(Ellis Dawson Photography)
Douglas Lyons caught the eye of “Un-Block The Music”. First, he was an original cast member of Beautiful, the Carole King Musical. But, while his acting caught my eye, the fact that he is a writer…way beyond a triple threat….is what impresses me even more!
Originally from New Haven, CT, Douglas was your “typical” boy participating a variety of sports. It wasn’t until the end of high school that he became interested in musical theater. He found he could sing, dance, and act. They were all things he loved to do, and he could do it all in one place with musical theater. His high school teacher encouraged him to explore a BFA. He got into The Hartt School in 2004. However, a great thing happened while attending school…he was booked in 2006 on a national tour of Rent! What could be better than learning hands on!!! A year later, he did go back to finish school and in 2009 he booked the National Tour of Book of Mormon. It was there that he met his eventual writing partner Ethan Pakchar.
“I fell in love initially with telling stories, and acting seemed the most tangible way to do that at first. Initially, I started writing because of a heartbreak, but I wasn’t passionate about it until I was on the Book of Mormon Tour. I found myself writing late at night as an outlet,” Douglas said.
He found that writing gave him control. “As an actor, you have to audition and be granted permission to perform, not true when you are the writer.” He also found d you could be a mobile story teller when you write. As a Broadway actor you miss a lot of weddings and birthdays! “Writing gives me the flexibility to create a life…which is nice.”
Before I talk about Douglas’s partnership with Ethan Pakchar, I wanted to talk a bit about Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical, a show that he wrote (music by Douglas and Greg Borowsky; Lyrics by Douglas and book by Melvin Tunstall III). I was lucky enough to be involved with a touring show some years ago, called The New Kid which focused on bullying. It was presented at schools across the tristate area. It’s purpose was to get kids to talk to each other! It was a wonderful experience. So…when I discovered Polkadots, I really wanted to highlight it, especially this year in a time when diversity and tolerance has finally come to the forefront of American life. And, I wanted to write this today when we celebrate the inauguration of a new administration with its first African/American/South Asian Woman, Kamala Harris, as the new Vice President. Alleluia! Damn! I am proud to be a woman today! (And we get Dr. Jill Biden too!)
In any case, here’s Douglas’ description of the show: Polkadots follows 8-year-old Lily Polkadot who just moved to the “Squares Only” small town of Rockaway. As the first Polkadot in an all-Square school, Lily faces an almost impossible task of gaining acceptance from her peers. From daily bullying, to segregated drinking fountains, Lily’s quest seems hopeless until she meets Sky, a shy Square boy whose curiosity for her unique polkadot skin blooms into an unexpected pal-ship.”
Douglas told “Un-Block The Music” that the show was inspired by an interview he heard with actress Phylicia Rashad. She spoke about her experience growing up in the Jim Crow South (she was born in Texas) and about having to use a water fountain different than those of her white counterparts. That hit home to me because I grew up in Mt. Vernon, NY, where Phylicia later lived. (Phylicia’s mom, Vivan Elizabeth Ayers had a lot of influence on education and the arts there having founded the Adept New American Museum which celebrates the art and history of the American Southwest and features Juneteenth Black cowboys, Native American sand painting, seminars on the Emancipation Proclamation, and Mayan studies.)
Phylicia realized later that the water in both fountains tasted the same. Douglas understood the simplicity of that story,…of water. And, that simplicity is how he approached the important topics addressed in Polkadots. My path to “Un-Block The Music” started out in Mt. Vernon, a very diverse community. I don’t pretend to totally understand the experience of people of color, and this past year has made me more aware that things have not changed in society as much as I have wanted to believe. “Polkadots is a stripped-down approach to race.” Douglas said. It sparks conversation which hopefully leads to learning.
“Un-Block The Music” believes the healing of society always starts with children, who are born with no bias. And, indeed Polkadots has been recognized by the Off-Broadway Alliance as Best Family Show. While the story was originally written for grade school children, it has been performed for all ages right through college. Douglas said, the show is “the little engine that could!” There have been 50 productions worldwide in places that include South Africa and Guam. “It resonates with everyone.”
Douglas, is by no means a one hit wonder. He has written two other musicals. The first is, Five Points with a book by Harrison David Rivers, music by Ethan D. Pakchar and Douglas wrote music and lyrics. The story was inspired by the Irish/African American cultural influence in New York City during the Civil War. It tells the story of John Diamond, a recently widowed father and Irish jig champion will do anything to ensure a future for his son, even if it means challenging Willie Lane, a young black step-dancing prodigy to a dance battle he may not be able to win. Inspired by historical events and the “birth of modern tap”, Five Points follows two families willing to risk everything in pursuit of the American Dream. Here’s the kicker, Tony winning Hamilton choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler is part of the creative team!
Also, in the works from Douglas and Ethan is Beau which had its premiere last year at the Adirondack Theater Festival (Concept, Book, and Lyrics by Douglas Lyons Music by Ethan D. Pakchar & Douglas Lyons. This is the story of Ace Baker, who spends the first decade of his life fatherless. “At 12 years old, a phone call reveals that his grandfather, Beau, has been alive all his life…and his mother knew. Family secrets unravel as Ace rushes to make up for lost time with a man who changes his life and puts a guitar in his hand.”
One common thread that runs through Douglas’ work is hope, understanding and tolerance. “Art is the way to heal. It is how I focus my energy,” he said. The racial injustice and unrest of this last year, proves that “a wound has not been healed. Just having a new president will not change the hearts and minds of the people. That’s what I mean to do with my work. Healing…is the mission of my work.”
Douglas “walks the walk.” Under the umbrella of The Directors Company, he founded the Next Wave Initiative. He says, “Our nation is currently mourning, while simultaneously healing itself. In times like these, I always look towards a solution; a way to pave a path towards America’s future. The Next Wave Initiative allows the conversations around ‘Broadway equality’ to become action. This program will fight to erase the ugliness of our past, while investing in the future of our profession.”
“Un-Block the Music” is a little bit behind the eight-ball writing this piece with initial scholarship deadlines having passed. Finalists will be announced next month. But, here is the website so that you may keep track of other upcoming opportunities. You may also still donate…Check it out…https://www.directorscompany.org/next-wave-initiative.
What would any of us do without the arts? Bringing more artists into the mix can only make it better. Please support the arts in any way you can!!!