On this episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, we chat with award-winning actor, entrepreneur, educator, radio host, and long-time friend Denise Summerford. Join us for a lively conversation that explores the impact the arts can have on preparing students for a wide range of career options, the importance of improv and being comfortable with pivoting for teachers and actors, and what it takes to launch a business like Broadway Arts Collective. We talk about the importance of strong women role models for today's girls and the power of our Gen Z daughters. And we analyze the life metaphors inherent in The Monster at the End of this Book. There's a lot of laughter and a lot of joy in this conversation, so grab a cup of coffee and join us.
Denise Summerford has appeared on Broadway in such shows as Taboo, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease. She received a Drama Desk Award for her work in the a capella musical In Transit, where she created the role of Jane. She was also in the original cast of the off Broadway musical Shout. Denise is a dynamic singer, she is a master educator, and she currently works with elementary, high school and college students both in New York and across the country, offering audition and voice master classes as well as acting. You can also hear her weekday mornings as the co host on the Hudson Valley's Energy 103.1 morning radio show.
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[00:01] Dr Diane: Wonder, curiosity, connection. Where will your adventures take you? I'm Dr. Diane, and thank you for joining me on today's episode of Adventures in Learning. So welcome to the Adventures in Learning podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Diane, and today we have award-winning actor, entrepreneur, educator and radio host Denise Summerford with us today. Denise, welcome.
[00:28] Denise: Thank you. Boy, that was a nice intro. I have to be honest and say it's so fancy, Dr. Diane.
[00:36] Dr Diane: I know.
[00:37] Denise: Dr. Diane. I love it.
[00:40] Dr Diane: And you know what's funny is I've had my PhD for as long as my children have been alive, basically.
[00:52] Denise: I didn't know that.
[00:56] Dr Diane: Because I earned it doing lots and lots of…well, Barry did all the laundry during the years that we raised small babies, and a lot of red wine and a lot of daddy camping trips got me through those first three years.
[01:08] Denise: I didn't know that.
[01:10] Dr Diane: But I hadn't really used it. I used it a little bit when I knew you and was working on the preschool, but it was when I moved to museum education, my friend Mr. Mark started calling me Dr. Diane, and it stuck. And I thought, why not use what I actually earned? And so that's where it was born.
[01:16] Denise: I love it.
[01:18] Dr Diane: So, yes, that's my fancy title, but I'm still Diane.
[01:21] Denise: So fancy.
[01:23] Dr Diane: So I want to talk about your adventures in learning today. You have had one of the most colorful careers of anybody I know, and you've kind of done a little bit of everything. So in let's say, three minutes or less, can you give us a summary of how you got to where you are today?
[01:39] Denise: Oh, my gosh. Well, I grew up in a little small town in Jersey and an Italian family of basically loud Italians, and I was really the only one in my family that went and did anything in the performing arts. My grandfather was a singer, but I started off as a dancer. My mom's best friend opened a dance studio, and I started off taking dance lessons when I was three, and the rest is kind of just history. It's snowballed into. I always could sing, so I started taking voice lessons when I was in high school, and I felt like acting was the thing that I needed the most training in. So when I went to college, I was a BFA acting major, and while I was in school, while I was in college, I was auditioning. My school was very close to Manhattan. I went in and out of the city and I would audition all the time. I had amazing mentors in my life. I had great training, amazing mentors, a great village of people that were just behind me 100%, telling me to go for it. So it was just like I kind of didn't know that I could fail. It was just like, no, I'm going to go do this. Despite doors slamming in your face, it wasn't an easy journey by any stretch. And then I graduated. Well, my junior year in college, I got my first professional job with a European tour, and I actually replaced Jennifer Lopez in this tour. Before she was Jennifer Lopez, she was just another actor like me. And I replaced her in this tour. And I was telling you earlier that when I got this job, I went back to my college advisor and I said, I'm going to have to take some time off. And he said, no, please, we will get you independent study credits. We want to get you graduating and working. And then after that tour, I went into the city and just started auditioning and taking classes in the city and voice lessons and acting workshops, anything I could do. And it just was like it just kind of clicked. That luck meets preparation. And like you said, I have kind of been all over the map with my career. I've done kind of a little bit of everything. And if that's one thing I could pass on to my students, is that don't just keep your eyes on one lane. There's so many things in the arts that you can do with your theater training. Yeah, so that's that. And I've done a bunch of Broadway shows, national tours even. I have my own one woman show, I've done voiceover work, tons of voiceover work. Currently a co host of a morning show at a radio station here in the Hudson Valley. And I own Broadway Arts Collective. And I am now a teacher and a mentor, and I love it. And I am a mom. I'm a mom, too. That's like the full time gig is being a mom.
