Music is salvation. Raw salvation. Visceral. The need for it rooted deep in our cerebellum. It penetrates the ears and prickles every nerve ending, radiates from the gut to untangle knotted ganglia, to coax sense out of the senseless, to restore faith in humanity. In short: to redeem the soul.
There’s a preface to this story. My son Charles, for months, was bullied so severely in middle school by students and at least two teachers that he is now being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. The past school year for him has been trying at the very least. By nature, Charles is a sweet child, unable to understand why anyone would hurt another. He just doesn’t get it I’m happy to say and hope he never does. Had it not been for Live Art, I seriously don’t know what would have happened to Charles. From the first class at SPARC last September it has been his sanctuary from the hell he endured in classrooms and hallways, cafeterias and gyms for days on end.
To prepare the kids for a grand performance on Richmond’s preeminent stage at Altria Theatre takes time, hard work and patience, nine months of it, from conception to delivery, mirroring gestation. Maybe that’s as it should be because the mother of Live Art conceived the idea while she was pregnant. Her name is Erin Thomas-Foley.
“I had a really hard time sleeping when I was pregnant with my second child, Daniel, so I would journal and listen to music in the middle of the night and try to use that time as best I could,” she says. When she closed her eyes, Erin had a vision of students dancing on a big canvas, their feet moist with paint. There was music in the background, a piece by Jason Mraz called “Details in the Fabric”. In Erin’s vision some of the students dancing were kids with special needs that were enrolled at SPARC. She knew them and loved them. And there they were on this massive stage painting a canvas with their feet as they danced to music of Jason Mraz.
“I started thinking about that a little more and journaling,” Erin remembers. “And in that journaling I found myself asking, ‘How can we create something where both a typically developing student who loves the performing arts and a student with special needs who loves the performing arts can come together on one stage? How can we create a new type of class and performance that allows all of the students to have the same profound, life-changing experience?’”
That was the germ of it all and Erin ultimately approached SPARC’s executive director, Ryan Ripperton. “We began exploring whether this was something we thought we could actually do,” says Erin. ”So we put together a group of Virginia-based artists and we created a show and a series of classes. I thought of it as a cross-pollinated mix of art forms. We took dance and visual art and music and combined them. When we performed that live the audience got to experience the process of creation happening. We gave the students, the teachers and the artists permission to create art live in the moment.”
Funding a performance piece as ambitious as live art was one of the first concerns (it costs about half a million dollars to finance the annual show). And, of course, the first to pony up were Steve and Kathie Markel through The Community Foundation.
“They said, ‘Yes you’re going to do this and we want to help.’” Erin says. “They are amazing supporters of the arts here in Richmond and we are so grateful for their presence in the community. They were the first.”
When that first check arrived Erin began assembling staff and making phone calls. “We didn’t start classes until January so we only had six months to rehearse the first year,” says Erin.
The response from the community was overwhelming. “There was never a ‘No’, or a person who said, ‘You know, I don’t think we really want to do this,’’ Erin says. “It’s the Faison School of Autism, it’s North Star Academy, it’s all of the public school systems, it’s the Sound Sensation Choir, Richmond Ballet, Richmond Youth Symphony, and so many others. Everybody’s on board.”
And SPARC backed Live Art from the beginning, buttressing the program with every resource they could throw at it. “Taking on a program of this size added an immense amount of work to their plates,” says Erin. “And nobody even blinked and eye at it. Ryan Ripperton, Candace Marz, Susan Wermus, Adriana Green, Hunter Parker, Jodi Grey, Ginnie Willard. The entire administrative hub that does all of the grunt work, all of the behind the scenes work, they were there for us from the start.” There were also SPARC’s artistic directors—Daniel Clarke, Danae Carter, Abernathy Bland and Amanda Well. “And the last group that I really have to thank are the teaching artists, there are 45 of them,” she says, then adds in the same breath, “And the guest musicians from our community and nationally who volunteer their performances and give one hundred percent for this show. Local musicians like Susan Greenbaum, Steve Bassett, Robbin Thompson and Josh Small, who’s one of the teachers in the Soul Sound class.”
