Several weeks ago, we traveled to Clarksburg, WV, for a journey back in time.
Some of you know that JC and I met when we were in middle school. I can’t say exactly what was our first meeting–kids in a small town kind of run into each other all over the place. We were at 4-H camp together, certainly, but we probably hit some of the same science fairs and academic challenge competitions and such nerdery. The activity that got me spending a lot of time with his family, though, was Chanticleer Children’s Chorus. I joined in sixth grade, after going to see my friend Alexandria sing in a concert the previous spring. JC and all of his sisters were members.
Chanticleer was a community chorus for children from all different schools. It was founded by Sarah Carr Parsons, who is one of my greatest inspirations as an artist. She challenged us and demanded excellence, but did it in a kind and loving way. I could barely carry a tune when I joined the choir, but she believes that every child can learn to sing, and she patiently taught me. She even helped improve my sight reading, which went from abysmal to merely incompetent in the years I sang with her.
Sarah is retiring from the choir after 24 incredible years. During those years, she started with a few dozen kids in the middle of nowhere and turned the group into a well-respected choir of over a hundred kids. She’s toured the choir to Scotland, Italy, and eastern Europe. In the course of her tenure, she taught over eight hundred kids to sing.
JC and I hold the distinction of being the only alumni to marry each other. We like to say that Chanticleer is responsible for Silas and Petra’s existence. I’m jealous of another former chorus colleague, whose children are members now. What a great family tradition!
I sang from sixth grade through my high school graduation, and even did two of the tours: one around West Virginia, and one to Scotland. We sang on NPR as part of a celebration of kids in the arts. It was an incredible experience.
Chanticleer was also a safe harbor for me. My family was going through a rough patch during those years, and having something to do that required all of my focus, and which was an overwhelmingly positive experience, was a huge help. Sarah modeled artistry through her life; even when we knew something hard was going on in her life, we saw her pour all of it into her music. I like to think I learned that from her, and that this was one of the most important lessons she gave me.
So there was no question that we would go to WV and participate in Sarah’s farewell concert. It was a tribute to her, and I was proud to be part of it. The concert included some music that took me right back to my first years in the choir, and some that was part of their more recent repertoire. So many moments had me in tears during the rehearsal, although I managed to keep it under control, more or less, for the concert. “My Home Among the Hills,” of course, got me choked up; I don’t know how many times I sang that as a kid, but it gets me every time. It was written by a guy who was the mayor of Clarksburg, once upon a time, and seriously should be West Virginia’s state song. Another one that pulled at all of my heart strings was “The Storm Is Passing Over,” a spiritual that was not part of the repertoire when I was in the choir, but spoke to me all the same. I couldn’t help but think about the many, and I do mean many, storms that we’ve weathered since our days in Chanticleer. We’re finally in a place where we feel a little bit stable, for the first time in at least two years, and the song captured that feeling of the clouds parting and the earth still being solid under our feet. Praise be to God, the morning light appears.
Rehearsing with Sarah again for the first time in fifteen years was a revelation. Since I left the choir, I’ve earned three degrees in theater and directed a lot of plays (I think twenty or more). I’ve had a number of mentors who influenced me and challenged me to go deeper and higher in my art. And yet, there were things that I saw Sarah doing during the rehearsal, and I realized that I do them, too, and that I must have first learned them from her. Little things, like the particular way she engages with someone when they’re asking a question, and bigger things, like the way she structures her comments: first vague and metaphorical, giving the choir a chance to figure it out themselves, and slowly becoming more specific and eventually entirely technical. This is exactly how I structure my feedback to actors, because it gives them room to be artists and problem solvers, but it also makes sure that the details get nailed down. Even now, at her retirement celebration, she brings deep energy into the room, and I know now what I didn’t know when I was younger–it’s an effort, but one that she makes as a condition of leading artists.
My very favorite piece was a new piece commissioned by the choir alumni to celebrate Sarah. It was based on a Sara Teasdale poem, “The Wonder of It All” (the text of which is eluding me. What gives, internets?). Teasdale, in turn, based her work on one of my favorite passages of the Bible, Job 38, where God gives Job an answer of sorts, to his overwhelming Why? I was surprised to see this passage quoted in the score. In 2011, I directed JB, a verse drama based on the Book of Job. It remains one of my very favorite productions, out of all the work I’ve done, and it was one of the first ones that I directed where I felt rooted in the things I now know I learned from Sarah–offering artists the freedom to work as collaborators, not “ubermarionettes,” and challenging them while creating a safe space. I wish I had known at the time what I learned from this concert: that all of the revelations about my own work that came out of that production were set into my psyche when I was twelve.
“The Wonder of It All” also exemplified one of the things I loved about Chanticleer: Sarah’s consistent selection of excellent texts. She avoided cutesy “songs for kids” nonsense, and gave us a lot to chew on. It was through the songs she gave me that I first began to think seriously about my faith, what it meant to be a believer or not. I’ve always loved memorizing poetry, and the first song we sang in the first rehearsal I attended was a setting of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I taught it to my kids last winter, and thought every time about singing it at more Christmas concerts than I can count.
For the alumni concert, my dad and stepmom brought the kids. It was past their bedtime, and they were wiggly, but it was important to me to have them there. I wanted them to hear where our family, in a sense, started. Looking out into the audience, past Sarah’s conducting arms, I could see my dad’s face. The funniest thing happened. I felt like I was fifteen again; I remembered him coming to concerts just to support me, because it was something that mattered to me. He even would come to the dress rehearsal if he had to be out of town for the concert himself. He’s not that into choral music, particularly. But he knew it mattered to me, and so he came. As Bethany said when I told her about it, “Time travel really is possible, isn’t it?”
And so it is, but this was the very best kind of time travel, the kind that isn’t possible even in science fiction. Not only was I feeling the warmth of my dad’s intent listening face, but my kids were there too. I knew, not only that Sarah was delightful, but also the lasting effect she had on my life and art. And I knew that so many storms, ones that raged around my life all through my time in the choir, had indeed passed over.
It was like being fifteen again, but knowing what I know now: that everything worked out. That my parents are happy again, maybe happier than they were before. That my high school sweetheart would turn out to be a good bet after all. That I’d find a way to still be making art and doing life and keeping it all going. Imagine all the joy of being fifteen and doing something that makes you feel great through your entire being, but without all of the anxiety of wondering what the future is. You can’t go home again, but sometimes you can go somewhere just like it, but better.