197 – Josh LaBelle, ED at Seattle Theatre Group & Father of Two Including a Son With Extreme ADHD & Other Challenges
Our guest this week is Josh LaBelle, Executive Director of the Seattle Theatre Group, a former drummer for musicians Sam Phillips and T Bone Burnett and a father of two including son Levi (8) who has extreme ADHD and speech issues.
We’ll hear Josh’s story including his own challenges with Epilepsy and how the Seattle Theatre Group runs a program to provide theatre that caters to families raising children with special needs. That’s all on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast.
Seattle Theater Group https://www.STGPresents.org
Email Josh: JoshL@stgpresents.org
Tom Couch: Special thanks to Horizon Therapeutics for sponsoring the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. Working tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics’ mission at horizontherapeutics.com.
David Hirsch: I’m wondering why is it you’ve agreed to be a mentor father as part of this Special Fathers Network?
Josh LaBelle: I just care. I care about the community, and it feels like a cool community that you’re creating here. And again, let’s try to heal the world and make it a better place.
Tom Couch: That’s our guest this week, Josh LaBelle, the Executive Director of the Seattle Theater Group, a former drummer for musicians Sam Phillips and T Bone Burnett, and a father of two children, including Levi, who has extreme ADHD and speech issues. We’ll hear Josh’s story, including how the Seattle Theater Group runs a program to provide theater aimed specifically for kids with special needs. That’s all on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. Say hello to David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the Dad to Dad Podcast, fathers mentoring fathers of children with special needs, presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads. To find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help, or would like to offer help, we’d be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search dad to dad.
Tom Couch: Now, let’s listen in on this conversation between Josh LaBelle and David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: I am thrilled to be talking today with Josh LaBelle of Seattle, Washington, a father of two children and the executive director of the Seattle Theater Group, whose mission is to create enriching experience in the arts, engage diverse communities, and steward historic theaters. Josh, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview.
Josh LaBelle: David, it’s an honor to be here. It’s my pleasure.
David Hirsch: You and your wife Colleen, have been married for 10 years and are proud parents of two children, Julia, 11 and Levi, eight, who has extreme ADHD, significant speech issues, and an anxiety disorder.
Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Josh LaBelle: Sure, David. While I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but I think at the age of two or so we moved to Los Angeles, California. I grew up in Palos Verdes, which is just a bit south of LA. Didn’t live too far from the water. It was a nice place to grow up.
I had a wonderful family, mom and dad and a sister. Very early on in my growing up, we suddenly were joined by a live-in nanny, a great woman named Anna Rojas, who wound up having a profound impact—and she still does today—on my life. She turned into a second mother, and now for me, a primary mom. And then later she had a baby who is a sister to me as well. So I came into a pretty cool mixed family, if you will.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well thanks for the brief flyby. And I don’t want to dig, but I thought you’d mentioned in a prior conversation that there was an issue with your mom. I don’t know if that’s something you’re comfortable talking about, but I think it would paint a more vivid picture for our listeners.
Josh LaBelle: Yeah, yeah. My mom struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol, and that was a hard thing to go through as a family. Eventually, my parents split pretty early. My mom moved away, although I was able to stay in touch with her, thankfully.
But, you know, there were some years there that it was hard to find her because she lived in a manner that she didn’t necessarily have email and a cell phone and all that. But the way I’ve tried to look at it is that my mom did enough drinking and drugs for my sister and me, so if I ever start getting a little bit too carried away with partying, I think about that.
And, thank God, when my mom wasn’t around, Anna was right there and really helped hold us together. I had an incredible father. Sadly, both of my parents died young. My dad died when he was 62, I think, and my mom at 60. So, yeah, it was just too bad. And my father was a physician, a radiologist, who oddly enough smoked like a chimney and wound up getting emphysema, which I think shortened his life.
I don’t exactly know what happened with my mom. So be it. I think about him every day, both of them still, in a very positive light.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing and your authenticity. I really appreciate it. If I remember, I think it was your dad who was sort of a pioneer in the area of radiology, and I’m wondering, what’s the backstory there?
