"It's getting off to a great start," I responded. "I'm talking with a really famous guy whom I hear is very nice. I have to admit that I'm a bit nervous."
"Breathe and embrace and feel the strength inside you."
And so began my conversation with the legendary Ben Vereen.
I am still a bit shocked that he spent 30 minutes on the phone with me talking about the arts and life and his upcoming master class on musical performance at aactWorldFest at the Venice Theatre. And I am still taken with what a cool and spiritual guy he is.
Mr. Vereen became an ordained minister in 2005, and his conversation is scattered with spiritual references. "Life itself is a ministry," he said. "People like to categorize, but it's all a ministry. Your writing is a ministry." (My reaction--as I was scribbling frantically--was not dissimilar to that of a teenage girl who's just been asked to the prom by her heartthrob. "Ben Vereen just said that my writing is a ministry!" I said to myself. Of course, I realize that he hasn't actually seen my writing, but still....)
Mr. Vereen spends a fair amount of time these days on the lecture circuit and teaching. He feels that it's a way for him to give back. "I have and so I give," he said.
He's passionate about the importance of arts education and outreach. When I spoke with him, he had recently appeared at an event for the Patti Rutland Jazz Outreach program in Dothan, Alabama. Among other things, the program will enable underprivileged kids to take contemporary dance classes. "When kids move and are active and feel good," he said, "they're more receptive to learning." Mr. Vereen considers dancing his "joy thing," so it's no surprise that he connects with the mission of this organization. He wrapped his talk by singing "The Impossible Dream." Watching on YouTube nearly brought me to tears. I can't imagine how it must have impacted people who were in the house.
I am keeping my fingers crossed that I will get a chance to meet Mr. Vereen on Tuesday when he works with some lucky performers on developing their talent. My only reference point for the session is Terence McNally's "Master Class" (with Maria Callas as the instructor), so I'm not sure what to expect. I am confident, however, that Mr. Vereen's approach will be much kinder and gentler than Ms. Callas' was.
If you're interested in reading more, here's the story I filed with Florida Weekly about his upcoming appearance.