[04:32] Dr Diane: And you've got two amazing daughters.
[04:35] Denise: I do. I really do. And that's one thing nobody can prepare you. Nothing can prepare you for being a parent.
[04:42] Dr Diane: So I want to actually start with Broadway Arts Collective because I knew you when you were working for Half Moon and then you started your own thing. And I think what you do is amazing because you're giving kids the confidence they need, whether they go into the arts or not. They're developing the ability to speak, to think. And I think that the arts is so adjacent to science and STEM. Like, the two work beautifully together, and so they call it STEAM. They add the arts and artists. How do you see your role as an educator, sort of in terms of getting kids ready for a career, whether it's the arts or not?
[05:20] Denise: Oh, gosh. I mean, kids that are in the arts and studying the performing arts, I mean, it teaches so many things. Major life skills, problem solving, teamwork, creativity, gosh, critical thinking, like leadership, of course, leadership. And it's kind of endless. It's like these are skills that will carry over into whatever career they want to pursue, being able to get up in front of people and speak, all of those things. And I think that it's not being taught in schools. So I think that just depending on what district you're in and what school. But I think it programs like ours, like Broadway Arts Collective and Half Moon Theater. School of the Arts is where we started off, and I think all of these, there are so many, for lack of a better phrase, they call them pay to play, but I like to call them youth theater companies that are doing full blown musicals with these kids. It's not being taught in the schools and it's not valued in the schools. And I have a really hard time with that because not all kids are science kids and not all kids are sports kids. And there's so many ways through the arts that you can learn to teach these things using the arts, using theater. You can teach science, you can teach social studies, you can teach all of these things through acting and theater and improvisation. And I think teachers that incorporate that into their classroom, kids remember things more. I feel so lucky to have a program like we started and that it is doing so well. And by the way, we don't turn anybody away. If finances are a problem, we turn nobody away. We want all kids to be able to have these opportunities because again, they're not being taught in school.
[07:40] Dr Diane: Absolutely. And I remember when I was up in the Hudson Valley, you and John would come and model at my preschool and do improv with the little preschoolers, which was so much fun. And I got a chance as a mom to be able to volunteer and sort of help out with you guys. And that has influenced work I'm doing today. One of the workshops I do is I actually work with teachers and we focus on the art and the drama piece of STEAM so that we talk about how do you connect multicultural picture books to science, but use the arts as a way to do it. And you inspired some of that. So thank you for that.
[08:18] Denise: I think it's so important, too, that I wonder on curriculums in college for education, like improv should be on there. How many times as a teacher, you know, do you go into the lesson plan and you're like, this is what we're doing today. And within five minutes you're like, this is not what we're doing today. Now I have to come up with something, especially teaching the younger kids.
[08:41] Dr Diane: Right. And you always over plan and you think you've got the perfect lesson and they derail it.