Josh LaBelle: Oh, yeah. So he worked in a city within Los Angeles called Gardena at a community hospital. It was a nonprofit hospital that served primarily the Japanese community. My father was not Japanese. We’re Caucasian Jewish people. But he primarily served the Japanese community there015I’m saying like 90% of the people the hospital served in Gardena. There are a lot of major Japanese corporations centered there in Los Angeles.
And they had some strong encouragement and financial support to move early into CAT scanning, and so I believe my father’s business in this small community hospital was the first hospital in Los Angeles to bring in a CAT scan machine.
And I have memories of these guys from Germany staying at our house from Simmons or Siemens, who made the machines. They were these big Willy Wonka looking things that these guys were tending to and fixing and just rolling up their sleeves. So it was kind of cool. That’s a neat memory. And radiology has changed immensely since then, right? So I could only imagine what my father would be doing with some of that now.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing. It is amazing. It seems like that technology has been around forever, but obviously it’s not that old really. And the world has changed a lot since then.
So I’m sort of curious to know, how would you describe your relationship with your dad?
Josh LaBelle: Oh, my relationship with my dad was extraordinary. You know, he was just one of the most kindest people I’ve ever met. He was funny. He was kind of quiet, but if he got going, if he was comfortable with you, man, he wouldn’t stop talking.
He was very encouraging, like a lot of immigrant families. His mother was the immigrant in our family. My grandmother Molly immigrated here from Eastern Europe, and so she brought certain notions like education and working hard. That was it for my dad, education and work hard, work hard.
If there was a struggle we had, it was this notion that you’re going to make a living with your head, not your hands. And early on in my life, suddenly, I started really showing a huge interest in music. I started playing music, playing a little piano, and then eventually migrated over to the drums.
And my dad dug it at first, but then it started feeling like, “Whoa, this is getting a little serious. You’re playing all the time.” I wound up going to school at UCLA with ethnomusicology as a major. And my dad was a little bit concerned. But he was so generous. He had this amazing thing. His deal was like, “As long as you’re going to college, I’ll cover your tuition and I’ll cover your room and board while you’re in college. You can go as much as you want to. But if not, that’s it.”
And I remember this one story with my dad. I was playing in a rock and roll band. I was at UCLA. Then something happened, some good business reason. We had some kind of hope that some record label, Sony or something like that, was showing an interest in us, and we needed to buck up and work really hard and get ready for working with this producer. So I just thought, “Ah, this is just too much to be in school.” So I decided to take a quarter off.
Then it was getting time to start school back up, and I hadn’t told my dad I was going to take a quarter off. And so he is like, “Hey, when are you going back to school? Isn’t it like next week?” I was like, “Oh dad, you know, I’ve been meaning to tell you, I need to take the quarter off because all this music stuff’s happening. But I’ll be right back in in eight weeks. But yeah, school’s supposed to start in a week and a half from now.”
And he was like, “Cool. I hope the music goes well. Like, that’s a pretty big decision. Where are you going to live?” I was sitting in my room, so I was like, “Right here? I’m not going to be here a lot. We’re going to be playing, and we got some shows and all kinds of stuff to do.” And he is like, “I’m sorry, but remember our agreement. I cover everything for you if you’re in school, but if you’re not, I don’t.”
And he held to it. He held to his word. Which proved to be a really great lesson for me. You could imagine I tried to scurry back to school fast. But I couldn’t, it was too late. So I couch surfed with friends for eight weeks, and got my ass right back into school, and I thanked my dad for that a few months later. But that kind of gives you a sense of him. It sounds harsh, but he also would always check in with me regularly and call me.
And it’s interesting to note that also with my dad, his best friend was his older brother. They talked every day. His older brother was my uncle Lenny, who was like a big figurehead of the family. It was just really neat to see those two men have such a strong relationship. It’s just beautiful for me to think about today.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing. It sounds like your dad was very focused, coming from sort of an immigrant upbringing—not his own, but his mom’s immigrant upbringing. You know, education and work ethic are things that resonate with immigrants.
I think I might have shared with you in a prior conversation that I’m first born on my dad’s side. My dad was actually born in Germany. And for different reasons, my grandfather Hirsch emphasized that education’s the most important thing. It was because when he left Germany in September of 1938, literally a year before Poland gets invaded and the start of World War II, they left pretty much everything behind. He was very bitter about the situation. I know millions and millions of people were displaced around that time, that era.
