A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take myself to the theatre and see Emojiland the Musical. It was a show I had wanted to see for a while, but when friend of the blog Andrea Koehler of Coloring Broadway told me I needed to see it, I made sure I did. Ever since, I have not been able to get this show out of my head. From concept to casting, score to scenery, I cannot remember the last time I felt like I was truly a part of the world in which the show took place. It is currently playing at The Duke on 42nd Street and I can’t encourage everyone to see this show enough. After the show, I went to the stage door because I had to thank the actors for the performance I just saw onstage. I got to thank Laura Schein (whom I had asked about vocal health during an eight-show-week, because my job is never far from mind), for her performance and later learned that she also co-created the entire production. Based on that information alone, I knew I had to learn more about the work she’s done and how Emojiland came to be. I was already trying to find social skills lessons to base of the cast album when I learned she was also a health coach and beginning to co-host a podcast on functional health. At this point, I was so inspired by the amount of work one person is doing at once across so many different platforms and professions that I had to reach out to her. I am so, so grateful that Laura was as enthusiastic as I was to have this conversation.
Stef The Stage SLP: I am so inspired by everything you’re doing right now, thank you so much for chatting with me.
Laura Schein: No problem, I’m so happy to talk to you! And yes, I enjoy wearing a lot of different hats. I’m a hat lover.
S: I can barely do one thing at a time, but I’m trying to get better at multitasking.
LS: It’s tricky, but I like the challenge of it.
S: You do so much! What came first for you; acting or creating or being a health coach?
LS: Dancing, actually. I started when I was 2. I saw a production of The Wiz when I was 3 and at intermission I turned to my mom and said, “I want to do this.” I did children’s theater and community theater, and through a summer camp I was chosen to go audition for a professional Equity production of The Secret Garden and I got to play Mary. From there, I got an agent and I was also in the Chicago sit-down company of the first national tour of Ragtime for a year and a half. It was a really amazing experience. I kept doing theater all throughout childhood and went to Northwestern University, and that’s where I started writing, directing and choreographing, becoming more interested in those areas as well.
After college, I moved to Los Angeles and kept acting, but also started writing more with my writing partner Keith Harrison. We wrote stand-alone songs, music videos, we were always creating something. Eventually, we were asked ‘Where’s your big musical?’ We spent some time thinking about it and one night at dinner in 2014 a Google Trends alert came up on our phones that said the most searched word that day was “emoji.” It dawned on us at dinner that these are characters in an alphabet but also characters with potential stories we could tell. That’s where Emojiland began. It’s been a six-year journey since then. We’ve probably written over 50 songs for the show and developed so many characters over different versions of the show. A lot of the characters that are in the show now didn’t exist when we first started writing—Nerd Face didn’t exist—so the show has changed along with the emoji alphabet.
S: I didn’t even think of characters evolving along with actual emojis evolving in our phones.
L: Very much so. And that’s been the biggest challenge with this show. The source material is not narrative, so deciding on which characters we wanted to focus on and the stories we wanted to tell was always a topic of discussion.
S: And you’re a health coach, too?
LS: Yes, the health coach side of things is a whole other aspect of my life. I’ve always been passionate about health. My mom is a psychologist and nutritionist and actually raised me vegan. She started a school to train health coaches, The Functional Medicine Coaching Academy, and I was in the beta class. This lead me to become the co-host of this podcast, What The Func, with my friend Clayton Farris. We became friends doing a play together, and he was essentially my first client. We’re exploring functional health and talking to all sorts of professionals and delving deeper into that world.
S: I discovered the functional health world through my students and their unique diet needs. The impact of nutrition on behavior and overall functioning didn’t occur to me until I had families of my students telling me how certain diet changes affected their student’s mood or behavior. This led me to go on my own functional health journey. My older students can actually tell me, “I need to eat healthy foods today or I won’t be able to focus on my exam.”
LS: Oh yeah, it’s amazing how nutrition and health absolutely affect mood and behavior. That’s wonderful that your students are so in tune with their bodies. A lot of people have yet to make the connection that what they eat affects their mental health.
S: Changing topics, I am clearly in love with your show. You play Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes and she goes through a lot of emotions over the course of the show. How do you mentally and emotionally prepare for a role like that eight shows a week?
LS: I have always been interested in pursuing the depths of emotion that I possess. The first play I ever did was called Kindertransport and it was very intense. I really learned how to access all of those emotions, and I love being able to tell the story as a character and then put it aside at the end of the play and go back to my life. There’s always some of me onstage, and in a way, it helps me process my own emotions too. Everyone’s going through so much every day, and I feel lucky that I get to share some of that on stage with people, and hopefully help them feel less alone.
S: Your answer made me feel a lot more normal. Those are the same parts of acting and performing that I enjoy, and grew up being asked why I didn’t just want to see or do happier and lighter shows. All of your characters have such a range of emotions and real depth to them. How do you create such well-rounded characters beyond the superficial images the audience knows emojis to be?
