By Douglas Harris
Judging by their reactions, most people in the audience recognized themselves in these situations. What made it funny was that for once, it wasn’t happening to them. They were able to laugh watching it happen to someone else. It was just one more example of people with ADHD connecting over shared experience that only they truly understand — a common theme at the Talent Show. The 2013 Detroit ADDA Conference Talent Show was a big, professional production but it wasn’t always that way.
The ADDA Talent Show had its humble begin
nings in the early 1990s. The first ADDA Conferences were small and informal by today’s standards and were held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One regular group at these conferences were the "Bad Girls,” a support group of around 15 ADHD women who shared many things, including a love of music. Given the opportunity, they would find an empty stairwell in the Michigan Union and sing without boundaries or limits. Led by Kate Kelly, they would stage their own impromptu ADHD vaudeville show. One witness to this musical celebration was Dean Solden, the man who has been the one constant behind the ADDA Talent Show since those early days.
Over the next few years the music moved from the stairwells to the stage where Dean would act as Master of Ceremonies. It evolved into an informal jam session where talented people with ADHD could perform in front of a supportive audience of their peers. At first, the songs were of a more general nature but people soon began to take advantage of this opportunity to express their ADHD onstage in songs, poetry and readings.
The 1996 conference in Pittsburgh hosted the first official ADDA Talent show. It was still a simple affair with a PA system pulled together at the last moment and no lighting, but if one looked carefully, we could see the roots of the present day ADDA Talent Show. Shows had always featured semiprofessional, experienced talent, but now first-timers were also being encouraged to participate. As Dean describes it, people who’d come to the conference with no intention of being on stage found themselves up there shouting out their uniqueness in front of an audience that had become an equal partner in their public coming-of-age.
The format of the show hasn’t changed much since then but its importance has. What was once just a talent show has become a culminating ritual, a celebration of the tribe anticipated all weekend. What was once just entertainment has become a physical manifestation of the transformation many people experience at the ADDA Conference. For the audience to participate vicariously in this transformation is very powerful. Last summer’s show in Detroit reflected this elevated status with the addition of professional sound and lighting equipment, including a spotlight for the participants to bask in.
All this wouldn’t happen without Dean’s hard work onstage and backstage. As emcee, he sets the tone for the evening with his opening, enrolling the audience in the crucial role they play actively supporting the performers. This creates a space where people feel safe to take risks and where they are richly rewarded when they do. Dean warms up the crowd with a combination of music and comedy perhaps best displayed in his original parody songs. I vividly remember my first ADDA Conference in Chicago in 1999, where he performed an ADHD version of "Imagine” that was very funny but also very touching. I remember how the audience laughed and nodded their heads as we related to the familiar, but newly personalized for the ADHD crowd, song. A professional jazz pianist, Dean has performed other fine parody songs over the years including "Medication” ("Celebration”) and "Don’t Blame Me”.
Once the first performer takes the stage, Dean becomes a tireless cheerleader, shamelessly encouraging the audience to show its enthusiastic support for the acts. The show moves along smoothly because Dean puts a lot of effort into creating a set list with good flow, mixing songs, poetry, dance, and whatever else performers have come up with. Veterans and first-timers are carefully alternated to showcase each in turn. While quite a few acts are lined up in advance, there still are plenty added at the last minute. But this doesn’t faze Dean, who simply inserts them into the program where they will best shine.
A few hours before the show, at the only rehearsal, Dean also plays the role of coach as he helps the participants with stage technique and confidence. He is driven to make each act a memorable experience for both the audience and the performer. Some performers are veterans for whom this is just another in a long line of appearances on stage. But for each of those, there is someone making his or her debut. Dean remembers the stage fright he experienced early in his career and he does his best to help the new people relax and go on stage confident they’re set to succeed.
In Detroit, one such newcomer to the stage was Larry Letich, a therapist from Maryland who had only discovered such a Conference existed six days earlier. After hurriedly making reservations and getting a ticket, he started playing with the idea of reading a couple of his poems at the Talent Show. Larry had never read his poetry in public before, but he realized this was a chance to follow his own advice to clients about taking creative risks. In the days leading up to the Talent Show, he vacillated between feeling that his poems would really help people and worrying he might "look like an idiot” onstage.
The morning of the Talent Show, Larry and I both attended a breakout session led by Billi Bittan about using creativity to overcome ADHD obstacles. For one exercise, we were to take an obstacle we struggle with and come up with a metaphor for it. I don’t remember the first few examples people in class offered, but I do remember Larry excitedly exclaiming "Death Star!” He explained that the obstacle he was addressing was the fear of being humiliated and that the metaphor of the Death Star in Star Wars represented that invulnerable thing waiting out there to destroy you. But in a moment of personal transformation, he realized the Death Star could be destroyed and that similarly, the looming specter of humiliation his imagination had created need not defeat him. For me it was one of those special moments that happen (with surprising frequency!) at an ADDA Conference, the moment when a light bulb goes off over someone’s head and you’re there to witness it.
That night, armed with his newfound confidence and some helpful pointers from Dean, Larry took to the stage and calmly read his two poems to an audience hanging on every word. The poems were very personal and clearly connected deeply with a lot of people based on how many came up to Larry to talk about them the rest of the weekend. As Larry summarized the experience, "It was so wonderful. It was a life-changing moment for me. For once in my life I felt like a star. I glowed the rest of the weekend.”
It is moments like this that make organizing the ADDA Talent Show one of Dean’s favorite things to do and something he finds extremely rewarding. Watching the show grow from its simple roots into what it is today, Dean feels like a proud parent, and he says it has changed his life, too. That is one of the benefits of putting on a show that has a reputation of being life-changing and somehow manages to live up to those impossibly high expectations every time.
Douglas Harris is an ADHD Coach in Saline, Michigan. He works with intellectually gifted people struggling with ADHD. With coaching, clients discover how to tap into the full potential of their extraordinary minds and put in place the ADHD-friendly strategies to make those dreams a reality. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.