This Saturday night, more than 130 young performers will take the stage at Symphony Space in New York City in Lyrics for Life, a concert to raise money and awareness for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). This is the third year in a row that Lyrics for Life has been put on in New York by Kids of the Arts (KOTA), a theatre organization for kids and teens founded by Laura Luc (Ithaca College ’11, BA Drama), and it even expanded to include a performance in Los Angeles earlier this year. I performed in the 2015 Lyrics for Life, so I was eager to bring this amazing event to the eyes of the Ithaca College community. As college students, mental health, suicide and the stigmas that surround them are central issues in our lives in varying ways, so when such a large group of people sets out to make more people aware, we should take notice. I asked Laura and some of the past and present Lyrics for Life performers to answer some questions about what makes the show so special!
Audrey Lang: What inspired you to start raising money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention?
Laura Luc: I created Lyrics for Life in 2014, right after Robin Williams passed away. Although it has not been determined what was the actual cause of death, the media brought suicide into the public eye. I knew it was vital to take immediate action, and of course did what I always do…put on a show! The original Lyrics for Life was pulled together in three weeks! The first decision I made was to support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. What I like about the AFSP, is that it not only offers assistance to those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, but provides educational materials and support for family members and friends. Mental health is complicated for anyone to understand, but we can start by educating ourselves.
Audrey: Do you think there’s a special impact that kids and teens can have in raising awareness about suicide and mental illness?
Laura: Suicide affects young people just as much as it affects adults. By getting young people involved in an event for suicide prevention, we are able to open up the discussion. Stopping the stigma is a huge part of my mission, and that starts with awareness, compassion and understanding. Here are just a few facts: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2013 CDC WISHERS). More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease – combined. For more, visit www.afsp.org.
Audrey: How do you plan a huge event like this? What are some of the ins and outs or logistics that you have to worry about when coordinating so many performers?
Laura: It’s definitely driven by passion…and coffee! I always begin with choosing a date, followed by booking the venue. The next step is casting, which is done through online video submissions. We receive hundreds of videos, so it does take some time to look through them all. After casting is completed, I begin creating the show. I choose every song in the performance, and make sure it is suitable for this event and the subject matter. There has to be a nice balance of different music and dance genres. The show features over 40 acts, with each routine being limited to two minutes in length. I like to keep the show mostly upbeat, so that the audience leaves feeling inspired and filled with hope. There are definitely some numbers that get to the core of what the night is about, but only a select few. We had an original song last year that was incredibly powerful, the two performers (and myself) were just as emotional as the audience. In addition to solos & duets, there are many small and large group numbers that are created just for Lyrics for Life. Although the cast includes over 130 performers, all of them have some sort of special part that allows them to shine. I do all of the producing work independently, but have staff members come in for rehearsals and the performance. Additional tasks include booking the rehearsal studios, ticket sales, marketing, creating the schedule, dividing up lyrics, hiring the staff, and running all of the rehearsals.
Audrey: What’s your favorite thing about working with young performers?
Laura: The best part about working with young performers is their energy. They come into a rehearsal room so determined and eager to work hard. With this show in particular, the cast understands that what they are doing is bigger than performing on a stage in front of 750 people. They are performing to raise awareness, and show their support (both physically and on social media). Many dedicate their performances to those they’ve lost to suicide, which may be a friend, neighbor, sibling, aunt, uncle, parent, or even they themselves have made an attempt. I feel so fortunate that I get to work with these incredible young people, who are not only talented but have huge hearts. They will change the world.
And a bonus IC-specific question for Laura:
Audrey: What were some of your favorite classes or some of the best things you learned at IC?Laura: My favorite part of my IC experience was the London program. It was amazing seeing 30+ shows with my fellow classmates through the Interrelationships course. I also made some great connections while at IC, and now get to work with them in NYC.
Audrey: What’s your favorite thing about participating in Lyrics for Life? What are you most excited for?
Raquel Wallace: I love being reunited with the kids that I become good friends with and meeting the new kids too. Everyone brings such positive and just simply great energy to the performance and when [that] energy bounces off of someone on to you it gives your performance an extra spark and a boost of adrenaline hits you.
Madison Zamor: I love working with Laura – she is the best! She is so good at what she does and I always learn so much from her. I am also excited to see everyone else that is performing – a lot of us have done other productions with Laura…and many of us have become great friends.
Alex-Renee Davies: The finale is always really surreal; it’s so crazy to look around at over 100 performers all standing together for such an important cause.
Zachary Brod: My favorite thing is supporting a great cause. I am excited to help make a change in the world.
Audrey: Why do you think the message of Lyrics for Life is important?
Zachary: Life is precious. It’s not about how when you get knocked down you give up, it’s about how you recover from it and get back up.
Jolie Rose Wasserman: I didn’t really know what the cause was about until a close friend of the family lost her best friend to suicide and my parents sat and explained it to me. It made me feel sad for a minute but then when I realized I was going to use my voice to sing that maybe I can help make people feel happy so they won’t hate themselves to hurt themselves. I think the message is that life is precious and you should enjoy it and it doesn’t matter how bad things are in life. You need to have fun.
Madison: I think it’s important for people to know – especially kids – that there are lots of people out there that care about them and want to listen and help – and suicide should not be an option for escaping whatever they may be going through.
Alex-Renee: Suicide is often considered a “mature” topic that should be left to adults. This often makes young people who are struggling with their mental health feel uncomfortable speaking up. While it is certainly an intense subject, there is something incredibly powerful about young people bringing such an issue to light. My hope is that it will chip away at the stigma on mental illness by starting a trend of courage and boldness.
