Becoming Unblockable: Stuttering With a Smile.

Tightrope Impro Theatre
3 min readAug 18, 2021


By Robert O’Brien

I was once asked if it was possible to stutter with a smile on my face? As someone who has struggled with my speech from an early age, I would have automatically said no. But as I have aged (gracefully) and discovered acting and improvisation, my answer to that question has changed. Let me explain.

Being the Bridge
I got the call from Wendy Duke of Columbia Speech and Language Service Inc. in early February asking me what I thought about creating an acting course for people who stutter. As a trained actor, it made perfect sense to me having experienced the joy and freedom I felt when performing. This is a grey area in speech pathology as it is not strictly speaking therapy but I knew it would be helpful to people who stutter. Wendy explained that she had met Dan Dumsha of Tightrope Theatre, and they got talking about creating
a new program combining her professional background and Dan’s performance training. She asked me to come onboard and act as a bridge; someone with lived experience of both.

Becoming Unblockable
Stuttering is a deceptive foe. On the surface, it appears to be speech blocks and word repetition. This is what people seek to “fix”. But it goes much deeper. I know first-hand the fear, panic, self-hate and loathing many stutterers feel. It is a daily, never-ending battle. One that is so extreme, smiling about it seems almost impossible. The biggest problem I faced in my own journey was learning to laugh at myself and my stutter. I wanted
to be fluent and perfect and just like everyone else. I had always felt inferior to fluent people around me. I stuttered in school and in university. The shame I felt after struggling through everyday speaking situation’s left me deflated and defeated. I tried various speech therapy programs, which lead me to acting school where I discovered improvisation. There was no script or words to learn. There was no plan or expectation. There was only living in the moment and playing together. I learnt to begin to relax, have fun and to let go. It has been years since I had appeared on stage but meeting and talking to Dan brought all those happy memories flooding back.
Working with Wendy and Dan was truly a creative collaboration. Wendy brought here professional knowledge and Dan had immeasurable enthusiasm. We created a pilot program that lasted for two hours and seeing people like me come alive as we played games with emotions and voice only reinforced what I knew in my gut. We had something special here. Something different. Something that will help people. Smiling as you stutter.
And this is only the beginning. The unblockables will be returning in September with the same facilitators, longer curriculum and even more laughter and fun. We are going to build on this foundation and I can’t
wait to be a part of it. I have seen, time and time again that learning to laugh at myself and my stutter takes the fear and pain away. It helps me breathe easy and relax in my own skin and see that I am more than my speech. I said earlier that having a stutter was like a daily battle. The truth is it is not a battle at all. It is a relationship. One that can be built upon. So why not build that with a smile on your face with other like-minded people. Let’s play together and become unblockable.

The next unblockables course is due to begin September 11th 2021. See the Tightrope Theatre webpage for further information and updates.

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Tightrope Impro Theatre

At Tightrope Impro Theatre we practice, teach, apply, and develop the art form of improvisation.