I walked into a studio one day. I have explained this to friends many times. I walked into a studio to be in a show one day and my life changed forever.
My mother had just passed and my brother said, “come be in a show with me”. We grew up singing songs from shows together. Well, shows, Christmas movies, Elvis movies, anything that combined song and story really. While other Jewish families sang Dayenu at Passover Seders, my brother and I would re-enact, with every bit of emotion and fervor, the confrontation between Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables. My mom loved watching her kids sing.
So, when less than a year after she passed, my brother said he was doing a community theatre version of Les Miserables, and asked if I want to join, I don’t think I chose to do it so much as it chose me. I was still in grieving, it was my mom’s favourite show, my family tradition with my brother, I knew it was beshert (fated).
Little did I know that day, that my life was about to change. Drastically. For the better.
Happiness is the most valuable commodity there is. We are richest when we have it in abundance and we can accumulate it with mindful intention, just like any other commodity. Like other commodities, we can spread it around to enrich others. Unlike many other commodities, there are no limits on access to it or the volume you can accumulate. And unlike other commodities, spreading it around actually increases your own pool. Yet for some reason, when we add up all the minutes in the day and how we allocate our time and brain power, there are often very few minutes left to focus on real happiness, particularly once you subtract all the time we spend making money (because I am here to confirm the old adage, money does not equal happiness).
I am extremely fortunate that in my life, I have lived in periods in what might be considered financially wealthy periods and others that were impoverished periods. Some might think it’s tragic that I had to live in poverty, particularly after living in wealth but I am so very blessed for it. I cannot begin to express just how much. Blessed because when I reflect on my life, the times of wealth, the times of poverty, I can quite easily see, that there has NEVER been a correlation between my financial wealth and my happiness. In fact, some of my happiest memories are from those times where I had the least. Most people will never get this opportunity to see happiness from this vantage point. So yes, I am grateful for having lived in poverty.
"Most people will never get this opportunity to see happiness from this vantage point"
That day, that I walked into that studio, I didn’t know it yet, but I was making a decision to spend more of my minutes on happiness. In hindsight, it was really a no brainer. Music makes me happy. Singing makes me happy. Singing with others in harmony makes me happy. Singing Les Mis with my brother makes me happy. If ever there was a cheap and accessible investment, with massive happiness yields, this was it. But even then, there was another level of returns I didn’t even consider.
What happens when you start to focus on things that make you happy? Yes, you will be happier but what else? It’s quite magical actually.
My wife and I like to decorate. Each part of our home is like a blank canvas to us, where we can care for every detail and fashion it to our liking. Life is like a home that way really. Each facet of our lives is a canvas for us to shape and mold to the life we want and slowly we add things to build towards that end vision. So what I discovered about pursuing happiness was sort of like discovering a new door in my home, to a room I didn’t realize was there. An empty room with loads of potential. I found two things when focusing on happiness with mindful intention.
"Pursuing happiness was sort of like discovering a new door in my home, to a room I didn’t realize was there"
You don’t get many opportunities to make new friends as an adult, at least not deep friendships. When you are a kid, you join activities that interest you, that make you happy. Maybe it’s sports, arts, playing an instrument, book clubs, etc. Whatever it is, you meet people who share a common bond and form some long lasting friendships. That’s not easy to do when you are “adulting” everyday, following the routine, waking up, getting the kids ready, carpool, working, fighting traffic home, making dinner, prepping kids for bed, collapsing on your bed and numbing your brain with the latest binge worthy program. Rinse and repeat. So the first thing I found, that I never expected to find, were people that would become my closest friends in the world.
The second thing I found was that I had been lied to all my life. You see, performing on stage can seem like a very scary and exposed experience. You may be fully clothed (or costumed as it were), but when you have to stand up there and sing in front of an audience, you may as well be naked. And here’s the thing I discovered that has infused such immense happiness in my life. I found immense strength in vulnerability.
Being vulnerable is not something we are taught is a good thing. We are taught that it’s weak and more so that if you are weak, you will be victim to those who are strong. This is something we all get taught in some way or another but particularly as a man, it is ingrained at a very young age that you cannot be vulnerable. That it is weakness. This is an outright lie. Being vulnerable, mindfully allowing yourself to be exposed, to show your authentic self, takes more strength and courage than anything I have done in my life. Doing so is a liberation that permeates through all areas of life. Friendships are richer, connections stronger, family is more rewarding, work is more engaging. It’s an investment that never stops paying dividends.
