By Donalevan Maines
It might be “Another Winter in a Summer Town” for Jackie O’s kinfolk, in a dolorous ballad from the Tony Award-winning Grey Gardens—The Musical, but out Houstonian (and Grey Gardens associate director) Charles Swan hopes to enjoy California sunshine for the show’s July 6 debut at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, four of Swan’s students from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) in Montrose are furthering their talents this summer at musical-theater camps or private voice and acting lessons, compliments of proceeds from the first annual Mary Gray Swan Musical Theatre Scholarship Cabaret held last April at Ovations Night Club in Rice Village.
The scholarship fund was established in memory of Swan’s mother, a longtime educator in Pasadena, who suffered a fatal heart attack at her home on April 11, 2013.
“It was very out of the blue,” says Swan, who produced the cabaret with a $1,000 stipend he received as the winner of Rotary Club of West U’s Vocational Service Award for an Educator. Swan was nominated for the award by Rotary member Sharon Williams, the producer of Bayou City Concert Musicals (BCCM).
“We raised roughly $4,000, which we divided between four of the students who sang in the cabaret,” says Swan, explaining that HSPVA students auditioned to participate in the evening of songs, and a committee evaluated the work of each student at the cabaret in selecting recipients of the talent-based scholarships for summer study in musical theater.
Two graduating seniors received $500 scholarships; a freshman and a junior were awarded $1,000 each. “We put aside some [money] to do this again next year,” says Swan, “and some people have already started donating to next year’s event.”
During the school year, Swan mainly manages the musical-theater program at HSPVA, but he devotes his summer months to flexing his muscles in professional theater. “I think it’s really important that just as my students are exploring and honing their skills over the summer, that I am, too,” he explains. “It’s important to me to be a current theater practitioner while I’m teaching theater. If I’m expecting my kids to practice on a professional level, then I need to be doing the same. Each summer is different for me. Sometimes I’m performing. Sometimes I’m able to travel. It changes each year.”
Last summer, out director Michael Wilson, a former Montrose resident, lured Swan to Sag Harbor, New York, to serve as his associate director/choreographer for that production of Grey Gardens. Betty Buckley and Rachel York starred in the show at the Bay Street Theater, which is just a zip code away from the late “Big Edie” and “Little Edie’s” crumbling estate in East Hampton.
“The show did very well there, so this summer we are mounting it again in L.A. at the Ahmanson,” says Swan. “It’s a much larger production on a much grander scale. I’ll be there for seven weeks helping put that production together.”
Prior to returning to Montrose, he says, “I hope to travel just a little bit before school starts in August. I hit the ground running on the first musical of the HSPVA season, Urinetown, which the students will perform the second week of October. We’re really excited to be sharing this unfortunately timely show about ‘the privilege to pee’ and who gets to use the restroom. There is also the theme of protecting resources and taking good care of the planet.”
Swan’s honor as a top Houston educator, and the cabaret he produced in his mother’s memory, were cheered by a bevy of signets (or baby swans)—the stream of Swan’s out friends who have been embraced by his parents at their Pasadena home.
Three years after his wife’s death, “Papa” Tom Swan, a school principal, still tells his son’s friends, “Please come back, and if you want to, bring Charles.”
“My friends have always been met with outstretched arms and welcoming hospitality,” says Swan, who emceed the cabaret and performed “It All Fades Away” from the 2014 Broadway musical The Bridges of Madison County as a tribute to his mother. “That is a very special memory I will treasure forever,” he says.
Swan has a brother and sister-in-law who are both educators at a middle school in Pasadena. They have a toddler, making Swan a proud uncle. “I think I am an uncle with the best of them,” he says. “I hope to be an amazing uncle. My mother raised me on Yentl and The Sound of Music; my nephew sits at the piano with me, banging on keys. We read together. At one point, he was in love with Frozen, the musical. He stayed as long as he could at the cabaret before getting restless.”
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.