Interview With Bringing You Broadway's Hannah Jewel Kohn and Emma Dergerstedt
Last December, I was enjoying my new pandemic guilty pleasure of scrolling through TikTok, when I came across a video that caught my interest.
The video was posted by Bringing You Broadway, an organization run by Broadway performers Emma Degerstedt and Hannah Jewel Kohn who bring Broadway-style performances to children living with special needs, disability, or illness.
Using theatre to give back is a personal passion of mine, and I love seeing all of the different ways artists pursue this.
So, I reached out to Bringing You Broadway, hoping to learn more about their organization and spread the word about their upcoming events!
Emma and Hannah were lovely enough to join me for a Zoom call to chat all about Bringing You Broadway!
Why don’t we get started by talking about what you were doing before Bringing You Broadway, and how the organization came to be?
HANNAH: I’ll go first. My name is Hannah Jewel Kohn and I’m also the co-founder of Bringing You Broadway with Emma Dergerstedt. I was touring with the First National Tour of Frozen the musical. So, that’s what I was doing before this pandemic happened.
EMMA: I had just booked, two weeks before the pandemic, Muriel’s Wedding. I had done the readings and we had finally got the news that we were moving forward and were having an out of town tryout and a Broadway date.
I put in my weeks notice at my job, I’m a special needs nanny. I told the family I had four weeks and wouldn’t be able to return, unfortunately, but my dreams were coming true. So, it was great!
And then BOOM, COVID said “Actually, we have different plans. I’m going to make you wait two more years.”
But actually how we met… We have known of each other for the past couple years.
HANNAH: I lived with her current roommate.
EMMA: So that’s kind of how we got connected. She started, during the pandemic, a meditation group, it’s called Jewel Focus -- Why am I tellinging this?
HANNAH: This is your story because you joined! So, I started a meditation group with incredible humans. Emma joined my group and one night…
This is actually your story, I’ll let you tell it, you love to tell it.
EMMA:I do love to tell this because it’s also such a good way to spotlight you!
She’s so amazing at what she does, that she was encouraging me, along with the other people in the group, she was telling us “What is that fear that you have? What is that dream that you maybe haven’t done because you feel like you can’t?”
Like, “I’m a pusher, Cady, I’m going to push you.” She literally said that.
HANNAH: Yeah, I did. I had people start a passion project, which is something that gets you really excited about life, it makes you wake up in the morning having a purpose, being held accountable for something in your life, especially during a pandemic when the world is paused.
So, that’s what I was aiming for in my group, for the people involved.
EMMA: So, I had been for eight months toying with this idea that I wanted to open a theatre company. I envisioned kind of a women’s run theatre company. Only hiring women, highlighting women, uplifting women. And basically, when all this happened I realized there weren’t going to be any theatre companies for quite some time, so I should probably put a pin in that.
But it kept coming back, and I was like “Maybe I can do something with the children I work with?” I work with kids on the Autism Spectrum.One who just has some behavioural delays, and the other who is on the Autism Spectrum. I was like, “Maybe I can do something with children like her?” I’ve seen how music has strengthened our relationship and has strengthened her communication skills with me.
Hannah happened to post like “I want to get together all of our actors in our community, get into a room safely, with masks, six feet apart, and let’s create. Let’s dance, let’s sing, let’s do scene work.” She wanted to create an environment where our community could feel fulfilled again, and have a creative outlet. I immediately texted her and I was like, “Call me.” She called me and I was like, “I have this dream of doing these virtual dance parties with children with autism around the country and using musical theatre to enrich these lives.”
HANNAH: My initial plan, before the pandemic, I’ve always wanted to create some sort of troupe to go to the Tri-State areas and give back like, a little mini-show to children, just so they can experience theatre if they don’t have the means to do so, before or after this pandemic. So, that was kind of my goal with this.
EMMA: She worked with, what’s that hospital?
HANNAH: Yeah, the Dick Wagner Foundation.
When I was on tour in Frozen we did a lot of outreach performances at the children’s hospitals where these children were receiving music therapy.
So I knew that when this pandemic hit, that I had to do something to give back in some way. It just fulfills me like nothing ever did. I love feeling like I can go sing or dance and give children some sort of show that takes them out of this life that they’re in right now. Not that it’s bad, but to ease their mind and bring them joy.
EMMA:That’s what theatre is. That’s why we do theatre.
HANNAH: Yeah, and that’s what we were missing. So during this pandemic, we were trying to fill that void.
So I filled the void of the community, that’s what I created with Jewel Focus.
