The pace of life has slowed during the covid-19 pandemic, but Bevan Keating's tempo remains upbeat.
As Wildwood Park for the Arts' traditional season was put on hold and all indoor activities and programs canceled indefinitely, Executive Director Bevan Keating directed his energy to rethinking the way things are done at the Little Rock park.
"I mean, we had a show ready to go, and just like everyone else in our community, yeah, we had to shut it down," says Keating. "Then we were like, 'What are we going to do next?' The park became our focus."
The trails in the 105-acre Wildwood Park were cleared, and staff and volunteers put up new signs. The hours, previously set for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., were stretched to sunset.
"The park is as beautiful as it has ever been. Our community here in West Little Rock, I don't believe they really knew we existed," says Keating. "I think covid has been a real game changer for us -- because the people who now come to the park are from this area and now are starting to come from further abroad."
Wildwood introduced a new series this fall, "Music in the Wild," with the Rodney Block Collective in October and Adam Faucett, The Atomicons and Charlotte Taylor this month.
"It sold out three days before the concert," says Keating of the first event. "We took the Butler Gazebo, which is a beautiful space right on the lake, and we had an outdoor concert. People were starving for it. It was an amazing collaboration because Rodney wants to play, his people want to play, they want to perform -- that's who they are. And we had 125 people just dying to hear a live musician and have that communication back and forth."
There was a disc golf tournament on the grounds during the day before people spread blankets and unfolded chairs for the second evening concert.
"Financially, we are in a position now that has allowed us to be stable all through covid, and actually now, with Music in the Wild, starting to give back to the arts even when it's very difficult to do so," Keating says. "We want to be part of the West Little Rock community and, of course, the greater community. Now, if you will, to wrap it all up in our buzz line, it's 'Wildwood Park, where nature and the arts come together.' I struggled for a long time as the executive director, a year and a half ago when I started, with how do we tie all this together? We were doing so many little things and this has really forced us to focus."
Act I: Canada
Keating, born in London, Ontario, Canada, was named executive director at Wildwood in October 2018. He had served as artistic director at the park since 2016 and was also an associate professor of music and conductor of choral studies at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
It was the UALR job that brought him to Little Rock 14 years earlier, shortly after he graduated with master's and doctoral degrees in choral and orchestral conducting from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. A friend, teaching at UALR, told him about the position in Arkansas, which he really only knew of as occupying a space somewhere between Texas and Tennessee.
"My father was a huge Johnny Cash fan, so I knew Arkansas through that," says Keating, the fifth of six children born to Edith, a stay-at-home mother, and the late Blair Keating, who shoveled coal and drove trains for 42 years.
His parents' Depression-era upbringings determined their parenting style.
"They made sure everyone in our family played sports, got their lifeguard certificate in swimming, had piano lessons and were exposed to the arts," he says. "Everything they did not have the opportunity to do, for all of us they gave that chance."
It was Keating's older sister who set him on his career path. Brenda Zadorsky, 18 years his senior, was in college by the time he was in preschool.
"I was her little classroom study project because I was the boy who could sing," says Keating. "That led to singing lessons, which led to me having a young artist career in Canada. I sang at Stratford's Opera. I was really fortunate. I guess I didn't really understand the gravity of it, and my parents certainly didn't, but they passed me on to agents who then helped guide my career, and it really set me apart from my peers."
Zadorsky recalls that Keating was interested in her music practice.
"It was a very natural segue for him to come and sit beside me on the piano bench. One of the first pieces I taught him was 'Christopher Robin Is Saying His Prayers,'" she says. "He was super-attentive and interested in what was happening. It was a beautiful song with high Gs. He most definitely was a high treble. He just was very enthralled with it, and I was enthralled with this gorgeous voice and how quickly he learned. I ended up being his first singing teacher while he developed through his treble years."
Keating has vivid memories of his earliest public performance.
"I remember my very first song," he says. "I sang Bing Crosby's 'Moonbeams in a Jar.' It was an old, old song from the '30s and '40s. I don't remember where I sang it, but I must have sung it at some older person's church group, and everyone loved it and then my sister said, 'Oh, this guy's pretty good, I guess, this little boy, my brother,' and so then she taught me 'The Little Drummer Boy.'"
At 12, Keating was invited to sing with the London Community Orchestra in "The Night Before Christmas," and Zadorsky says he memorized 57 pages of entries and sang off-score.
"Most times you go to a symphony concert, and the soloist is singing with a score in hand, but he managed to prepare that and sing in the biggest performance hall here in London at the time, Centennial Hall, which was very exciting," she says.
Keating was head chorister with St. Paul's Cathedral Choir, and he was featured as a child star in the Stratford Festival's prodigy summer program. He played Amahl in "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and Winthrop in "The Music Man," and after his voice changed, he played Liesl's love interest in "The Sound of Music."