His reflection was that you can take away everything else, all the material things, but you can’t take away somebody’s education, right? That’s something that they carry with them. And that’s just always been this fixture in my mind, that education is really important. And it’s not just because of that reason, but I think I have a better appreciation for what that means.
So I admire people like your dad to emphasize his way of expressing why education is important and how that impacted you. I love the story. Thanks for sharing.
So one more question about your dad. I’m wondering if there are any important takeaways that perhaps you’ve tried to incorporate into your own parenting that came from your dad.
Josh LaBelle: He had a way of not being judgmental. He had a way of being accepting of all my crazies and not feeling like he had to always correct me. And I think I struggle with that, being a dad today, but it also helps me when I think back to how my dad was accepting of me, as hard as it probably was for him to see me with long hair and not wanting to become a lawyer or a doctor.
But his acceptance just made me always feel loved. And it felt like he was always present, not just physically, but I always knew if there was something that was really up, if I really needed something, it was easy to go to him, it was super easy to go to him. He had that kind of open quality about him that I try to emulate. But I don’t know. That’s a hard thing to do. He did it kind of naturally.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well thanks for sharing. Really important. And like you said, it might come naturally to some people, and for others, if you didn’t have that as a role model like you did, it might be difficult to copy or implement.
Josh LaBelle: Yeah. It’s really, really interesting. When your parents go, you think of all these questions that, “Oh, I wish I would’ve asked my dad this.” Sometimes even today, I ask those questions of him, and I think I know the answer. I can feel his voice.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well thanks for sharing. So my recollection was you got a degree from UCLA in World Art and Culture with a focus on ethnomusicology. And my recollection was you spent a number of years at the William Morris Agency, starting in the mail room of all places, and moved up to an assistant in the music division, booking concerts.
You played professionally for a number of years, and I’m wondering, where is it that your professional music career took you?
Josh LaBelle: I really had the honor of joining the Sam Phillips Band. She is this extraordinary singer songwriter out of Los Angeles. And her husband at the time was also in the band and produced the records, and his name is T Bone Burnett. And so by joining this band, I also joined their greater music family. So I wound up doing other projects here and there with T Bone.
I toured across the country many times and played at festivals, played in theaters. I remember playing at a zoo once for a radio promotion. But I got to see the country, you know, the beauty, the diversity, and some of the homogenous stuff. Way too many Waffle Houses, stuff like that. And I got to play with some of my heroes along the way.
I remember, there was a time in the band in which it was Sam Phillips singing, T Bone Burnett on guitar, another guy named Marc Ribot on guitar, and then a bass player named Jerry Scheff. And all these guys were older than me. And I just often felt like, wow, how did I get here? Like, I don’t really belong. And all three of those guys were my heroes growing up as a young musician. Suddenly, like holy moly, here you go. It was amazing.
I mean, Jerry Scheff, to give you a sense of understanding, Jerry Scheff had played with Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello, the Doors, I can go on and on. And he’s just one of these guys that has had this extraordinary music career, and when you play with him, you get it. It’s like, oh, okay. Whoa. You know you’re on higher ground. You play on higher ground. I don’t quite know how that happens, but it happens to a few people. And I was around quite a few of those guys. I’m not on that ground. I want to be clear.
David Hirsch: Did you feel like it sort of upped your game? Maybe some of it was by osmosis or just being in proximity, that you rose to the occasion?
Josh LaBelle: Yeah. Yeah, I definitely rose to it. You know, you don’t really have a choice. Like, “Hey, dude, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to work hard, and use your ears, and learn to play like a gentleman, like T Bone’s big thing, or you’re going to sink, and we’ll just leave you behind somewhere in Tulsa, and well, good luck.”
But there were times in which like, “Oh shit, we gotta do two shows in one night. Oh man, that’s a bummer.” Okay. But we had to do that like, when you’re playing New York sometimes, or other weird cities like Las Vegas, things like that. It does make you rise and make you realize like, “All right, we’re going to be pouring out a lot of sweat tonight.”
But there’s also nothing like it. Like, it was awesome. And I wouldn’t trade those three years or so for anything. I learned a whole lot. Not just musically, I’m talking about just life and leadership lessons and whatnot.