Then I had something else, I wanted to feed my own soul selfishly, I wanted to perform again. And I wanted to have my community in a room where we could create and put on different shows. I even wanted to put together a troupe and just read a play a week. Something to get us all involved and hone in on our craft, to really perfect that while we had the time and the flexibility.
So we merged these two ideas together and it took off running. We didn’t really have a chance to sit back and say “Are we sure about this?” It was like, BOOM, it’s running. Are you hopping on the train or not? Cause we’re going.
We’ve been so lucky ever since, cause everyone is so generous with their time and their gifts and we really are just over the moon grateful.
You usually partner with one organization per performance. Since you got started last year, which organizations have you had a chance to partner with so far?
EMMA: So we collaborate with various organizations, and we create a curated, unique experience for the organization that we’re working with. So we worked with EKO, which is the Exceptional Kids Organization in California.
HANNAH: We worked with Merrimack Hall in Alabama.
EMMA: We worked with Project Up Ashland in Oregon.
So we’ve had those three, and I love that they’re all in different states. I love that we haven’t just been like -- I’m from California, and she’s from Michigan, so it would have been pretty easy to just like go back to our hometowns and kind of pull from there. I do love that we’re really branching out.
We want this to be completely national, we want to perform for kids from every walk for life, from every part of the U.S. I mean, hey, let’s go international!
What we’re doing this year is we’re expanding. These organizations have specialized with children with autism and various special needs, and now we’re like, “There’s so many people who need this and who would love this”.
So we’re expanding to various disabilities and making sure it’s still inclusive to everyone, but also the point of our mission is to bring Broadway theatre to communities that did not have access pre-COVID, and won’t necessarily have the same access after COVID. This isn’t a COVID company, this isn’t only going to exist when COVID exists. This is all going to exist and it’s going to be just as useful and in need when all of this is over.
Is there any specific organization or goal that you have in mind? What is the big thing for you right now?
HANNAH: I think we want to keep spreading light, love, music, storytelling, dancing to any community in need. I think that’s where we’re going right now. We don’t have-
EMMA: Well, we do have something we could tell her, can we tell her?
HANNAH: Well, let’s wait, we do have exciting news.
EMMA: We have something coming for the spring and summer!
HANNAH: So follow us @bringingyoubroadway on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, so we can share the exciting news which we can announce very soon!
So follow along for that.
What can someone expect from a Bringing You Broadway event?
HANNAH: Well, every outreach performance has a special little take on which organization we’re working with. So, if we’re working with a specific organization where we know people are going to be in wheelchairs, we will do different exercises for the warmup based on their abilities.
We will start with a warmup, and then we’ll dive into an actual ten-minute medley show which we’ve created with singing, with dancing, lines, we’re doing it all. Then we finish with a Q&A. That organization will share that we are doing a Q&A with their community, and if they have any questions for us onstage, that they can send them our way and we will answer them for them.
EMMA: The last thing we did in our last performance which we really loved that we created was that we really wanted it to feel intimate and interactive. Obviously, we can’t be in the same space with anyone, so that creates a lot of hurdles.
However, we were like, “What if we notify them beforehand and we say ‘hey, grab some props from around the house. Grab a scarf, if you don’t have a scarf, grab a dishtowel, if you don’t have hat, I don’t know, take a bowl and put it on your head.’”
HANNAH: We made it really interactive. So these kids, it was so beautiful, and we actually have footage from it, you can find it on our Instagram - I love to plug that, sorry. But these kids were literally throwing these scarves while Keyonna Knight, she played Elsa in our show. They were waving the scarves with her, right?
And we did a little Newsie medley and had all the children raise their hats with us!
EMMA: Every time we raised our hats, you could see on the screen they were doing it with us. So we would tell them before we perform, we would say ‘“Hey guys, I’m sure you’ve heard of Newsies”, we have an original Broadway company member of Newsies in our show. And he was like “Not sure if you saw me but… Not a big deal.” His name is Damon Gillespie. He was like “When you see everyone raise their hats, grab your hat, grab whatever you have, and raise it with them.”
So it’s like you’re performing with them. We don’t want this to ever feel like “Hey look at us, this is what we do, watch us do this”. It’s not like that. We want this to feel as much as possible, not like a masterclass, but like we’re doing this together, we are performing this together.
You’re part of this, I’m part of this, and there is no hierarchy. It’s not us teaching you, you’re doing this with us.
We’re all in this together.
HANNAH: Yes, and when I was with Frozen, we had a sensory-friendly performance where the children could actually participate. They could stand up, they could sit down, they could sing with us. We don’t really get that a lot in New York, you don’t get a sensory-friendly performance maybe once a month for children who can’t sit still for two and a half hours, right? So this is their time.
