Convinced artists will ‘save the world,’ Margaret Reeder supports arts education
We’re in my kitchen, and from across the table Margaret Reeder is singing a few bars from Édith Piaf’s “Mon dieu” (My God), a pleading hymn for more time with departed loves. Breeze from an open window carries her poetic vibrato, and the room swells with lyrical heartache. Piaf’s lover died in a plane crash on his way to see her perform, and Margaret’s chords so honestly echo the French singer’s pain, I feel empty but alive.
“… pour seulement, un … .” As the final line lingers, a scene change: I ask Margaret to share a few melodic chants. She introduced me to these meditative songs, and I remain captivated with their simplistic yet powerful nature. I snag a nearby envelope to scribble the hopeful lyrics:
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
“I will be gentle with myself, I will love myself. I’m a child of the universe, being born each moment.”
This private, momentary concert over coffee is nothing new. Margaret sings to me every time we meet. Scratch that, I ask Margaret to sing to me, and she graciously acquiesces. I’m in love, not so much with her flawless, dexterous vocals, but with the humanity that pores from each note. At times, Margaret says, singing is less of a performance and more of an offering, a commune with all that connects us.
I’m not sure whether she sings because she likes to or because she must—to quench the thirst of her spirit. I want to understand, so I ask for an interview.
Margaret Reeder with her husband, Matt. The two met at Ball State (a few years ago 🙂
An impromptu interview
I offer Margaret $20 and invite her to share who or what she might support with it. She pauses to Rolodex the many causes she so passionately champions before settling on “arts education,” specifically the Ball State Department of Theatre and Dance. She graduated from the program in 1996, and the training has served her well during the past 20 years in arts administration.
But more importantly, Margaret says, the program welcomed her—then a “stocky, small-town Irish girl from La Porte, Illinois” (whose brother threatened her anytime she sang)—to experience a spectrum of personalities and life experiences. The arts evolve our collective human spirit, she says, by gifting us with perspective and understanding—however uncomfortable. They challenge us to wonder, to dream, and to reconnect—even for a few hours. Margaret is convinced our salvation lies with the people who dedicate themselves to telling our stories.
“We talk about ‘triple threats’—people who can sing, dance, and act—but I would add ‘humanity’ to that list. Ball State’s program and others produce “quadruple threats,” people who emerge as citizens of the world, eager to give us an arena to discuss, process, and find understanding,” says Margaret, a project manager and consultant at Tessitura Network. “I don’t find much inspiration in our world these days, but artists give me hope for a better world.”
A communion with ‘all that connects us’
Margaret makes a point to reiterate she is not talking narrowly about any specific genre or style. She sees value in the red dot on a blank canvas, the ballet that whisks you away to the land of sweets, the woven tapestry, and the lighthearted musical. It all stretches us.
“The arts are entertainment, and dammit, they should be. So, yes, go to a show and enjoy the crap out of it as you tap your toes,” she says. “But for me, the power of the arts comes through when you watch, for instance, a troupe from Belarus perform a play about their oppression, an act punishable by death. They are literally telling the story of and for their lives.
“When, increasingly, we live in a culture where we value corporations more than children and soundbites more than conversation, those few hours of communion with an audience or by yourself reflecting in an art gallery is vitally important.”
Experiencing art is certainly transformative, challenging us to step outside ourselves to consider other perspectives and cultures/lifestyles. But becoming a character, Margaret says, magnifies that reflection, wisdom, and cultural literacy.
“Ball State gave me the opportunity to play funny, to play sexy, and to play serious in many different settings,” she says. “And when you take on a character, you have to stop and think about what happened to him or her before they got here, how they—and you—fit into a larger story. It’s a process that teaches empathy and understanding.”
A legacy of support
Off stage, working with actors, technicians, and directors empowered her to confidently navigate relationships and problem solve on her feet. Studying and performing such a breadth of work also outfitted her with a profound understanding of culture and history—which comes in handy at dinner parties and in Trivial Pursuit.
“I see these talented, compassionate students emerging from Ball State’s program, and I am so proud to be part of this legacy,” Margaret says. “I felt prepared when I graduated, but I am overwhelmed by how far the department has come to equip these artists with life skills that will serve them no matter if they remain in theatre or take on another role. They make me so proud.”
Margaret met her husband, Matt, at Ball State. They were sophomores in a voice class. Matt began to sing, and Margaret was like, “yes, please.” The two lived in Chicago for years until Ball State called them back, eager to gain Matt’s expertise. The assistant professor now guides directing, teaches Shakespeare, and serves as an online specialist for his alma mater.
They have two kids, Graham and Charlotte; and, if your children are any reflection of your legacy, the Reeders will continue to add love and light to the world for years to come. Their kids are respectful, curious, and fiercely creative. Margaret is driven to expose them to the brain-stretching arts, even if there’s an f-word or two in the mix.
“We recently went to Once at Ball State, and a lady came over to me after the show and said, ‘Oh my, I’m sorry your kids had to hear that language.’ I was disappointed that is what she took away from this powerful play about loneliness and being true to yourself,” Margaret says. “The f-word is peppered throughout, but it’s authentic. Words like ‘registry’ are profanity to me right now. Let’s worry about the words that are truly harmful.”
These days, we seem to cling to ignorance and find comfort in hate far more than we welcome new experiences and understanding. But I came away from talking with Margaret with a newfound hope. Her parents didn’t see her perform in Assassins or many other shows; ‘We’ll come if you’re dancing, but not if you’re singing,’ her mom would say. When Margaret declared theatre as a major, her parents said, “just make sure you can type.” So the fact that Margaret, who came from a town that whispered when “the homosexual” walked by, can transform into an empowering champion for all makes me think she is not the last.