I spent virtually every Thursday night this year with my son Charles in Live Art’s Soul Sound class at SPARC. There were two dozen kids and a total of eleven instructors and assistants present. In those early weeks, the kids were getting to know one another and their teachers, and almost immediately they felt at ease, were comfortable, and began to learn the rudiments of music, of rhythm and tempo. They progressed by giant leaps, week by week, and for Charles, this and the class he took Monday evenings were the best of times.
Love permeates the entire studio at SPARC when the teachers and students are there and part of it is that Erin has two rules that all students must abide by. “Number one,” she says. “They agree to participate fully, willingly and with a kind spirit. And the second one is they must be willing to help and lift up everyone else in the class despite their differences. We come here because we love the performing arts and we want to learn and we want to do everything we can to become better. We are more focused on helping the ensemble then we are on ourselves. Acceptance, compassion and supporting each other.”
From the moment my son and I first stepped foot in that studio, we both noticed something that was uncanny. There didn’t seem to be any differences among the vast array of students there. “We call Live Art kids, students of all abilities,” says Erin. “When class starts we don’t talk about who’s typically developed, or who may have special needs. Once our classes start, it’s an inclusive class. End of story. We simply make sure we have enough staff in the room to assist every ability.”
When I mention to Erin that one of the students in Soul Sound, who, as they say, presents with Down syndrome, excels beyond his peers, she says, “And do you know why?”
“Because nobody’s judging him,” I suggest.
“Yes,” says Erin. “But it’s more than that. It’s what music does and color does and movement does. That’s what it does for the human spirit. It transforms us.”
Later, when I talk with Joshua (Josh) Small, a local musician and teaching artist at Live Art, he likens the place to a church. “It’s a sacred place in a sense,” he says. “In the way the program is set up. And everybody there has common behaviors and desires. It’s a place to be validated. You can’t fail here. It’s kind of an art church. The people here are in this place because they feel strongly about expressing themselves. We are all here to support each other. That is sacred and no one would want to break that trust.”
Not long after the first class was held, Josh began a ritual that wrapped up every subsequent session. Students and teachers would gather in a circle and say, “Grab your hand and make a fist and put it in the air just like this.” And with fisted right hands pointing skyward they would shout in unison: “Soul Power.”
“The main reason it all works is because Erin who created it is so humble,” says Josh. “It has a certain magic. The less rules you make, the less rules you have to enforce. It’s a tautology. The program is set up so there’s no mode for failure.”
Each week, Josh and his co-teachers move among the students like fish among their spawn. They teach them the chords on their ukuleles, or which bar to strike on their small xylophones. They teach them dance steps and how to retreat from an imaginary stage and how to re-enter that same stage, all in complete silence. The kids have learned five songs for this year’s performance and they’ll be accompanying Jason Mraz and other musicians on one of the biggest stages in Central Virginia.
Chord changes required for one piece were a little too complicated for the students. For hours, during a meeting, teachers and other staff tried to come up with a solution. And then Phillip Vollmer, one of Soul Sound’s teaching artists who also teaches performing arts at VCU and a couple of local theaters, had a brainstorm. “It was a dumb idea; it was an accidental stroke of genius,” he says.” I had this flash back to elementary school and feeling like a boss playing hand bells, feeling like I was a rock star even though I was only playing one note at time and I said, ‘Maybe the kids could do that.’” They could and they did and the results were greater than if they had all been strumming their ukes.
When I ask if there is ever dissent among the teachers, Phillip shakes his head. “Your ego has to take a step back,” he says. “And you have to just put yourself in service to the kids, to the show, to it all. You need to know that everyone here is working for the same thing. There’s nothing else like it anywhere. If there’s ever been friction with any teachers it’s because that ego has taken a front seat to the true mission and everybody else has recognized that and those teachers have fallen to the wayside. But that’s only happened a few times in three years because our mission is so powerful and so strong. I’ve never been a part of anything more incredible than this.”
