalled Noah; “it was a place where you could develop confidence and friendships, find community, and be free to explore.”
After graduating from Columbia, he pursued a career in music – helping build Grammy award-winning record label Ghostlight Records (producing solo and Broadway cast recordings), with the goal of preserving traditional musical theater.
But it was a volunteer endeavor along the way that bridged Noah’s childhood memories of his mom and the stage with a career that illustrates the power of theater. In 2001, Noah was introduced to SAY (The Stuttering Association for the Young) through his friend Taro Alexander, a professional actor who founded the non-profit organization. “I didn’t know he stuttered,” recalled Noah.
“For much of my life,” Taro explained on SAY’s website (www.say.org), “from the moment I woke up until the moment I fell asleep, my number one goal was to hide the fact that I stuttered.” Determined to help others avoid the pain he had experienced, Taro created a theater company for young people who stutter. “Every day, kids who stutter shut down… How many young people are keeping their heads down or not making friends because they are terrified of being laughed at, ridiculed, or bullied for the way they speak?”
1% of the population (70 million people) stutters, including about 5% of all children. Many grow out of it. But for those that don’t, the embarrassment can be excruciating. While a misconception exists that stuttering results from nervousness and can be controlled, it often comes from a genetic component built into the brain. Stuttering cannot be “cured” like an illness, and there is no known medication to treat it.
The arts allow children to experience acceptance and confidence in an environment where they can express what they want to say in the way they want to say it. Captivated by that sentiment, Noah volunteered with SAY from 2001 to 2011, as a teaching artist and camp counselor, later serving on the Benefit Committee and Advisory Board. Then, in 2012, he embraced the role of Executive Director. “Wanting to be heard is so vital,” he explained. “The overarching philosophy of SAY is that every voice matters and is beautiful exactly the way it is.”
On Thursday, January 16th at 7:30 p.m., Noah will share SAY’s mission on the stage that fostered his love of expression with a benefit concert featuring his dear friend, Tony Award-winning actress Kelli O’Hara. “Kelli is immensely talented,” said Noah, “and it means the absolute world to me that she is performing at the Irvington Theater.”
Like Noah, Kelli fell in love with SAY’s message, headlining an inspiring, sold-out fundraiser at the Irvington Theater in 2017. “Kelli is down-to-earth genuine,” Noah noted, “a world-class living legend” who is equally at home performing living room concerts, on and off Broadway, in films, on television, and with the Metropolitan Opera. She will be accompanied by pianist Dan Lipton, and joined by special guests and SAY alumni. (Visit www.irvingtontheater.com for tickets.)
Funds raised support a wide range of speech therapy resources, Camp SAY, and SAY’s Confident Voices weekend program (where participants work in small groups to create original songs and plays). Based in NYC, professional teaching artists lead the weekend workshops, helping people who stutter develop essential communication skills to fully express their thoughts, ideas, and dreams.
Sleep-away Camp SAY, in the Pocono Mountains (for ages 8-18), offers kids a chance to enjoy childhood (and camp) without worrying about their stuttering. Activities are designed to meet individual goals and needs; speech therapy is also available.
“Last summer, we welcomed 162 campers – from everywhere,” Noah said. Fundraising underwrites financial aid, which is needed by about 85% of families. No child is ever turned away. “We never let money be the reason for anyone to miss out on SAY programs.”
New initiatives include SAY Storytellers for teens, and SAY DC – a year-round program based in founder Taro’s hometown.
“We’re celebrating young people for exactly who they are,” explained Noah. Communication is key, but listening is just as important. “Kelli has recorded songs that SAY kids have written. The impact is real. Through art and performance, they see they are not alone,” and, in fact, capable of “exceptional things.”
People who stutter not only experience great success; they achieve success with their voices (such as James Earl Jones, Carly Simon, and Bill Withers – whose wife is a SAY board member). “It’s not about fixing,” said Noah. “We meet them where they are – one young person at a time.”