Tom Sweitzer, co-founder of A Place to Be therapeutic arts organization, didn’t make the organization’s open house on its new facility in the Village of Leesburg. He’s in New York City performing his 90-minute, one-man, Off-Broadway play, “20 Seconds,” relating the story of his chaotic childhood being raised by a schizophrenic, and how he learned to forgive him. (The title, “20 Seconds,” references the length of the hug Tom gave his
father when he forgave him.) Tom has been an actor for many years and has either written or co-authored many of the plays A Place to Be performs as vehicles of expression for its clients.
And, it turns out that telling their own story through the arts as a way of self-expression and personal realization is something all A Place to Be’s principals have done over the years. But the fact that Tom’s story will take the stage Off Broadway, among the brightest lights the arts can offer, is a testament to his artistry, passion and resilience – more than a decade of writing, performing, refining and finally producing the work for with the help of the community he’s helped to build to help the mentally and physically challenged or disabled among us.
He was in the midst of his 48-show run in September when he shared with us what it’s been like to come so far.
Q: Why tell your story as a play?
Tom: I feel the world needs more stories about Forgiveness. My childhood and upbringing were hard but colorful, and I know what makes good storytelling and art, so I thought I should use my own story. They always say do what you know. I know myself and my story and if it can help someone else then why not use the artform I am most comfortable with?
Q: What message do you hope it conveys?
Tom: It’s never too late to forgive someone. That even through the darkest of times you can find your way with some love. And, music is a powerful tool for healing.
Q: It’s an astonishing accomplishment … the theatre you’re in is top shelf. How is it that you were able to pull this off? What made the stars align?
Tom: I know. The Signature Theatre is a beautiful space. I think my fate has led me here and years and years of hard work. I started this script in 2016. I have workshopped the show over 25 times and have done about 200 rewrites. I was determined. I had an Angel Producer to help me launch this, Teresa Wheeler from Loudoun County, a philanthropist who is interested in social and community concerns. She knew my show had a message of healing. Then, after winning Best Solo at the Capital Fringe Festival in 2022 I knew I had to get my message to a larger stage. The final scene in the show is about A Place to Be, our Music Therapy and Expressive Arts center. So, A Place to Be helped get this to its next phase by making it possible for producers to become donors. These generous people donated completely separately for this show, so as to not take anything away from our needs as a non-profit. This was led by Mrs. Jacquie Mars. The greatest part of it is that I am allowed to fundraise for A Place To Be throughout my show, as well as educate people about our organization and teach people what music therapy is and how powerful the expressive arts are. To put on a show like this for this length of time can cost anywhere from $250,000 - $500,000. Thanks to 25 producers and the support of my friend Renee Fleming, I am here.
Q: What does all this mean for your career? For A Place to Be?
Tom: It’s an amazing platform for me and for A Place To Be. Just last night a crowd in the lobby said they had never heard of Music Therapy and they went onto our website. For me, I was born an actor first, so this is where I feel most comfortable and it’s a beautiful partnership that my performance will bring light to our work at A Place To Be.
Q: A lot of people might WANT to go out and write and field a Broadway play. A lot of people might want to give back to their community in a meaningful way. What qualities do you possess, or what do you draw upon, to be the kind of guy who actually DOES these things?
Tom: As I explain in the show, I graduated with Music Theater degree in 1994, but I knew I wanted to do something beyond the stage. The acting lifestyle can be cut-throat and exhausting and disappointing. I knew I wanted to teach. So, for more than 25 years I have taught, directed children, and then became a music therapist because something in me the whole time just kept growing and telling me I needed to give broader, that I had the ability to share messages through music, theater and myself.
I have been driven my whole life. Even when I put on shows in my backyard when I was eight. I would write them, gather the neighbors to be cast members, make sets and then charge 10 cents admission. Some of how I got here truly is because I had a calling since I can remember. The other part is work, work, work. Many people have dreams and dreams are wonderful, but you have to get up and begin somewhere to make them happen and they don’t come fast and they don’t come exactly how you imagine them.
There is a way for every person to create a way to give back and be creative in that giving. We get stuck inside of ourselves often and at A Place To Be, as in my life, I found out that giving is everything. It can be by making someone an old-fashioned card or a phone call or starting your own support group. I worked with someone recently and she said, ‘I could never do what you do, all I do is knit.’ After talking to her she started a knitting group with about five other ladies. They meet and turn on their favorite music, bring wine and now this lady feels she has a connection.
At the end of the day that is it – connection. To save ourselves from this confusing and sometimes hard world we must connect. Connect to something – anything bigger than ourselves. So, I am not afraid or embarrassed to say God is my connection. God and music. It’s a lonely world to go without something you believe in. And that is truly how I got here. I have a responsibility to help others through my art.
Note: If you’ve missed the show’s limited run through October, there may be other chances to hear Tom’s story. We’re told it was filmed, and hope it has the opportunity to be streamed at some later date.
"It’s never late to forgive someone. That even through the darkest of times you can find your way with some love. And, music is a powerful tool for healing." Tom Sweitzer