Part One: Some words and a song
“From the Workspace: #2”
Part Two: A few more words and a photograph
I DON’T KNOW if I have ever *carried anyone with me* the way I’ve carried Florence Birdwell with me in my heart. Mrs. Birdwell passed away peacefully last Monday, and I’ve been searching for the unfindable words to express what she means to my life.
I knew her before I met her, and I mean it exactly like that.
One doesn’t simply “know of” Florence Birdwell, which might be how it all begins for you. When you hear people speak of her, you already feel a connection because of the undeniable impact she is having on those people’s lives.
Their lives have obviously been altered by having been swept up into her orbit, the atmosphere of her loving being.
It is simply an undeniable fact that Florence Birdwell was always very much alive in every moment of her life, and as soon as I made contact with Planet Birdwell, I wanted to find out how I could live there permanently.
I came to Oklahoma in 1988 to finish my undergraduate degree at Oklahoma Christian University (OC).
Oklahoma City University (OCU) was only a few miles away and its Opera and Musical Theater program, along with its Dance department, was legendary.
I attended many performances at OCU while a student at OC and picking out a Florence Birdwell student became the easiest thing in the world to do.
“Who is this kid studying with?”was a question I silently asked myself very early on in a performance of something I had gone to in order to fulfill a requirement of my music major (Music majors were required to attend so many live performances outside of the OC campus confines every year).
I reached for my program (my *proof* of attendance) and searched for the performer’s name in the “Who’s who?” section.
“A special thank you to Mrs. Birdwell, my amazing teacher!” it read, among other less noteworthy things at the time.
That happened time and time again during my undergrad visits to the Kirkpatrick Theater on the OCU campus. A Florence Birdwell student is very easily identifiable. It was like being in a club of sorts. There was obviously something different going on in her studio, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
When I was finally ready for graduate school, I had every intention of studying with Mrs. Birdwell, but I was talked into enrolling with a new full-time instructor who had had a wonderful career as a baritone.
I learned a great deal about my shortcomings in my time with that teacher. I always liked him, but we just didn’t click artistically. He tried his best with me, but I could never *get it.*
There was always a piece missing.
The Master’s program is a two-year endeavor and in-between my two years, during the summer of 1994, I had the privilege of playing Otto Kringelein in “Grand Hotel: The Musical,” immediately followed by John Adams in “1776,” to close out the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma season.
Mrs. Birdwell came to see “Grand Hotel” with her beloved husband Robert (a wonderful, beautiful human being in his own right; I’m happy to have gotten to know him, too!) and found me on the stage, after the performance.
She gently took my arm as I was finishing speaking to someone else, and when I finished, she looked at me for a moment in the eyes and said, “Where was that performer in your Jury three months ago? This was fine work.”
And she turned and walked on and away.
We closed “Grand Hotel” on a Sunday and opened “1776” on Wednesday, three days later. On closing night (eleven performances later, I think?) Mrs. Birdwell found me a second time.
She was talking in a small group of fellow theater patrons as I attempted to walk past. I wanted to say hello, but didn’t want to intrude. She stopped me again, this time giving me a big hug.
She pulled me in close and whispered in my ear, “We’ll have our time.”
And we never spoke about that again, until I began teaching at OCU four years later in 1998, such was her respect for other teachers on the faculty and their students, as well her understanding of one of the most important elements of success in any endeavor—timing.
When I approached Mrs. Birdwell during my first fall semester of teaching at OCU about taking me on as a student, it was like she had been waiting for me to ask.
“Oh yes!” she said, with a joyful laugh. “At last! We have SO MUCH work to do!”
And we did.
Ever since I first entered the orbit of Planet Birdwell, my life has never been the same. I have always wanted to make her proud in everything I’ve done, but it has always been more than that.
Living on Planet Birdwell meant opening your mind to every experience, to every possibility, and always giving nothing less than your entire self to every moment you had the miraculous privilege of an audience’s attention, no matter what the artistic genre or medium.
There is no one I have ever known who has understood more deeply what a heavenly blessing it is to be an artist and what the responsibility of being an artist entails.
If you ever had the great good fortune to land on Planet Birdwell and bask in its firm but always warm intention, you know that your life has been changed for the better.
If you never had the honor while here on Earth, I bring you great news:
Planet Birdwell is always alive and well in your heart, and all you have to do to visit and rest there is to love others so completely that you will accept nothing but the very best they have to offer this temporary and all too short existence.
I love you, Mrs. Birdwell.
You are always with me, with all of us, and for that, I am always grateful.
Peace to you.