The day I walked into that studio changed my life. My closest friends in the entire world, who walked down the aisle at my wedding, I met doing these shows. My wife, my soulmate, my partner in life, I met doing these shows. I hear my mother singing along from the heavens doing these shows. I have been able to honour her legacy and raise over a quarter of a million dollars for charities doing these shows. I continue to make new amazing friends and get to watch new friendships develop doing these shows. I am a better at my job, a better friend, husband and father for doing these shows.
So why is the blog called Encore, Encore!?
At the end of each show that I’ve been lucky enough to produce as Unsung Heroes Productions, we perform an encore song. It was an idea brought to me by our first Director, Lawrence Axsmith, that after the bows, we do one last song for the audience and ourselves. Each year, I try and find some lines in a song that reflect how I feel about the show that year and in general.
That first year was a total experiment., an idea and a huge undertaking to produce a show with no producing experience. Would it even be liked by the audience? The lyrics I sang were from Goodbye from Catch Me If You Can, “Its a happy ending, to the greatest show on earth. Now the curtains descending and I hope you got your moneys worth.”.
The second year was a very different situation. We produced one show and could have stopped. I had to decide if this was going to be an actual thing and if it was, I had to fully commit to doing it right. Unsung Heroes Productions was born. For the encore, I sang the lines “Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road. Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go…I hope you had the time of your life” from Good Riddance by Green Day (from the show American Idiot).
Year three came around and we knew, we actually had a “thing”. After year two, audiences were writing to say how much they loved the show and planned on coming every year. We had momentum…this was very real. At the same time, we had many returning cast members who looked forward to that time of year where we came together to rehearse with our second family, our second home. The encore that year was Home/Homeward Bound mashup from Glee. I aptly sang “this wave, is stringing us along…just know you’re not alone…I’m gonna make this place our home”.
By our 4th annual show we had a real rhythm forming. We were starting to get coverage in the news and our fundraising totals kept growing, which to me, felt like my own fortune in that all of these funds were helping to honour my late mother. I got to sing “I’ve taken my bows and my curtain calls. You’ve brought me fame and fortune and everything that goes with it, I thank you all” from ‘We Are the Champions’ by Queen (and the show, We Will Rock You)
In between the 4th Annual and now we also produced two specialty shows, one was a Teen Show for mental health and one, an acoustic concert to help sends kids to summer camp. I always thought this would be so rewarding to me, to do this thing for my mom and to sing, which I love. But what has been clearest to me after 6 different productions and going into our 7th is the happiness and friendships that have been built is possibly a bigger tribute to my mom than the money we have raised. I have seen the various cast members over the years, really and truly be there for one another. In good times and bad, we support each other. New cast, returning cast, it doesn’t matter. This shared love of music, this strength we all have built up by being vulnerable, has led to the most supportive community I have ever known.
“Even when the dark comes crashing through, when you need a friend to carry you” which continues on to “when you’re broken on the ground, you will be found” are the lines I get to sing in the encore this year in the song ‘You Will Be Found’ from the Tony award winning show, Dear Evan Hansen. There is no message more true about these shows than that.
The encore is my reflection and my own reward. A reward for the work, for letting happiness and love be important and chasing it with mindful intention. The show will be over and I’ll get to sing with my nearest and dearest friends surrounding me as we sing our truth. I could never describe the happiness I feel in that moment and makes it all the effort worthwhile.
I hope you all enjoy the music, the love, the friendship. See at our 5th Annual Show this Feb 6th-8th at the Vaughan City Playhouse as we sing for Imagine a Cure for Leukemia.
Neal Dlin is the Artistic Producer and Founder of Unsung Heroes Productions (UHP). A project he began to honour his late mother, Barbara Pinchuk, by 2018, UHP had raised over $270,000 for leukemia, mental health and poverty. In his "other" job, Neal is a business consulting helping fortune 500 companies focus on strategies to enhance the customer and employee experience.