David Hirsch: So my recollection was you moved to Seattle in the mid-nineties. You’ve been there since with two of the theaters, the Paramount and the Moore Theaters and programming. And then since 2001, you’ve been the executive director at the Seattle Theater Group, which includes both those theaters and the Neptune Theater. I’m wondering, how is it that you got to Seattle, of all places?
Josh LaBelle: I chased my girlfriend here. It’s just as simple as that. And at the time I was still playing music in the Sam Phillips Band, and she was going to school up here. And I will say it was that time in which I decided like, you know what? This town’s cool. I’d like to maybe take a break and not be on the road for a long time.
Some things had changed in Sam and T Bone’s world, and so there wasn’t a whole lot of touring work happening. So it just felt like, “Let me see if I could find a little gig, and then eventually head back to LA and keep doing the musician hustle. Maybe produce records, kind of like T Bone does.”
And then I talked my way into a job at Seattle Theater Group doing programming. And man, I felt like I left the traveling musical circus, and I joined the stationary arts circus, and I felt right at home. I felt like, yeah, this place is for me, and I didn’t want to leave. Careful what you wish for.
So I went from programming a few rock and roll shows to being part of a team of people led by a amazing woman named Ida Cole, who is our founder, to helping grow the company and being in a leadership position.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Well, I’d like to switch gears and talk about special needs, first on a personal level and then beyond. And my recollection was that you did have some exposure to the world of special needs before Levi was born, and I’m wondering what that is.
Josh LaBelle: Yeah, so a couple things. First, I’m an epileptic, and I believe I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was four years old. And that doesn’t necessarily qualify me as a special needs person, but there certainly are epileptics that wind up in a situation like that.
I just have an interesting connection back to family and music here. We talked about my dad a bit, but you get on a lot of drugs and whatnot when you’re a kid with epilepsy, and you’re kind of navigating a lot of medicinal therapy.
My mom, who was also a nurse, decided that music would be maybe a good thing to push on me. And by the time I got to the drums, I was, I think, in middle school, and it was at that point when I really started playing every day on the drums, and my epilepsy really evened out.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I felt that there was some kind of connection in my head between playing music, sweating, playing the drums, and suddenly feeling like, “Ha ha, I’ve tamed you epilepsy.” I’ll stay on my drugs, but as long as I’m playing, I suddenly got seizure free. So that was my first initial inkling into the mystery of neurology and how many of us have differences that can be seen and not seen.
So on to the birth of my daughter, Julia, who is now 11, who had a huge challenge, in that her lungs weren’t working properly when she was born. And she wound up having to go on life support. Pretty scary times. She spent the first, I think 45, 46 days of her life in the hospital. But she made it through, thank God, and she’s a healthy kid now, but she does have hearing loss. She has no hearing in one ear.
So as a family, when she was really young, my wife and I and Julia, we discovered through some wonderful friends—the Block family, connected back to the theater—this wonderful place called the Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center. And we started going, and learning ASL, and meeting people in the deaf and hard of hearing community.
And that was a pretty profound experience for me, in terms of getting closer to a community that, from my perspective at the time, was very much a special needs community of people who are deaf or hard of hearing. I think at that time, I saw them as special needs. And as I got closer and closer, I realized like, whoa, this community actually, many of them do not see themselves that way, so I should not see them that way.
And it was a beautiful thing, because I was able to get a sense of, what if my daughter does become deaf one day, what will our life together be like? What will her life be like? And it gave me a much better sense and comfort. You know, I remember waking up when she was really little, wondering, Oh my God, is today the day I’m going to wake up and my daughter is not going to hear me?” And I had an extraordinary amount of anxiety about it.
And thanks to HSDC, my anxiety was reduced. But that was my first approach into the worlds of special needs, which my important lesson again, was that I can’t necessarily see them as a community of people of special needs. It’s not all that different from my epilepsy. It’s just a different way of living and being, and there’s so much beauty in it as well.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well thanks for sharing. And out of curiosity, has Julia been able to maintain her hearing in her other ear, or not?
Josh LaBelle: Yeah. Julia is fully hearing in her other ear, and she’s doing great. This morning I was listening to her practice a new Paul McCartney song on the piano. And I was like, wow, this is a good life, to be able to watch my daughter learn to play piano. And, what song was it? It wasn’t “Yesterday.” I’m forgetting the song, the name of the song, but I took a video of it, I was so moved.