[08:47] Denise: We’ve got to pivot. Yeah, for sure. It was so much fun when we were with Half Moon. We were Half Moon Theater Company members. And then I kind of had an idea to start a performing arts program off of the theater company. And that was one of my favorite things, was going into schools and taking the programming into schools, especially the schools that didn't have anything for kids, even if it was for, like, one day to just watch these kids light up and be like, oh, wow. And then maybe even relate it back to what they were studying. So we always tried to get a heads up about what the teacher was teaching in the classroom and maybe sort of come up with something that we were going to teach them that day that related back to what they were learning in the classroom.
[09:36] Dr Diane: And that's so powerful. And that's sort of all about connections. And you sort of touched on this just now, but I'm going to have you go a little bit deeper on why are the performing arts so important? And what should we be doing as schools to be better supporting them?
[09:53] Denise: Yeah, well, I mean, the arts teach us about ourselves. They connect us to our community. They challenge our beliefs, our values. They make us think about things or see things in a different way that we might not have thought about them before. Like when you go see a theater piece or even like I'm going to use Hamilton for an example because so many of my students, whether they're theater kids or not, it teaches them so much about history and where we've come from. I had one of my students, my voice students, the other day say to me, oh, gosh, what was she talking? They were learning something. And she's like, oh, this is that song from Hamilton. And this is what happened during that time. And she just knew it. You know what I mean? So I just think that it helps us start dialogue also about problems in our society also, maybe potentially start some social change. It's so important. It's so important and vital to society 100%.
[11:16] Dr Diane: Absolutely. And you talked about the Broadway Arts Collective. What are some of the fun things you've done in the past, and how do you see this growing in the future?
[11:25] Denise: Oh, my gosh. When Half Moon Theater Company closed? I don't even remember the year now. When it's 2023 right now, right?
[11:35] Dr Diane: Yeah.
[11:35] Denise: I didn't think back. When did it actually it was just.
[11:38] Dr Diane: Before the Pandemic, wasn't it?
[11:40] Denise: No, it was like way before that, actually. Half Moon theater closed. I want to say 2015.
[11:46] Dr Diane: Okay, that makes sense.
[11:48] Denise: Or 2016. And so with the theater company closing, obviously the school closed with it. And so, you know, John and I were like, oh, you know, all of the company members, we were just like it was sad to see that theater company go and also in the school. So I think it was in June that it closed. And this has happened to me so many times in my career. I just get this little, like a little drop of something. An idea comes in, and I don't know where it came from. I don't know what I have no idea. But it's just like a little whisper, I like to say. And I just heard this voice say, you need to keep going with the work you were doing. It was very important to those kids. And and there was at a home, and I was like, John, I think I think we need to start a performing arts school. We need to carry on the work that we did with Half Moon. And we need to call it Broadway Arts Collective because it's going to be a collective of Broadway teaching artists, industry teaching artists, teaching our classes. And we can bring up our amazing industry friends who are phenomenal performers, in addition to being amazing and encouraging teaching artists, we can bring them up from the city. They would come and they would teach for us. And so John, he always does, he’s like, okay, he doesn't know how we're going to make it work, but I have these good ideas. So that's how Broadway Arts Collective started. And we decided that we would do one day work immersive workshops or weekend workshops, because we found that with Half Moon, sometimes signing up for like a 13 week class didn't fit into kids’ schedules. But they could certainly drop in for a weekend or one day or maybe a four week class, four week intensive class. So that was the model. And we started off that way. And our very first workshop we did during Halloween. And it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show because I had done that on Broadway. And I thought, what a fun thing to do for Halloween. It was open to all ages, parents, kids, and they came, and I shared all of my Rocky Horror memorabilia with them. I talked about my journey to that show, and I taught them some of the original Broadway choreography and the songs. And it just caught on. Like, forget it. From there it just snowballed. And then we were approached by SUNY New Paltz to do a summer theater camp, which we partnered with them for a couple of years. And then now we're out on our own and we rent space over at SUNY New Paltz. But our summer program has exploded. We also do these voiceover workshops where we write our own radio plays, and we do them every Christmas. So they write an original radio Christmas musical and they perform it on the air on the station that I work. And we do workshops that are called Broadway Breakout, which happens during Christmas break or Easter break. And they're just one day. And we bring up a Broadway professional to sort of teach a number from whatever show that they're in and talk about their journey in the arts. And we've done Hamilton twice. We did a Head Over Heels workshop with a casting agent with Bernie Telsey Casting. And we also started a series called Broadway BACstory, where again, we have a Broadway professional come up and I interview them and they give us a little bit of their backstory. Now, BAC is Broadway Arts Collective. So there's that little play on words there. Yes. Cute. That was John. That was John I’ve got to give kudos to. So, Broadway BACstory. We hear a little bit about that performing artists, their backstory, and they sing a few songs for us, and I interview them and they sing a little bit, and I sing a little bit with them. And it's about an hour long, and it's kind of just like a fun little thing for the community to come do and to sort of meet these Broadway professionals. And some of them live right here in the Hudson Valley. So that's kind of been great. Yeah. So that's just some of the things that we've done and we continue to do at Broadway Arts. And every year we kind of add on one or two new things into the mix.