Phillip then tells me something that takes courage to admit and it garners in me permanent respect for this man. “The gift that Live Art has given me is that I have no fear of interacting with anyone now,” he says. “Before I stepped into the Live Art program there was that fear of the unknown, of interacting with people who were perceivably different than me. I didn’t understand how to interact with them for fear of saying the wrong thing or doing something wrong. I have no fear any more. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Some of the most beautiful things that occurred during the Soul Sound sessions were the open discussion, when the students, sitting on the floor with legs crossed, expressed their ideas on a multitude of subjects. There was one night they talked about the first name of their class.
“So we were talking about the soul,” Phillip remembers. “And this student who has a proper way of speaking, said: ‘The soul is the thing that will carry me on from this place to the next and the next and the next, and will always be there through all time.”
Christine DeSantis Hoffman, who is sitting next to Phillip, smiles as her co-teacher tells the story, nodding along. And then she has one of her own to tell.
“The one that really sticks out in my mind is when another student said, ‘Kindness is simple, but it’s not easy,’” says Christine. “That is so profound. That really stuck with me because it was so truthful and perfect.”
Christine, who is a full-time teacher at Collegiate and a singer who plays ukulele and guitar, recently attended an RVA arts roundtable discussion at VCU. Among others in attendance was the internationally renowned art educator Eric Booth, author of “The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible”.
“Eric Booth spoke a lot about Live Art,” Christine says. “He said in his travels around the country and around the world he’s never seen anything like this that brings together kids of all abilities.”
Like Phillip, Christine also says Live Art has no room for egos. “Our job is not to judge children, it’s to teach them,” she says. “That’s why they’re here, they’re learning. So we have to figure out how to meet them on their level and guide them from where they are to where we want them to be. It’s not about what I want. That’s just part of the culture here so when you come in you either get on board or you go. There is no other option. Live Art is not going to change because of someone else’s ego.”
Christine considers how Live Art works and why it works. “I think it’s taking a bunch of things that are really wonderful and putting them together in the right environment with the right people,” she says. “So you have these ingredients. You have music, you have movement, you have art, you have theatre, you have children of all abilities. And putting it all together is what makes it work. Every Thursday night after class I just come home with this sense of peace and wonder and just joy that I haven’t had all the time in the past. It is nice to have something that is consistently positive.”
Early in the year, Christine wrote a poem that was later set to music by Josh and one of their student’s. It has since become the tattoo that every class opens up with and goes like this:
There’s a sound within your soul,
Time to set it free.
“I feel so lucky to have been asked to be part of this and then to be surrounded by people who from day one have been so loving and so supportive and have told me this is exactly where you’re supposed to be,” Christine tells me. “That has been such a gift to me. I am so thankful for that.”
That same sense of gratitude is expressed by everyone involved with Live Art that I talk with, including the students and their parents. I know I feel it, as does my son.
I meet up with Live Art teacher Catie Huennekens in her office at North Star Academy where she works full-time as an IEP liaison and social skills program coordinator. As someone who has worked with children who have special needs for year, Catie understands the importance of programs like Live Art.
“You don’t have to be able to read to make art and you don’t have to be able to add to dance,” she says. “Live Art gives our kids that opportunity. No one knows whether they can play the ukulele or not until they pick it up and start trying. The amount of meaning and membership Live Art gives our kiddos is just incredible.”
Catie says that last year as her Live Art class was learning the words to ‘Hallelujah’, one girl was having trouble understanding how you can cry without being sad. The day of the performance, right before the finale, K.D. Lang did a rendition of ‘Hallelujah’ that fairly brought the house down. “So as soon as we got off stage we had to run all the way around the loading dock to our positions to enter for the next song,” Catie says. “So as we were on the loading dock going backstage this young lady taps me on the shoulder. I turn around and she has tears in her eyes. I say, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she says, ‘I get it, I understand it.’ She finally understood you can be moved to tears and not be sad. And I’m like, ‘That’s great, but we have an entrance.’”
Like the other teachers at Live Art, Catie sees her role there as privilege. “I feel really selfish about it sometimes because I know it’s supposed to be about the kids and yet it’s my favorite part of the week,” she says. “I can’t wait to get there. I also teach a class on Friday and I thought Friday nights would be hard to give up, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It is the best thing that I could do with my time on a Friday night.”