Because, my whole thing before is I wanted her to know the Beatles music. I wanted her to know “Rubber Soul” when she was a real young kid and hear that. And anyway, I could go on and on, as you might imagine. But one of the first songs she did learn on piano was the Beatles’ song from the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul.” And it was a total coincidence that her piano teacher pointed her in that direction on one hand. On the other hand, I don’t believe in coincidences. It was just another beautiful part of the puzzle of life.
David Hirsch: That’s wonderful. Thanks for sharing. So, I’m sort of curious to know, what is Levi’s diagnosis, and what’s the backstory there?
Josh LaBelle: So Levi is diagnosed with ADHD and difficulty with speech. I don’t know, there’s probably a term for it, but that’s really what Levi’s diagnosis is.
And he’s eight years old right now. He is the most loving, wonderful kid in the world, and sometimes just really will struggle to express himself, and may struggle with behavior, and it’s another one of these neurological puzzles, clearly. It’s something that medication helps—and doesn’t completely resolve.
It’s quite a journey for my wife and me right now. It’s quite a journey. There are times in which, like just last night, oh my God, we had the best of times and went to our Molly Moon’s ice cream and cookie shop. He just got so excited and took a bite into his cookie, and just yelled out, “I love Molly Moon!”
And anyhow, Levi’s primary stuff is ADHD. There are some puzzles going around with cognition. Like, is his cognitive capacity doing well? Is it up and down? Like there’s some questions around cognition right now that we’re navigating, and I’m not sure where to go with this.
On one hand it’s I think one of our biggest family challenges. On the other hand, it’s also like one of the most beautiful things that we do together every day, to meet him where he is, or try to meet him where he is, and love and support him. I guess that’s one of the things that I’m working on. I’ll put it that way. My wife’s much better at this. It’s sort of like she’s also my teacher.
It’s a trip because everyone’s different, right? Everyone’s different. And being a parent to these two kids, I find myself playing such different roles, and it can be hard to navigate every now and then. You know, with Julia, she’s a hyper-intelligent person. I feel like almost just a bumper for her. Like if life is this journey, I’m the bumpers on the road, if you will. I don’t think I need to lay down, like “Don’t go this way.” Like, “That’s okay.” And if anything, I’m trying to keep up.
With Levi, it’s this thing of meeting him where he is, and sometimes it’s hard for me to find my way there. I see my wife get there really fast. Do you know what I mean by that?
David Hirsch: Yeah, I think so. I’m going to try to paraphrase what you’ve said. Parenting is not a one size fits all. Like if you have multiple kids, their talents are different. Each of our kids is different. And if you approach being a dad or a parent just in one way, you’re not really fully appreciating or understanding who they are and where they’re at, and what one child needs, another one doesn’t need.
And what you described as bumpers, I had this vision of a bowling alley where they put bumpers up in the lanes. So you just don’t want your kids to fall in the gutter, literally. But yeah, some kids, that’s all they need, just a little bumper here and there. And others need to be taught how to pick the bowling ball up without hurting themselves, dropping it on their foot, or somehow twisting themselves all up and injuring themselves.
But it’s one of the joys and challenges of being a parent, I think, and I don’t think it has anything to do with special needs. I think it’s just, you know, everybody’s got a different personality. Same environment, right? Same parents, same house, same type of resources. But you know, we’re all wired differently. Our DNA is different.
And I think that maybe you appreciate that, given your life’s experience, given the work that you do, a little bit better than the average person might, with relatively young kids. So you’re sort of in tune with who they are and where they’re at.
And I’m wondering, was there any advice that you got early on that sort of helped you embrace this meeting Levi where he is at?
Josh LaBelle: Golly, that’s a good question. You know how there are scenes in your mind that stick out, and they’re always going to be present for you?
There’s this one time in which I remember we were having Shabbat at our home. I grew up in a family that largely kept Shabbat. My family now keeps Shabbat, meaning Friday night, we get together, we light the candles, and we just spend time together. We’re not an overly religious family. Don’t let me give you the wrong impression.
But it’s a memory around Shabbat in which my mother invited a special guest to our house who was a neighbor kid who was older than me, who had some sort of challenges. Probably cognitive challenges. But I remember just as a little kid, having trouble connecting with him.