This is what we want to do, we want to just spread this awareness that you can be anyone who you want to be, you can do whatever you feel like doing in that moment and enjoy that show and interact with us. It is a personable show. We want to see you perform, you see us perform, and vice versa.
So, we’re changing these children’s lives and it’s beautiful to watch them.
EMMA: The best part, both Hannah and I agreed after, was we watched all the Zoom footage of them watching us and performing with us. I was like, bawling my eyes out because I’m like “This is so much better than me watching myself perform.”
It’s like, this is the best thing I have ever… It’s truly one of my proudest accomplishments.
We got a video the other day, from one of the girls who attended our last performance, and I texted Hannah like, “I am weeping right now” because this girl sent us this video. And it wasn’t like she had just sent us like ‘thank you so much for doing this, you guys are amazing”. She said, “I loved being a part of that and I want to be part of BYB.” And I was like “Holy hell, now I can’t do anything for the rest of the day, that’s all I’m going to be thinking about.”
All the stress that we’re under trying to do all this, and creating a company and everything - We are officially a 501(c)(3) - All of that just took a backseat for twenty minutes, and I was like “This is it, this is the feeling”.
You know what it is? It’s that feeling you get when your agent calls and tells you that you’ve booked the job. And I’ve been seeking out this feeling the entire pandemic like, “God I just need that feeling when your agent calls and says ‘It’s happening, come into the office, let’s sign this contract, this is happening for you.’”
It’s the first time I’ve felt that since COVID hit that I had that, I don’t know how to describe it… Your heart gets friggin warm and you’re on fire. I mean, I was so productive yesterday? I was deep-cleaning my house. I was like, “I’m alive again!”
HANNAH: Yeah, it’s very rewarding, it really is.
I’m just going to jump back real quick, for anyone who is unfamiliar, what is a 501(c)(3)?
HANNAH: Well, we are a non-profit organization. That’s what it means to be a 50(c)(3).
EMMA: Recognized by the State of New York. So we are officially a company that exists in New York.
It also means that, the awesome part, for anyone reading this, is that you can donate to us and it’s tax-deductible. So with a 501(c)(3) you are able to look back eight months to any donations we’ve received and we have our code which we can send out to anyone who has donated to us thus far. It just essentially means, “What you did was amazing and here you go, here’s a gift, an incentive.”
HANNAH: Give and you shall receive, right?
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome?
HANNAH: Making sure everyone feels safe. I think that’s the biggest thing.
Also making sure for us, we can’t just have a random rehearsal space that doesn't require temperature checks and contact tracing.
EMMA: That was one of the biggest things when we started.
At first we were like, “I would love it if we could rehearse in my courtyard”, for example. It’s open air, it's large, everyone can space out and feel really comfortable. But we need mirrors , we need to have a studio space. Also, it’s cold, we can’t be outside in my courtyard in the snow in December.
So we started searching, and we wanted to find a place where it was following the CDC regulations, that all of our actors felt safe, making sure that we felt safe being in a room and creating. Wearing the mask and singing and dancing the way that we were was a little challenging. Just, you know, when you’re breathing and the mask is going inside your mouth? There were definitely a lot of moments when we were like “Okay, we gotta figure this out”. We have plastic masks now which are really incredible that we found on Etsy.
So, a lot of the hurdles have been COVD related, but so is opening a business at any point is learning. We learned so much within our first two months. There were just so many things that, even not COVID. It’s just learning how things work, getting our budget in order, working on our expense reports
HANNAH: I think too, in the beginning we were worried about people helping us during all this. Because we needed stage managers, a sound designer, a choreographer, talent, orchestrator, music director, right?
And you know what, we just kept saying to each other back and forth, “Well let’s just go for it, let’s just see, why can’t we just ask, what if?”
“What if” is one of my favourite sayings. “What if” we said yes?
“What if” we said yes to each other that we’re going to go and ask all these people we thought would not help us out with this company?
And it’s been the most amazing thing.
EMMA: And I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve had to reconcile with, is my fear of asking for help. It feels like such a prideful thing to be like, “Well, I don’t want to ask for help, I don’t want people to see that I’m not able to do all of this on my own”.
I feel like that’s the thing I’ve learned the most in the last, you know, five months that we’ve been doing this, is that people want to be part of the community again.
HANNAH: People want to help.
EMMA: And the thing that’s holding you back isn’t other outside things, it’s you.
You need to be the one who says, “If I want something, I’m going to ask for it.”
HANNAH: I remember in the beginning, when we were in our first month putting together our company and our outreach performance, and we needed a stage manager. I just remember, her name’s Jen Jacobs, and I remember her saying, she’s sitting there typing and she’s like “This is so amazing, being in the room again with Broadway actors and to make a schedule.”
