Kathleen Wayne has taken the reins from former music director Leslie Wood to lead the Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) Juneau Pride Chorus. Wayne’s first full Pride Chorus concert performance will be the group’s 21st anniversary as a women’s choir in Juneau. The concert will be held on April 21 at the Northern Light Church at 7:30 p.m. with a silent auction at 6:30 p.m.
The search for someone to fill Wood’s shoes began in the summer of 2017 and ended that fall with the discovery of the talented and willing Wayne.
Over the past 20 years, Wayne’s focus had been geared toward singing opera and classical music. She has made appearances in local groups such as the Juneau Lyric Opera and the Juneau Symphony. She’s had a private voice studio since 2001 and has also taught voice at the University of Alaska Southeast. She’s had a lot of experience on one side of the podium but it didn’t cross her mind to venture into the world of conducting until one of the Juneau Pride Chorus members, Bobbi Mitchell, informed her that Wood was stepping down after 17 years and that the choir was looking for a new director. She asked,“Hey, you wouldn’t be interested, would you?”
“I thought, yeah that sounds great!” Wayne said. “There was not even a second of hesitation.”
Wayne is a registered dietitian who manages federal nutrition programs, including the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. With her retirement from her field of work approaching in the next few years she was looking for something to do with her music and time. Becoming the music director for the Juneau Pride Chorus has allowed her to combine her love for music with her passion for supporting social justice issues. Since assuming her new role, she’s experienced a huge creative release.
“It’s important to remember that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us,” Wayne said. “I came in at a very good place after Leslie. The Choir was already looking to the conductor and knew what they needed from me. I fumbled through the first few months but it’s really come together and I think the proof is in the pudding after the incredible performance we put on at the Folk Fest.”
The Juneau Pride Chorus has held the coveted place of opening the Alaska Folk Festival for many years. This year they put on a performance that got the audience excited for the week-long event and gave the community a taste of what’s to come with the Chorus’ change in leadership and sound.
“Having Kathleen as our conductor is like having free voice lessons while being in a choir. She really brings her own perspective to the music,” Erika Partlow Smith, a four-year member of the chorus said. “It’s really fun watching her figure out how to (conduct).”
Wayne’s experience as a voice teacher has been influential on the group. Rehearsals are now incredibly active due to her belief that it is the whole body and not solely the vocal chords that play a role in singing. They use different body movements to help encourage the voice to sound a certain way.
“The physical movement really helps us understand the music on a body-mind level that really works,” Maureen Longworth, whose been a member of the Juneau Pride Chorus nearly since its genesis, stated. “I love how (Wayne) explains everything so that it makes total sense. Your whole body from your toes to your mouth is an instrument. For certain notes we’ll change the weight on our feet and swing our hips from side to side or we do things like pitch balls, over hand throws and under hand throws. We’ll do that for warm ups. Then there’s all this stuff with the face like putting our thumb in our mouths to see how we sound… or pressing our cheeks in on the sides of our lips to make our faces more long. We’ll sing an entire song like that! It’s just amazing what these little tricks will do. I could go on and on about the wonders of Kathleen.”
Smith observes that the big difference between Wood and Wayne’s interaction with the chorus is simply experience but that the similarities are there as well. Both ladies truly care about the quality of the music and, beyond the technique, they care about the group and its message.
“Kathleen is the perfect person to follow in Leslie’s footsteps,” Smith said.
The Juneau Pride Chorus formed in 1997 after a PFLAG member, Sara Boesser put “Start a Pride Chorus” on the planning list of priorities in 1996. The Pride Chorus’ first rehearsal took place in the music room at Floyd Dryden Middle School on “Coming Out Day” in 1997 with the slogan “Come Out and Sing.” Only women showed, so the formation of an all women’s chorus was solidified.
This year the chorus will have 20 people singing in the concert plus Jacque Farnsworth, the pianist, and Wayne. The number of members varies from year to year with a high of around 45 members.
“The chorus has become the most visible face in Juneau of PFLAG and its accompanying support, education, and advocacy,” said one of the chorus’ Founding Mothers Marsha Buck. “The message presented to the community in song is consistently positive, beautiful, and inviting. We can present a message and model of support and inclusion in a way that other methods often cannot because of the power and joy of music itself. We are told that the arts community in Juneau has nicknamed us ‘The music group in Juneau that has the most fun.’”
Although the chorus’ primary vision is “to be a positive and empowering voice in the community by performing songs which inspire equality for and acceptance of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people,” their harmonious message expands to offer acceptance to all who suffer from social injustice in an effort to strive for a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity.
“It’s all related,” Juneau Pride Chorus member Jayne Andreen said. “When one group is oppressed it ripples out and affects everyone.”
Their 21st anniversary concert is called “Our Time Has Come” as a celebration for the group’s hypothetical coming of age and the positive change they’ve witnessed throughout the years, like the glass ceiling crumbling and civil and social rights becoming a topic of every day conversation.
“All the songs we will be performing for the concert will be based on this theme,” Wayne said. “This theme that our time has come for us to have a world that is a little more willing to hear our voices and hear our messages for universal love, peace and acceptance.”
At the end of every rehearsal the choir comes together for what is referred to as the “Circle Song” where they all get in a circle, hold hands and uplift each other and their mutual beliefs; following this they take time to share with each other.
“What I love most (about singing in the Juneau Pride Chorus) is watching what happens to the people in the audience who don’t get to go anywhere else in Juneau and know that everyone on the stage is singing for them. I can see it in their faces, especially the young people,” Smith said in a voice filled with emotion. “(The chorus) is a huge group of sisters and aunties to me, but in a functional way… It’s so much more than a choir; it’s a support system like nothing I’ve ever had.”
• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer living in Juneau.