And I guess I was not being kind or welcoming, and my mom asked me to meet her in the pantry. So I met her in the pantry, and she chewed me out. She just said, “You are not being kind. You are not being welcoming. Get with it.” It was hardcore. But in any case, maybe that’s a little something that stuck with me, that we’ve always got to find our way into somebody else’s shoes somehow and sit with them, walk with them.
But again, I have to point back to my wife, who is just one of the most incredible people to begin with in all that she does. But also just watching her parent, I’m in awe. I don’t mean to be buttering her toast publicly here, but just the way I see her redirecting, and changing the theme or changing the attention somehow.
So there’s times in which our son will sort of…there’s a better word than falling apart, but he’ll just kind of dysregulate, he’ll just make kind of funky noises. And somehow my wife just has a certain tone of voice and this ability to jump to the next thing that he needs to be thinking about and doing. And he follows her there.
I’m successful like 20% of the time. I try and I try. Even a couple days ago I was like, “Okay, wait, what’s Colleen going to do right now?” I was on my own. And I’m like, “What? Where is she going to go with this?” And I tried. I was like, “Shit, no, that didn’t work.”
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, what you’re describing is that Colleen’s in the major leagues, and you’re still in the minor leagues. You’re a journeyman, trying to get to the major leagues. And fortunately you have a major league player in your house that you can look up to, who can provide some direction. So thank you for being so forthcoming about that.
So I’d like to switch gears and talk about the Seattle Theater Group. My recollection was, collectively with the three theaters, you put on 700 something performances a year, you reached a million patrons. And what’s the backstory on the theaters, and how did they come together?
Josh LaBelle: You know, we were founded by this amazing woman named Ida Cole, who I think was just a huge theater fan. She had been at Microsoft for some time. I believe she was perhaps Microsoft’s first female marketing executive, like vice president. I think she was running international marketing for Microsoft.
And she just had decided to make a change in her life. And the Paramount Theater in Seattle was thought to be a little bit at risk, an unsteady future. Well, she came in, purchased the theater and invested a lot of her own money, her own time, and raised a lot of money, and got the theater in a really solid position. I think she invested ten years of her time and about $30 million of her own money to ensure that the theater was renovated and supported every year.
And she had this thing that she started, that she wanted the Paramount to be a place for everyone. She wanted the theater to not just be one zone. It’s not just going to be an opera house that’s going to show opera, or a concert hall that’s just going to show rock concerts, or a Broadway house that’s only going to be Broadway. She literally wanted the theater to be a place where anybody could find something that that would inspire them. That got me hooked.
And fast forward, she basically transferred the ownership of the Paramount to the nonprofit that was running it, that she started. So now this nonprofit, Seattle Theater Group, owns and stewards one of the most incredible cultural assets in our country, in the Paramount Theater. It was built in 1928. It’s on the national register
And we have her original vision at the center of everything we do, and that vision is to be the people’s theater, a place where all are welcomed and represented. And while I dig our mission, I dig our core values, that vision is what really drives me every day, making sure that we’ve got amazing education and community programs that don’t just happen at the theater, but that happen out throughout the community.
For me, there’s this notion in Jewish culture, a phrase called tikkun olam, and that means to heal the world. And I make that personal connection myself between our vision and tikkun olam. And that’s what’s kept me going and keeps me inspired every day. I don’t know if that helps. Did I answer your question? Well, I probably started to drift too much, my friend.
David Hirsch: Oh, no, no, no. That’s very enlightening. Thank you for sharing. And serving everyone at the People’s Theater, where all are welcome and represented, is pretty audacious. And I’m wondering, just to be clear about it, are we talking about people from all socioeconomic groups, all ethnic groups, and those that have special needs and those that are typical?
Josh LaBelle: Yes, absolutely. We absolutely are. And with regard to people with special needs, I think it’s pretty traditional for performing arts organizations to do things like make sure that there’s going to be a signed performance, an ASL performance. But we want to do much more than that.
And we’ve started something called “sensory friendly” performances at the theaters. And thankfully we’ve had the support of really some great people at major theatrical companies, like Disney Theatrical, David Stone Productions with “Wicked.” I could name a few others that that produce these major touring shows that come across the country that also share the same interest.