[16:15] Dr Diane: And that's a wonderful creative outlet for you, having sort of spent the years on the road and as a performer, to still be able to sing and to teach and to perform.
[16:26] Denise: So it is. And I was one of those kids like, I hear my students now go, well, I'm never going to stop performing. I'm always going to be a performer. And I was that kid. I was a kid that was like, no, you're never going to get me off the stage, and you just don't know. I had my kids. And I did try. I tried to go back after I had my first daughter, and I just didn't want to leave her. I was enjoying my new role as a parent, and I didn't want to have to go out on the road or I didn't want to do eight shows a week where especially when she started school, because then I would never see her. And then my second daughter came into the picture. So it's just, you know, you just never know. And I always knew eventually that I would want to be like, a teaching artist, a mentor, because like I said in the beginning, I had so many amazing mentors. And like I said, my journey was not an easy one. So I went through many things, trial and error, what worked, what didn't, what did I do that did work, and how can I help somebody else on their journey and maybe make it a little easier for them? So it is it's been a wonderful creative outlet, and it's been so wonderful just sort of helping kids on their artistic journey and also when they're applying for colleges. Now, I've jumped into the college audition coach thing, and it's an intense thing, it really is. It's the process that's the other thing that I do offer. Every January, I do sort of a zoom presentation for whoever wants to join with two different college recruiters from different universities. And we talk about the college audition process because it is. It is a lot, but if you plan, you can tackle a little bit every year. But yeah, it's been a wonderful creative outlet for me, and it's been wonderful to be a part of these kids and their artistic journeys. And even now, like, your daughters, like, my first group of kids are now juniors in college, and it's like, crazy to see how they're still going and how they're thriving. And it's incredible, truly.
[18:55] SPONSOR AD
[19:55] Dr Diane: On today's episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, we meet award winning Broadway actress and the founder of Broadway Arts Collective, Denise Summerford. Denise has appeared on Broadway in such shows as Taboo, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease. She received a Drama Desk Award for her work in the a capella musical In Transit, where she created the role of Jane. She was also in the original cast of the off Broadway musical Shout. Denise is a dynamic singer, she is a master educator, and she currently works with elementary, high school and college students both in New York and across the country, offering audition and voice master classes as well as acting. And I am delighted to welcome her to the show today. You can also hear her weekday mornings as the co host on the Hudson Valley's Energy 103.1 morning radio show. Welcome, Denise. So this is going to be airing in Women's History Month. I have to ask, who are some of the strong women that have been your role models or that you would hold up as role models for kids today?
