New life for ‘Dead Man Walking’
She’s a veteran church musician and high school music teacher, and has composed pieces for church and school performances. But never had Beverly Van Wingerden composed anything for the stage until a year ago, when she was invited to write music to accompany Bishop Garcia Diego High School’s production of “Dead Man Walking.”
A year later, the band director at the Santa Barbara high school has a national reputation, with her score having been utilized nationwide by other school productions of the play, inspired by the anti-death penalty efforts of Sister Helen Prejean, and promoted by the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, the organization that oversees “DMW” performances.
“It’s been very gratifying,” smiles Van Wingerden, a parishioner of St. Joseph Church, Carpinteria, and a 1969 alumna of Bishop Garcia Diego (and mother of four Garcia Diego graduates). “And to think that this may not have happened had I not said yes to the opportunity to teach here 14 years ago.”
That’s when Van Wingerden, who had been an accompanist and choir director for 10 years at St Joseph, was asked to direct the band and choir at Bishop Garcia Diego, a request that, in retrospect, had something of a “Mr. Holland’s Opus” flavor.
“I wanted to be a composer,” she chuckles, “so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give this a couple of years, and see what happens.’ And now it’s been 14, and I just love what I’m doing.”
So it wasn’t a total surprise when Van Wingerden was asked a year ago September by school drama coordinator Joanna Lawrence if she could write a musical score for the band to accompany the play.
“I jumped at it,” says Van Wingerden, mindful of the challenges presented by the small number of band students and, thus, limited array of instrumentation (“We average maybe 15, 16 members a year’). She wrote parts for each student (winds, brass, percussion and keyboard), with the idea that “I just wanted to enhance the drama that was on stage, not overwhelm it --- keep it simple.”
Her background as a church musician, she adds, helped enormously in a play rooted in Catholic teaching.
“I read thru the script many times,” she says, “and as I read it, I’d pray, asking God for help and guidance. I believe in the cause, and I wanted God to use me as He wanted to bring the right quality, the right emotion to the music. I tried to put myself in the place of the families of those killed, as well as the family of the murderer.
“And I could always tell when I was being guided in a particular direction. The spiritual aspect of the composing process helped me achieve my goal.”
Her church music experience was advantageous where the script asks for hymns in particular places. “In one place, for example, it calls for an uplifting, redemptive hymn, and I chose ‘Amazing Grace,’ which worked very effectively the way we did it with piano and guitar,” she says.
“There is the good and evil conflict in this play, of course,” she says, “but what really struck me was that everyone was a victim in this story, including Matthew’s family. One line that resonated with me was when Sister Helen says, ‘Killing someone to prove that killing is wrong is also wrong.’ Certainly, the murderer Matthew has done something evil, but he is also a victim, too.”
Although Bishop Garcia Diego did just the one performance, reaction to the score was favorable enough that Father Tom Elewaut, then principal, encouraged Van Wingerden to send her score to the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project which oversees productions of the play, written by Tim Robbins (who authored the movie screenplay).
“I sent them a demo CD,” Van Wingerden recalls, “and within a few days Steve Crimaldi, then national coordinator, responded to let me know they loved it. And they’ve been very helpful and encouraging in promoting the score to schools who have performed ‘Dead Man Walking.’
This fall, both Pope John Paul II High School in Huntsville, Alabama, and Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, Ohio, have used Van Wingerden’s music, and “it seems to have been well-received, based on my feedback,” she says. (For information on performing the play, visit www.dmwplay.org.)
Having earned a bachelor’s in music from UC Santa Barbara, Van Wingerden would love the chance to do more composing for future theatre projects, but she is also grateful for the chance to impart her knowledge and passion for music to her band students, no matter how many or few there may be.
“It can be a real challenge,” she admits. “We average 15-16 kids in band each year, and I have had as many as 25. This year it’s 11, and the challenge is coming up with musical selections to make it work. But we manage, and the kids are so enthusiastic. I just love them.”