“There are a lot of kids with so many different stories, but they all end with this: ‘The saving grace is Live Art,’” Catie says. “They talk about this being their safe space. ‘This is where I get to dance. This is where I get to jump up and be crazy and talk about how I feel.’ Live Art puts you more in touch emotionally than I think any other experience can. You’ve got the power of the music itself. You’ve got these kids that you just love that you’re watching have this amazing success and this amazing experience. That’s what moves me the most. You’re experiencing, you’re thinking, you’re watching, you’re feeling. It’s all the feelings all at once. And then it’s over and then you get sad that it’s over. There’s definitely a Live Art hangover. You wake up the next day and ask, ‘Okay, what do we do now?’ I give Erin Thomas-Foley all the credit for everything magical. It’s humanity first, and performance second.”
Even as opening night neared, Erin Thomas-Foley always remained calm. “We don’t strive for what I call standard-opening-night-ready-show quality,” she says. “We train the students as best we can. We work just as hard as we would work in any other sort of production, but whatever we have at the end is perfect just the way it is and the audience seems to connect to that.”
She is effusive when she talks about performers who make this extravaganza of a show possible, a show that sells out every year. “They are so giving in their spirit and their willingness to work with students of all abilities,” she says. “They will help any student achieve a life-fulfilling moment on stage so the kids feel like rock star. You know it’s about being willing to share that lime light and these artists all come in with that open spirit and to be honest I don’t think we would seek out artists who don’t have that spirit. Not to mention their love of the community and what they want to give to the people in Richmond. They’re the most amazing people I’ve ever been able to work with in my life.”
Erin remembers last year’s performance. “We brought back all of the local favorites and Jason (Mraz) came back, and Christina Perry came, and Renee Marie joined us, who is unreal,” says Erin. “She’s like light in human form, amazing. And KD Lang came and joined us. Phenomenal. She’s a wonderful person.”
A haze machine pumped out a steady froth of billowing clouds that reached a fourth floor dressing room where the sensor went off. It was two minutes before the curtain rose and suddenly there was mayhem. Strobe lights, alarms, the arrival of firefighters. Yet no one panicked.
“The students all reached out to support each other and when we saw that happening we realized that despite acting, singing and dancing we’d done our job because everybody was there to help each other and they were more focused on each other than themselves and that’s the whole point of this program,” Erin says.
And when Erin apologized to K.D. Lang, who was standing next to her backstage, the performer said: ”It’s good, it’s all good.”
There are times when Erin cannot believe Live Art is real. She cannot believe it happens and thinks it may be driven by something much larger than anything we know. “This whole thing is bigger than just an idea,” she says. “It’s almost like this thing was predetermined in some strange way. The universe said, ‘Okay this needs to happen.’ And it opened up and all the artists jumped onboard and so we’re all just going along for the ride. That’s almost what it feels like.”
And as far as anyone knows at this point, Live Art is a singularity. “We have not found a program exactly like this anywhere in our country yet,” says Erin. “There are a lot of stellar performing arts programs for youth. There are many stellar special needs programs. But not a fully inclusive arts program with classes structured this way that culminates in this type of performance in the end. There’s nothing quite like this. So we have been sharing it with other communities. Hartford, Connecticut. San Diego.”
Why Live Art exists in the first place, though, is no mystery to this woman who conceived it. “Why should any child walk through this world feeling bad about themselves?” asks Erin Thomas-Foley. “That should never happen. There’s no reason for it and I know human tendencies. There’s all sorts of mean-spiritedness that can come out, but why can’t we teach children to be a different way, to see and receive positive affirmation for being a nice person, for being kind. That’s what it comes down to for me. We’re only here once, why don’t we help everybody enjoy it.”
Part of me wishes that principals in public schools from across the Commonwealth would sit in on sessions of Live Art and meet the teachers there and seek the advice of Erin Thomas-Foley, so they might learn how it’s done, how you ensure a child’s safety, how you nurture, how you teach humanity along with the humanities. Because my son, Charles, who was so damaged by bullying that he is now being treated for a disorder that afflicts soldiers who returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asked me one simple question, and he asked it over and over again: “Daddy, why can’t schools be like Live Art?”
For which I have no answer.