[21:31] Denise: Well, not everybody knows my mom, but definitely my mom is, she’s like the most incredible, has been the most incredible role model for me. She's a single mom. She worked her butt off to put me through college and paid for all those dance classes and, and theater training and all of that stuff, you know. So I have, I have to, to start off with her. This is going to sound crazy, but I went to twelve years of Catholic school and I had a nun who discovered my voice, believe it or not, Sister St. Gabriel. She was the same nun that told me that animals don't have souls and don't go to heaven, but we'll forgive her for that because she said to me, I want you to sing at your 8th grade graduation. And I was like, what? And she had just heard me sing in church, you know, so I have to give props to Sister St. Gabriel. She's the one that discovered my voice. And this may sound cliche, but for me, Michelle Obama, I'm telling you right now, man, like, that woman is like rock solid, can stand on her own. Also Hillary Clinton. Huge fan. It's just like these women we sometimes feel are in the shadows of their husbands, but they're really not. Their husbands bow down to them and you could tell that it's like, if not for them, where would these, you know, where would, where would they be? You know? So I'm going to say like and I'm not, I'm not political at all. Like, really, I'm really not. But those two women for me are definitely role models for young girls today. I even tried to gosh, I even tried to put my older daughter in, the United Nations has this really great program called Girls in Politics. And I tried, I tried. I was like, let's see, maybe she could be inspired and be like the next, you know, Michelle Obama or whatever it's going to be, or the next Kamala Harris. And it wasn't for her. But there's so many amazing programs today for young girls, like, more than what we had growing up. It's a very, very different time. We still have a long way to go, but I think this generation of girls coming up yeah. Good luck, everyone. Because they're like, yeah, they're not going to take it. They're not going to take it. And they're real.
[24:13] Dr Diane: Gen Xers did something right in raising this generation.
[24:16] Denise: We really did. Listen, we really did. This next group of girls, these Gen Z girls, good luck.
[24:25] Dr Diane: Amen. As the mom to two Gen Zers. I agree with you.
[24:28] Denise: Yes.
[24:29] Dr Diane: So, going way, way back, were there any children's books that influenced you growing up?
[24:35] Denise: Oh my gosh, yes. And this is going to sound crazy. Hold on a minute. My cat is scratching at the door.
[24:43] Dr Diane: Of course. Let the cat in.
[24:46] Denise: Put the cat in. There you go. All right, honey. My goodness. Yes. So my favorite book, this is going to sound or maybe, you know, maybe it won't sound crazy. My favorite book growing up was called The Monster at the End of this Book.
[25:05] Dr Diane: When I was a kid, I used to act out all the voices and get hysterically dramatic.
[25:11] Denise: Yes. When my mom read that to me as a kid, she did too. She would act out all these voices like, “I'm going to put up this wall now and you're not going to be able to get this wall down.” It was like all these I loved it. I would have her read it over and over and over and over again. And then when it got to the end of the book, it was like, Grover, it's just you. And then reading it for my girls because then I passed it on to them. I never realized how vocally taxing it is, like, doing all those voices. But it carries through that message, believe it or not, carries through to life because it's like we are often our own worst enemy. It's like we have to get we are the monster at the end of our story. It's like oftentimes what holds us back is ourselves. And if we just got out of our way and stop being afraid and fearful of everything, you know what I mean? We wouldn't hold ourselves back.
[26:10] Dr Diane: I love that metaphor.
[26:13] Denise: It really has, like that message is carried with me my whole life. Like, oh, you're being the monster at the end of the book.
[26:21] Dr Diane: I wonder if Sesame Street realized how influential that book was going to be for so many of us.
[26:28] Denise: I don't know, but it is. It's just my favorite book in the whole world to this day and my girls love it.
[26:36] Dr Diane: You're at least the fourth guest I've had on the Adventures in Learning podcast who has cited that as a favorite book from their childhood.
[26:43] Denise: Oh, my gosh, really?
[26:45] Dr Diane: Yes.
[26:47] Denise: I have like two or three copies of it. I don't have my original, although I might, my mom might somewhere. But I bought like they had like, now a little board book version of it, which I bought for my girls. I bought them the golden book. So you got to have the golden book version of it.
