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Dyslexia and the Dallas Children's Theatre's Teen Scene Festival
by Jerome Weeks 27 Jan 2011

For its Teen Scene Festival, the DCT is reviving all four ‘issue plays’ that Linda Daugherty has written about teen problems, such as eating disorders and bullying. But it was a reading difficulty that inspired it all.


Mark Duggar, assistant stage manager, actress Sally Fiorello and Robyn Flatt, artistic director of the Dallas Children’s Theatre (l to r)

The Dallas Children’s Theatre has started its Teen Scene Festival this week. But it’s not your typical collection of stage dramas. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on the learning difficulty that started it all.

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Robyn Flatt: ” OK, why don’t I start with ‘lights up.’ OK… and lights up.”

[rehearsal sounds continue under]

Last year, Kimberly Kottwitz and Skyy Moore appeared in the original Dallas Children’s Theatre production of hard 2 spel dad. But their return to the play after only 9 months has not been smooth. In rehearsal with Children’s Theatre director Robyn Flatt, the two have to go over and over old territory partly because they’re both dyslexic. In fact, they play teens with similar sorts of reading difficulties in hard 2 spel dad.

Flatt: “Do we know where we are?”

Moore: “Um, yes.”

Flatt: “OK. Why don’t you all start off.”

Kottwitz: “’I just want you’ – sorry.”

Flatt: “No [laughter].”

Kottwitz: “I know.”

Both Kottwitz and Moore are smart and talented but they’ve struggled with dyslexia – and with the embarrassments it can bring.

Kottwitz [left]: “I don’t have a very severe case, but I definitely can relate to the monologue in hard 2 spel dad about how the words keep floating off the page and everyone keeps making fun of you because when you read out loud in class it’s like the most embarrassing thing in the world.”

Flatt knows well that going over and over the staging with Moore and Kottwitz is just part of the process. It’s the need, as she says, to root the play in their muscle memories. When Flatt’s own daughter, Kristi, was in the second grade in the early ‘70s, she, too, was diagnosed with dyslexia.

For years, Flatt encouraged Linda Daugherty, the playwright-in-residence at the Children’s Theatre, to look into learning differences as a dramatic subject. In 2007, Daugherty started what became a series of four plays about teen issues with a drama about bullying among girls (The Secret Life of Girls).  Flatt and Daugherty researched the issue, though, with local experts and therapists, including Dr. Susan Sugerman of Girls to Women Health and Wellness. It was Dr. Sugerman, Flatt says, who encouraged them to look into other troubles that teens face, including eating disorders, abusive relationships — and reading difficulties. (Daugherty eventually co-wrote hard 2 spel dad with San Antonio writer Mary Rohde Scudday.)

Flatt: “They’re all very, very interconnected. Learning differences often cause some of those other things. You see kids with learning differences being ostracized and then bullying happens and then that can lead to eating disorders. Which I had no idea about when we started into all of this [laughs].”

For the next three weeks, the Children’s Theatre will revive all four of the issue plays for its Teen Scene Festival: The Secret Life of Girls, EAT: It’s Not About Food, dont you love me? and hard 2 spel dad. In addition to the full productions and staged readings, the festival includes post-show discussions and panel presentations by clinical professionals and national theater artists. It’s both a theater festival and symposium, called Road to Resilience, presented by the Baker Idea Institute, named for Flatt’s father, Paul Baker, the founding artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center.

Flatt: “We can’t solve all those problems, but what we can do is make the issues more transparent and be here to inform people: here’s where you go for help, here’s what you can do.”

In the past, both Kottwitz and Moore have had special teachers, and by the time both were in high school, they’d actually become avid readers. But dyslexia doesn’t go away. And both Kottwitz and Moore want to be actors – a profession that demands reading out loud and quick comprehension.

Moore: “Reading silently and reading out loud are two completely different experiences. I actually read terribly for auditions, so I memorize it as well as I possibly can, and I’ve gotten better at it.”

Moore and Kottwitz have found ways to cope with their reading difficulties. Flatt says many other teens just hide the problems. Which makes it hard to measure how widespread they are. And makes the Children’s Theater festival more needed.

Flatt: “It’s amazing how many kids are masking the fact that I’m miserable and so I’m not eating – or I really can’t read and, you know, I don’t want anybody to know that. So all of this is not really directed toward just those people that have any of these problems. The deal is these problems are in our community all the time.”