Dylan Brod: We need to send a message to help people not commit suicide.
Audrey: Do you have a personal relationship with the message of Lyrics for Life? How does that make it harder or easier to perform?
Alex-Renee: I definitely connect with this message on an extremely personal level, and in the beginning it was very difficult to perform because I had kept my battles very quiet. In a way, this show has been a catalyst for transparency and boldness toward expressing my own challenges. Somewhere in that audience is a kid who is dealing with the same things that I’ve gone through, and the determination to make them feel less alone is much stronger than the fear of being vulnerable at this point.
Jolie Rose: It makes it easier for me to sing loud and strong because I want people to hear how good life is.
Victoria Csatay: I do know some people experiencing depression. While I was [performing] at Paper Mill [Playhouse] I found out about someone’s relative who had killed themselves because of bullying. It was so sad. It makes it easier for me to perform because I know that I am singing for a purpose.
Dylan: I know someone who committed suicide. It was a few weeks ago and makes me very sad. I don’t really understand it. Don’t commit suicide because it makes people sad. There are people who love you. There is always a solution to your problem.
Raquel: I think knowing what you are performing for and knowing that it is for a good cause, it makes you become emboldened in what you are sharing and it definitely reflects on your performance, in a good way.
Zachary: My friend’s mother committed suicide 3 weeks ago. She was a really nice woman. My favorite memory of her is when we were little I used to bake cookies at her house. I’m not sure why she did this—everyone’s life is valuable. In school and at home you’re taught to have self-esteem and there is always a solution to your problem even if it’s not the exact one you wanted. I don’t understand the calculation of actually committing this heinous act and not caring about the consequences it has on others. [But] this helps me to perform. Even though I couldn’t save my friend’s mother, I am hoping to help save someone else.
Audrey: What inspires you to perform? What’s your favorite thing about performing?
Dylan: I am inspired by my big brother Zachary. I always wanted to sing with him. I want to be like Zach. I was always a dancer and I love to dance because that’s my life but I also want to sing and perform. My favorite thing about performing is knowing you are making people happy.
Zachary: I love to perform wherever and whenever. I just love to sing, I do what I love and I love what I do. I love to share my connection to a specific song I feel passionately about.
Raquel: My favorite thing about performing is knowing I can share stories and messages through a way that is uniquely my own. Knowing I can make a difference using what I love to do inspires me to perform even more.
Madison: The after-feeling of accomplishing something I love doing as well as the people I meet along the way inspires me to perform. My favorite thing about performing is being able to put a smile on not just my face but the audience, and being capable to inspire someone else through the art of performing.
Jolie Rose: I love performing to make people happy, and it makes me feel happy too! I want people to feel good after I sing.
Victoria: Knowing that I am entertaining people in the audience and making them feel emotions while I am singing, dancing, and acting. Whenever I do a charity event I can hear something telling me that I have changed at least one person’s life. … That is definitely my favorite thing about performing.Alex-Renee: For me, my favorite thing about performing isn’t even the performance itself (I actually feel pretty awkward onstage no matter how many hundreds of times I’ve done it), but the artistry and mystery behind it. It’s so cool to see what can be expressed through music, dance, and writing that can’t be expressed in a normal conversation, and seeing people connect with something that you’ve created is a pretty incomparable experience.
Finally, I talked to Megan Johnson (Ithaca College ’20, BFA Acting) and Devynn Pedell (Ithaca College ’19, BFA Musical Theatre) about their experiences participating in previous Lyrics for Life events. Devynn and Megan both performed in the first Lyrics for Life in 2014 in New York City, and Megan also performed in the 2015 concert.
Audrey: What was your favorite thing about participating in Lyrics for Life?
Megan Johnson: Supporting an amazing foundation and making all new friends with amazing talent and the kindest of hearts!
Audrey: Why do you think the message of Lyrics for Life is important?
Megan: It is all about loving yourself, staying strong and positive, always knowing someone is there for you. This is a message everyone needs in their life and there’s nothing more important than support.
Audrey: What inspires you as a performer?
Megan: I’m inspired by people and the world around me. I love performing to tell stories and I also love performing to raise awareness which is why Lyrics for Life is so perfect!
Devynn Pedell: It was such a wonderful night all around. First of all, I have been in many Kids of the Arts productions since I was about 7 or 8, and it is always so much fun to reunite with my friends. Plus, everyone in the show is insanely talented and I felt so lucky to share the stage with all of them. And of course, this cause is so important. I know as a theatre student and a performer I definitely felt disconnected to some of my peers in high school. Knowing that there is such a wonderful community of artists out there, including Kids of the Arts, is so comforting and I hope that Lyrics for Life could bring some comfort to some of those kids out there who feel most comfortable when they are on the stage. I love that Kids of the Arts has given me so many amazing opportunities to give back while also doing what I love to do.
In conclusion, suicide and mental illness affect everyone, regardless of age, and Lyrics for Life brings together a huge range of ages in the cast alone, never mind the audience demographics. That kind of awareness is priceless for a cause as important as this one. Above all, helping to prevent suicide is about kindness, and showing others that they are not alone in the world; that, in fact, they always have somewhere to turn. I want to end on, if not a high note, an uplifting one. The most moving and empowering experience I had while working on Lyrics for Life last year was, similarly to what Alex-Renee Davies mentioned earlier, performing the finale and the sheer amount of strength that was given off by the huge group of performers I was so privileged to be a member of. We sang Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” and it was genuinely one of the most beautiful moments of my life—maybe it can make you feel the same way.