[27:02] Dr Diane: Of course. And are there other books as your girls have grown up that you've discovered that are newer, that you've kind of gone oh, yeah, I wish I had that one when I was a girl.
[27:15] Denise: It's funny. Yeah, there's been a few. What is that one that's called was it called the Zoozical? Do you know who wrote that one? (Note: Judy Sierra and Marc Brown)
[27:24] Dr Diane: I don't, but I'll look it up.
[27:36] Dr Diane: Yes.
[27:36] Denise: Judy Sierra. Yes. They have another book, too, that's in that little series that I love those stories. So creative. I also love this book called The Library (Sarah Stewart/David Small) and it's about this little girl who just loved books. That's all she wanted was her books. And she grows up and she opened up her own library. But it's like this story, and she's alone. She never married. She had a best friend, and they lived together. And there's a point where you're like, oh, God, she's alone. But then it just is like she's always just had her books, and she's happy, she's content because she has her books. A lot of these are from my mother in law who's a school teacher, an ESL school teacher. She was a teacher for 30 years, and she would bring a lot of these into her classroom. So those those three were kind of like, they stand out to me. And then, of course, you know, Good Night Moon, classic, right. We still love to find the little mouse that would be hidden in the picture. Absolutely. Yeah.
[28:51] Dr Diane: And I love to be able to take books, and one of the things I love to do with kids is have them dramatize them and sort of find that piece or that page.
[29:01] Denise: Well, your girls were too old to take my creative drama class when we had it, but that's what I would do. I would call it page to stage, and we would take oh, I did the one year. My favorite one that I ever did was The Color Kittens.
[29:14] Dr Diane: Yes.
[29:15] Denise: So we did that, and it was so much fun. I used, like, clear, those clear paint cans that you can buy at Michael's, and each one had a different color scarf. Each student had a different color scarf in there, and they would take it out, and we acted out the story. But I love that story, too. But it's a great jumping off point for drama. Yeah.
[29:36] Dr Diane: Well, in kids, they need that drama in their lives. No matter what you're teaching, it's sort of you can connect poetry, you can connect drama, you can connect getting up and moving around. And the learning is more joyful.
[29:48] Denise: Absolutely.
[29:51] Dr Diane: So last question. What are your hopes for the next few years?
[29:56] Denise: Oh, gosh. Well, gosh, I want to continue to grow Broadway Arts Collective. Here comes Braver wanting to make an appearance. We're going to continue to grow Broadway Arts. And in the next couple of years, I'm hoping to develop my one woman show even more. And I'm in the middle of fine tuning it right now and making some changes to it. It's called Cover Girl, and it's kind of about my journey as a Broadway cover understudy. And then in the show, I take all different Broadway songs and do covers of them. So I put them in different styles, so I'm working on that set list and changing it because the things that I sang years ago don't really resonate with me anymore. So we're going in a new direction. So I hope to get that out and really get back to performing a little bit more and who knows? I feel like it's so strange. It's like just recently in the last year again, like I talked earlier about just getting these little whispers. I've just been getting this little whisper of like, yeah, when the girls are in college, you're going to get back to Broadway. So you should try to sort of dust off some of your songs, get back to your voice lessons. Get back because you're going to need it in a couple of years. Just weird, like little just messages like that. So, yeah, in a couple of years I definitely see myself maybe getting back into that whole thing. Who knows?
[31:30] Dr Diane: That's wonderful. Well, thank you, Denise, for sharing your adventures in learning with us today. And we will definitely check in with you in the future to see how things are going.
[31:38] Denise: Yes, thank you for having me.
[31:43] Dr Diane: You've been listening to the Adventures in Learning podcast with your host, Dr. Diane. If you like what you're hearing, please subscribe, download and let us know what you think and please tell a friend. If you want the full show notes and the pictures, please go to drdianeadventures.com. We look forward to you joining us on our next adventure.