Theater announcer: Today we’re inviting different families and groups to come and experience a sensory friendly performance, which is a show that has been modified, so families that have different sensory needs can come and experience the performance in a judgment free environment.
Josh LaBelle: Sensory friendly basically creates a little bit of a different environment—maybe quite a bit of a different environment—in which everyone is encouraged to come and be welcomed. Like my son Levi will go to this. And the production values are a little different. The music’s quieter. The lights aren’t quite as bright. But you’re seeing the same show.
It’s an environment in which people who can’t sit in their chair too long, if they need to walk about, or they make some noises and whatever, wonderful! This is their living room. This is for everybody. They don’t have to worry about the party next to them saying, “Shh, knock it off.” It’s a place that’s totally welcoming.
That’s an example of the kind of work that I know a lot of us are super passionate about. That’s just one example, but racial diversity is also critically important.
David Hirsch: Absolutely. Well, what you’re doing is, you’re talking my language. You’re talking a business person’s language. And for a lot of different reasons, it’s important to be inclusive and accepting people with differences, right?
Because I think one of the things that we’re struggling with in our country and around the world is that it’s so divisive, right? We’re sort of cleaving things into categories: left and right, conservative, liberal, black, white. You know, we have a lot more in common than what differentiates us, and I think instead of separating people by those differences, we need to celebrate what those differences are. You know, look for the common ground, the middle ground.
What seems challenging to me, based on all that you’re describing is, how do you accomplish these sensory friendly shows? How do you reach those in the lowest or the lower socioeconomic groups and make it affordable, so that you can be inclusive, and it’s just not appealing to people that are middle class, upper middle class, or upper class for that matter?
Josh LaBelle: Yeah, that’s a great question. So very specifically on sensory friendly, we wind up having to raise, I don’t know, maybe a quarter of a million dollars from contributors, to go out there and make sure that the prices are super accessible. We also will underwrite tickets for people who cannot afford them, because that’s what being the people’s theater needs to mean.
But you are also kind of hinting, I think—I heard a larger question in there—which is how do we keep the performing arts as an overall sector affordable? I looked at our average ticket price this morning. I’m a geek. I love my numbers. And I like to see, “Well, what did we sell today? And how many tickets did we sell?” And I love to do the division and see the average ticket price.
And this morning’s average ticket, this was from yesterday’s sales, was $45. You know, if you’re a family of four, that’s a couple hundred dollars plus parking. Plus food or you know, maybe some drinks, what have you, and we’re suddenly talking about $300 really fast. I’m not sure how affordable that is for everybody. And so I don’t have an answer here right now, but I think we need to get working on that, not just as Seattle Theater Group, but as a sector as a whole.
David Hirsch: So I just want to say thank you for doing the work that you do, and not just keeping the lights on, but, you know, pushing the edge of the envelope to be more inclusive and accepting, not only of those that are on the stage, but those that are able to enjoy the performances that you put on.
So I’d like to switch gears and ask if there’s any advice that you can offer a dad, because most of our listeners are dads raising kids with special needs. Is there advice that you can offer them as it relates to being the best dad they can be, or trying to make sure that their children are reaching their full potential?
Josh LaBelle: I think one of the things that I sometimes struggle with is self care, and realizing that if I’m not here for myself, how could I be here for others, specifically my children? I’m trying to get better about not running myself ragged, so I could be more present, be a better dad by being more present and awake, if you will.
I kind of zone out sometimes, especially like working from home in these covid times. I tend to go from one zoom call to another, and by the end of the day, I’m dizzy, like physically dizzy. And Julia comes in, Levi comes in, they start rattling. And I don’t really feel like I’m there.
So I’m trying to find ways of doing that, just trying to hold myself accountable a bit more to keeping them first. I could work my tail off, and yet if that means that I can’t be here now with them, then what good am I?
My favorite president, Barack Obama, said something along these lines. It was awful. It was an awful situation, like someone going and shooting up our kids at a school, and he’s trying to pass some much needed gun legislation. And he made a comment that sticks with me, that if we can’t be here first and foremost for our children, aren’t we failing at job number one?