LS: That’s what I try to do in life, see all sides of a person. I try to see what drives them, what’s their history, and not take anyone at face value. I would never want to create a one-dimensional character, because that’s not interesting to me. We’re all so multi-dimensional and multifaceted, and those are the types of characters I want to create.
S: Students of mine actually shared with me that they thought it would be easier to just create the characters exactly as they are and how people would expect them. And I guess you could do that, but there’s not much story in that.
LS: When we had the idea, we very quickly connected with the idea that emojis have a fixed, coded identity. But what happens when you are who you are and everyone sees you one way, but you feel differently? We knew we wanted to tell a story about that duality, and we thought that emojis were a wonderful way to represent that idea.
S: Has working on this show changed how you use technology and emojis?
LS: Definitely. Ever since we started working on the show, I get so excited for updates because that leads to new character and prop possibilities. And no surprise, I love using emojis when texting. You know how in musicals ‘when you can no longer talk, you sing’? With emojis, when you can’t convey something by text, you use emojis. We thought there was a wonderful parallel there between how music is used and how emojis are used.;
S: I have actually used emojis with my students who are nonverbal. All of my students are extremely tech-motivated, and I’ve taught some students to use emojis on an iPad to express their wants and needs. When I don’t have access to a dedicated device, they’re actually a great method of communication. And with the space that you’re in and how your show is staged, you feel like you’re such a part of Emojiland.
LS: It really does feel that way. I love the intimacy of the space. We’re all connected in Emojiland.
S: I noticed wile I was watching the show, there is only one instance in which a gender-specific pronoun is used. I really like that choice. Was it intentional, or did it just kind of happen that way?
LS: It was intentional. There are no pronouns in the script because the emoji code isn’t inherently gender or racially specific. We were really excited about that from the beginning. And we’re excited about future productions having wildly different casting because these roles can be played by anyone.
S: That would be really exciting to see this show with different casting, I hadn’t thought of that. I love the casting in the show, I think it’s great. I love your performance in this show, but I am curious about how you take care of your voice as a performer. In this show specifically, you’re also putting on a bit of a voice. How do you prepare for that?
LS: It actually feels, as the run goes on, that my voice becomes more comfortable. It feels like my voice now sits healthfully where it should. Obviously, as a health coach, I’m really health-conscious. I eat very well; I drink so much water. And ginger shots. I’m obsessed with them. There are some nights when non-theater friends will ask me to go out to a loud bar with them post-show, but with 8 shows a week I have to be really careful. I try to get my rest and not be somewhere where I have to yell over music. It’s tough because I want to hang out, but I also have to be careful and protect myself. My castmates are the same way. When we want to go out post-show we go to a quiet diner and have pancakes and tea.
S: I get that, but there was a moment when Nerd Face’s reaction was to scream and I thought to myself, ‘I know he’s using a microphone, and I know my seat is really close, but that has to hurt eight shows a week.’ I felt the same way about whatever crazy note Skull has to hit in his songs.
LS: I guess your voice just adjusts to it. And it fluctuates. Some days feel much harder than others.
S: I have to ask; how do you wear so many hats in this production without becoming exhausted?
LS: I’m just trying to enjoy the ride. I’m so grateful for this run. One of the first lyrics in the show is “Stay in the present, the future’s unknown,” and I am really trying to just be present and focus on one thing at a time. Once I start thinking about everything at once, I get overwhelmed.
S: See, that was fascinating to me as a lyric in the show since Emojiland takes place in a phone. Most of the time we’re on our phones, we’re using it to escape and not be present. How does that work?
LS: I think we all have love-hate relationships with our phones. Phones connect us to each other. Even now, we met briefly in person, and then you reached out to me online. I’m thankful for how our phones have expanded our world and our reach, but I do have to make myself put it down and be present with the people physically around me. You need to look up. I’m also a perfectionist when it comes to responding to every message I get, and I’m working on waiting before responding to people so that I don’t miss out on connecting with someone I’m physically with in the moment.
S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
LS: I would challenge people to go through one full day without complaining about anything. Try to see if it’s possible to find the positive side of every situation throughout the day, to maintain a sense of gratitude and emanate that positivity despite whatever challenges you may experience.
Very much like my first experience with Emojiland the Musical and Laura, I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. For context, we spoke at the end of a school week while Laura was in between teaching a masterclass and a meeting before her Friday evening performance. As busy as we both were, this was certainly the highlight of my day. I can’t wait to hear how you do with Laura’s challenge, please share the results in comments.
You can find Laura on social media at @thelillaura on Twitter and Instagram and Emojiland the Musical at @emojimusical on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as well. You can catch Emojiland at The Duke Theater on 42nd Street through March 19th, and tickets are available here. This show has something for everyone, and is the most relatable show I’ve seen in a while. I can’t recommend this show enough. The cast album is available on streaming, as well as physically and digitally.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP