Last night, I attended a wonderful program at the Ringling College on “the power of art in healing.” The guest speaker, Naj Wikoff, is a pioneer in this area, and he gave an incredibly inspiring speech (Here is a link to his bio and The Society for Arts and Healthcare website: http://www.thesah.org/about/person_detail.cfm?person_id=1501)
Wikoff began his remarks by telling us how he transitioned from wondering “how is my art going to look next to a Brancusi” to learning how to use his artistic vision to reach people in need of physical and spiritual healing. This process began when he was hired at the Cathedral Church in New York with a nebulous but gratifying job description to “uplift the human spirit through the arts.” On his first day, he was asked by a co-worker to hire an artist who had AIDS, at a time, as he said, when those with AIDS were being treated like lepers. Not only did he find a way to hire the artist, but he also decided to develop a musical theater production created entirely by artists with AIDS. The project took flight as he met more and more artists, including Tony Award winners, who had allowed their diagnosis to be a death sentence. He cajoled them into writing their last songs, and they did. With each deadline that passed in preparation for the show, he convinced them that the production wasn’t quite ready and needed some tweaking. In this simple act of deception, he was able to extend the quality of life for this group of artists who naturally had become very engaged in the project. He said this experience gave them the chance to be close to one another, because no one was afraid of “catching AIDS.” The chance for human contact together with the opportunity to express their creativity in the face of death resulted in a transformative experience for everyone involved.
I couldn’t help but think of the chillingly beautiful song entitled “Glory” from the Broadway show “Rent,” in which Roger, who was diagnosed with AIDS sings about his desire to write the perfect song before he dies. (“One song glory, one song before I go, Glory, one song to leave behind, find one song, one last refrain”) Ultimately, of course, it was playwright Jonathan Larsen who wrote his last song before he died prematurely of a congenital heart disorder just a few nights before his play opened in an 0ff-Broadway theater in 1996. Although Larsen couldn’t have predicted that this production was to be his final legacy as an artist, his rock musical about young people dealing with AIDS, has provided an irrepressible message of hope and healing for scores of audiences (if you haven’t seen it, the film version is excellent and features most of the original cast).
Then, as so often happens when a topic is on your mind, at home last night after the Ringling event, I watched this week’s episode of “Glee,” which perfectly reflected Wikoff’s remarks. Week after week, “Glee” has bombastically addressed important social issues with great depth, emotional range, and a healthy dose of fun. In this particular episode entitled “Laryngitis,” the lead singer of the glee club, Rachel Berry, dramatically loses her voice in the midst of a performance, and simultaneously loses all hope. (For those who watch the show and know Rachel’s character, this is a fitting response.) She says that she doesn’t know who she is without her perfect pitch. The lead male vocalist, Finn Hudson, convinces her to visit a friend of his from football camp, Sean, who became paralyzed during a game and is primarily confined to his bed. She is so moved by her interaction with Sean that she decides to give him voice lessons (after she has carefully nursed her voice back to health). In a scene which exhibited a depth rarely captured on television or any medium for that matter, he asks her to take his hand, even though he no longer has any feeling there, so that he can remember the feeling of holding hands and see his hand in hers to capture that experience in his mind. The two begin singing “One” by U2, and as their voices soar, you forget he is laying in his bed and his hand cannot feel, and instead are transported by the raw emotional strength of their rendition. The words “one love, we get to share it, leaves you baby, if you don’t care for it” are so resonant in this context. They both seem to realize as they sing that without a human connection, perfect pitch or the ability to play football are meaningless. What was especially beautiful about this scene was the fact that Sean was played by an actor, Zack Weinstein, who has a spinal cord injury similar to his character’s, that happened during a canoeing accident while he was studying acting at Skidmore. This week’s show was his first professional acting job, and in one fell swoop he managed to draw positive attention to spinal cord injuries and to produce an amazing hour of television, which is sure to be inspiring to so many people. In his blog, he said that his resolve to be an actor only increased after his accident, and in recounting his time on “Glee,” he said, “There isn’t a greater high for me than what I was feeling when I was able to be completely invested in those moments.” If that isn’t art for social change, I don’t know what is.