So I’ve got to keep thinking about job number one. I love STG, love all that. It’s amazing. It’s what makes my family possible. And yet job number one is still my kids.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, it’s a point well made, and I’ve heard it phrased a couple different ways. One of the dads in the network who has three kids with autism, he said it’s important to be selfish before you can be selfless.
Which is another way of saying you need to take care of yourself. You need to eat right, you need to exercise, you need to get a right amount of sleep. Because if you’re not able to bring your A game every day to your family and to those that you’re responsible for at work, you’re going to fall short of your potential.
And then there’s the other image of when we’re on an airplane, and there’s that announcement before the flight takes off, that in the case of an emergency and the masks come down, you need to put your mask on first. You need to make sure you’re able to breathe so that you can help other people. And the first people that you’re going to be helping are those that you’re flying with, your wife and your kids, your loved ones.
So it’s not lost on me that we don’t need to make it really complicated. And I think you have to start with, like you said, taking responsibility. And you hit my hot button, when you talk about being present, because I get up on my soapbox and I talk about the fact that the state cares about meeting your financial obligations, child support and that
But really what kids need more than the financial support is to have a loving, caring, nurturing male adult role model, optimally the biological dad, but not always the case, to be present physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And it takes an effort to be present in all of those categories. So thanks for sharing.
So I’m wondering, why is it you’ve agreed to be a mentor father as part of this Special Fathers Network?
Josh LaBelle: I just care. I care about the community, and it feels like a cool community you’re creating here. And again, let’s try to heal the world and make it a better place. And it just kind of aligns with that value for me, you know.
David Hirsch: Well, we’re thrilled to have you. Thank you for being part of the Special Fathers Network. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Josh LaBelle: I think there’s something about uncles, too, that some of us are also uncles. I think sometimes there are some of our relatives who are dads that could use a little extra uncle help for their kids from time to time. Or sometimes some of us may have a niece or nephew that is lacking a biological parent. And that’s also in my world a bit right now. And, you know, to the degree that we step up and try to be good uncles, even if it’s just an afternoon of something special, it feels like something important for us dads to keep on our radar.
David Hirsch: That’s a really good thought. And let’s give another tribute to your Uncle Lenny, who I think played that role in your life.
Josh LaBelle: Oh, hugely, hugely. I’ll always remember, at my dad’s memorial, we were at the house sitting Shiva, and it was like kind of like time for some people to go. And he just stood next to me, and there’s a bunch of people talking
And without like looking at me in the eye, he was just kind of like standing to my side, he says, “Okay, so listen. I’m going to take off in about a half hour, and I just want you to know, you can lean on me for anything. Just give me a call any hour. I’m here for you.”
And that was it. And I just thought, like, “How freaking cool are you?” Like what a perfect thing for an uncle to say. I never needed to call him. I was like, “Oh, okay.” But I knew he was there. That was neat.
David Hirsch: Yeah. It’s really powerful.
Josh LaBelle: Yeah, it was. It was him kind of reorganizing the order, if you will—making that new order official. Funny how that happens in life.
David Hirsch: Oh, yeah. Well, you’ve had some good role models. Let’s give a special shout out to Louis Mendoza at the Washington State Fathers Network for connecting us.
Josh LaBelle: It’s great. Thank you, Louis. And thank you, David. It’s been fun chatting.
David Hirsch: Same. If somebody wants to learn more about the Seattle Theater Group, or contact you, how would they go about doing that?
Josh LaBelle: Oh, you know, go to stgpresents.org. You can learn lots about Seattle Theater Group there. And in terms of contacting me, my email’s joshL@stgpresents.org.
David Hirsch: We’ll be sure to include both those in the show notes. It’ll make it as easy as possible for our listeners to follow up. Josh, thank you for your time and many insights. As a reminder, Josh is just one of the individuals who’s part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs.
If you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org. Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did.
As you probably know, the 21st Century Dads Foundation is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, which means we need your help to keep our content free to all concerned. Would you please consider making a tax deductible contribution? I would really appreciate your support
Josh, thanks again.
Josh LaBelle: Thank you, David.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children match up with mentor gathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support other dads. To find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help, or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search dad to dad.
Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story or know of a compelling story, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast was produced by me, Tom Couch. Thanks again to Horizon Therapeutics, who believe that science and compassion must work together to transform lives. That’s why they work tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics at horizontherapeutics.com.