I remember saying “Why did we worry?” These people want to be back in the room. They want to experience Broadway and theatre again, they want to experience that community we all miss. The Broadway community, this industry, it’s filled with such outstanding and genuine humans and a lot of people miss that. It’s tough staying home, it’s tough having to stay in quarantine for two weeks alone. So when everyone was safe and everyone was negative, and we were feeling positive and good about our decision and we brought everyone into the rehearsal space, it was unlike any other.
We just looked at each other, and we’re just so proud of ourselves, that we accomplished something that nobody else really did during this pandemic, to be honest. You know what I mean? Nobody really put together and accomplished all this work in three months. We became a non-profit, a 501(c)(3), in three months. That’s wild!
But you know what? It’s because we started with our hearts, and what we wanted to do was change these children’s lives and feed and help our community. You can’t go wrong when you come from that place.
You can’t go wrong and the world will help you cause that is an honest and genuine place.
I originally got in touch to chat with Hannah and Emma to discuss an upcoming virtual gala. Now that they have officially announced their new endeavour, I am so happy to help share the news about their latest endeavour!
On April 2nd at 8pm, streaming begins for Bringing You Broadway’s benefit concert!
This exciting virtual event will feature many fan favourite artists of stage and screen, and will be available to stream for 4 DAYS after the initial release.
Tickets for the event cost $20 when purchased in advance, and $25 once the four-day streaming period begins! Proceeds from ticket sales go directly into helping the non-profit create new programming for their outreach performances.
Tickets can be found at:
Attached below is the official press release:
Join Bringing You Broadway for a very special benefit concert being live streamed for 4 days only, beginning APRIL 2nd at 8pm. This concert brings together artists from stage and screen and is hosted by BYB's co-founders, Emma Degerstedt and Hannah Jewel Kohn, and shot at the Watermark at Pier 15; this is sure to be a memorable event.
Garret Clayton (Teen Beach Movie, Hairspray Live!), Lena Hall (Kinky Boots, Hedwig and The Angry Inch), Derek Klena (Jagged Little Pill, Anastasia), Damon J. Gillespie (Newsies, Tiny Pretty Things on Netflix), Constantine Maroulis (Rock of Ages, American Idol Season 4), Jackie Burns (Wicked,If/Then), Dan DeLuca (Newsies), Emma Degerstedt (Smokey Joe's Cafe, Desperate Measures), Hannah Jewel Kohn (Frozen National Tour, Beauty and The Beast National Tour), Caroline Bowman (Wicked, Frozen), Austin Colby (Frozen), Taylor Iman Jones (Head Over Heels, Groundhog Day), Talia Suskauer (Wicked National Tour, Be More Chill), Emily Bautista (Miss Saigon, Les Miserables National Tour), Ashley Blanchet (Frozen, Beautiful), Jerusha Cavazos (The Prom), Ryann Redmond (Bring It On The Musical, Frozen), JJ Nieman (Book of Mormon, Ratatouille The Musical), Nasia Thomas (Ain't Too Proud, Caroline, Or Change), Ben Bogen (Frozen on Broadway, Jersey Boys National Tour), Daniel Yearwood (Once On This Island, Hamilton) and Trevor Dion Nicholas (Aladdin)
Tickets will be available for $25 general admission, or $20 if purchased in advance.
Where and how can people support Bringing You Broadway or get involved with your future endeavours?
HANNAH: If you go to our Instagram (@bringingyoubroadway), if you click on the link in our bio, it will take you to every site where we have a platform. It will take you to YouTube, Twitter, you’ll already be on Instagram, Facebook, our Give Butter donate page, our TikTok, an email, our website!
That’s actually the best case, is to go to Instagram and click on that link.
We would love for all the support and love, you know, even if you just stay updated with us by checking up on our Instagram.
Whatever you can do, it means the most to us.
EMMA: Also, we should make it very clear that all our donations go strictly into our outreach programs.
So everything that goes into that fund is saved for paying for our space, getting the word out, spreading the word about the organizations we partner with as well to get them fundraising.
We haven’t taken a dime. We need fundraising. We have an entire plan to pay our staff of fifteen people a salary, and that would eventually benefit from fundraising.
That’s how people can support us, as well as staying in the know about what we’re doing.
A huge thank you to Emma and Hannah for taking the time to tell me all about Bringing You Broadway and their upcoming events!
I can’t wait to tune in on April 2nd, and I hope to see you all there!
Below I’ve shared all the links to where you find, follow, and support Bringing You Broadway!