On June 3rd my grandmother turned 83. I went home to VA to see her. I brought her a plant, some berries, and introduced her to my girlfriend. She was reclined in an easy chair the whole time we were there, drifting in and out of what looked like pleasant little midday naps. Being an expert of the snooze alarm myself, I imagine she feels wonderful allowing her body to expand into dream upon layered dream. As she continuously awoke, she’d add something to the conversation that not everyone in the room could understand, but to no dismay. She’s 83 and long retired, living peacefully between ours and her own dream-world. “That’s cute the way she’s dancing in that fire,” She’d say. And we’d agree, somewhat jealous that we couldn’t see the majesty that she’d come to view.
I go home twice a year; for the holidays and for my grandmother’s birthday. Those are the occasions when most of the immediate family comes together in one place. (Her birthday also boarders my Mom’s and my brother’s which adds even more celebration to the end of spring.)
This year, in addition to singing Happy Birthday, I got to sing in ways I never imagined I would thanks to the 30 year old School of Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC), one of the beneficiaries of my foundation. This year, SPARC created LIVE ART, an all-inclusive education and performance program that welcomed children of all talents and abilities to the stage.
“Every human being has needs that are unique and very, very special,” says Erin Thomas-Foley, LIVE ART creator and director. SPARC saw those needs were met, spending 20 weeks developing a full-on theatrical stage show integrating seasoned performers with children of all ages who are deaf, autistic, and differently-abled. It wasn’t a matter of finding talent as most kids with disabilities have talents that surpass those of an able-bodied person. The 5 month preparation was mostly about introducing these kids to a new way of expressing themselves; add a large audience, amplified music, and stage lighting. It was also about teaching many others sign language, as well as tolerance, and compassion.
Being the first of it’s kind that I know of, the show’s theme focused on music and arts from Virginia, therefore all the music was written and performed by VA songwriters, musicians and choreographers, etc. I was honored to play Live High with a big band and a choir; The Sunshine Song with a new piano arrangement by a new friend and colleague JC Wright, and Details In The Fabric while standing on a large clean canvas as actors threw paint around my feet before dancing all around on it, creating a beautiful image with our movements and emotions.
Photos by Martin Montgomery courtesy of SPARC.
I’d known for weeks what I’d get to do in the show, but it wasn’t until I attended rehearsal that morning that I realized how special my participation was. And I say that not in the way that suggests my being there must’ve been special for the kids. I’m saying my being there was special for me.
I’ve performed on a thousand stages and shared dressing rooms and curtain calls with legendary ensembles and superstars alike. But nowhere have I received the kind of grace and elation I did onstage with the actors, dancers, and musicians of LIVE ART.
During two of the numbers I thought to myself, honored, “This is exactly why I wrote these songs.”
The homecoming also gave me the opportunity to reconnect with those who’d inspired me along the way, particularly when I still lived in VA; acts like Jesse Harper and Daniel Clarke, two great musicians with whom I attended middle school who’ve gone on to become incredible songwriters and performers; legendary Hammond B3 player and songwriter Steve Bassett, a man I once attended a songwriting workshop when I was in my teens; NY Lighting Designer Joe Doran, whose smile I hadn’t seen since we were in a play together almost 20 years ago; Martin Montgomery, a filmmaker I’d shared stages with in college was documenting the experience and took all the attached photographs; and Susan Greenbaum, a Kansas City transplant to Richmond, VA the way I am to San Diego, has essentially become the voice of Richmond. And of course there were many others, friends, teachers, parents, you name it. It’s my home town after all.
There was also a moment backstage when myself and about 30 kids were waiting for our cues that I realized how little has changed in my life. Here I am almost 35 years old and I am doing exactly what I was doing when I was 15. I get to play music full time; emphasis on play. And that’s pretty cool.
Photo by Martin Montgomery, courtesy of SPARC.
Cleverly executed and well done, LIVE ART, a little bit theatre, a little bit rock concert, and a little bit cirque de soleil, was a show I won’t soon forget. It reawakened me to why I write songs and why it’s important to share and perform them. Myself and the entire company of more than 100 people circled up before the show, holding hands and setting an intention for greatness, casting out fear and allowing our nerves to just be. That special moment backstage didn’t have anything to do with ticket sales, fundraising, branding, or celebrity, factors that occasionally sneak into my adult life. The moment was pure heart, and for some, including myself, it was the moment acknowledging the biggest and most important show we may ever play in our lives.
My grandmother couldn’t attend the show, but I told her I take her onstage with me everywhere I go, which I do.
Learn more about SPARC and LIVE ART by visiting SparcOnline.Org and go hug your grandma if you can.