"He's had an exciting journey," says Zadorsky. "He had a good variety, a wide range of his musical experience from musical theater to oratorio, and solo and choral, and it has, I think, probably stood him in good stead for what he came to do with his life."
Act II: Little Rock
Zadorsky, a classically trained opera singer and teacher, founded Amabile Youth Singers in London in 1985; Keating started the boys' choir.
"It started off as one small choir, which has now grown to, I think, 15 choirs. It's a huge organization, which I started my first conducting with Amabile, and it grew into my sister looking at me five years after I started and saying, 'You need to go to the States.' In other words, she was kicking me out of the nest based on opportunities that maybe she didn't have. She really cut the path for me, and then when she saw that maybe Canada was going to be a little bit small, then she pushed me out the door.'"
Having arrived in Little Rock, Charles Hathaway, then UALR's chancellor, connected Keating with the late David Belcher, former provost at UALR, who was at Second Presbyterian Church, where there was a part-time job opening he wasn't sure he could take.
"They quickly looked into it, and the congregation of Second Pres had me as a full-time Green Card person very quickly," says Keating. "I owe them a great debt to having my family here -- and it keeps us here. It is a great arts-loving congregation and really, that's where I finally hit my stride down here in the South."
Pastor Stephen Hancock has only nice things to say about Keating, who serves as director of music and the arts for Second Presbyterian and artistic director for Praeclara, the performing arts organization supported by Second Presbyterian.
"There's an old joke that preachers have about choir directors that goes like this: What's the difference between a choir director and a terrorist? And the answer is you can negotiate with a terrorist," says Hancock. "My point in saying that is that Bevan is the absolute opposite of that. He is committed to excellence in our music program, but he's also very flexible and a joy to work with, and he really does see the music program as supportive of the overall worship ministry of the church."
Satia Spencer is involved in Praeclara, but she first met Keating when she chose music as a major at UALR. Spencer had sung all of her life but had no formal classical voice training.
"I set up an appointment with Bevan, and we met, and we were in his office. I sang 'Fly Me To The Moon,' and he was just so very kind, that Canadian kind that's just polite, and he found something very nice to say,'" says Spencer, who performs in Praeclara productions, at Wildwood and with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, among others, and is a teacher in the Little Rock School District. "I learned so much in such a short amount of time under his leadership. He invested the time that it took to develop me as a singer, and he does that with all of those under his leadership. He's just very passionate, and he cares about the people and about what he does."
She counts Keating as a friend, and marvels over his range of skills.
"A lot of people think, oh, he's a conductor and that's very one-dimensional. But I don't know that there's too many things he's not good at," she says. "I think he knows something about even contracting. He owns a few buildings, and I can remember, as a student, there were times he would pay a group of us to do things like knock down walls and mix cement. And he's athletic."
As a child, Bevan Keating played hockey to create balance in a life of music.
"I remember being really upset when I was 14 or 15 years old, because I was singing opera, my voice was still high, I was singing the high parts. I was a boy treble, which means soprano. I was competing against women in their 20s, and I was the only boy. That, socially, was really tough," says Keating. "Or, you know, I'm wearing makeup at 14 years old, and a leotard. No boy wants that at most points, especially when your dad drove trains for 42 years. My sister, at some times, had to say, 'You can't quit this because you're talented. You need to do this.' But I didn't understand. I just wanted to go play hockey."
Act III: Home
Keating plays hockey now with an adult league, on a team dubbed the Nova Scotia Narwhals.
"That's kind of a joke," says his friend, teammate and fellow Canadian transplant Jody Holmes of the team name. "If somebody plays poorly we would say, 'Hey, we're going to put you on the bus to Nova Scotia to go down to the minor leagues,' which is a joke because we're just beer leagues now, right?"
They met about eight years ago on the ice at the Arkansas Skatium.
"My wife and I have always enjoyed going to plays, and we started going to the shows that he was putting on at Wildwood," says Holmes, now a Friend of Wildwood. "Bevan is always doing something, always busy. He's a great player -- fast, skilled, good shot, has what we would say is good hockey sense."
Holmes's wife sometimes joins Bevan's wife, Kira, to watch games at the rink, and sometimes they all go out after shows at Wildwood.
Kira Keating is director of the music program at St. James United Methodist Church in Little Rock.
"She's a very talented singer herself," says Keating of his wife.
They met in Canada after Zadorsky hired Kira to teach singing in their academy.
"We ended up teaching on the same nights. She generally taught the girls, and I was teaching the boys," Keating says. "One of my tricks to get my boys a little more confidence, especially when they were singing, was to make them sing in front of a cute girl. They would blush, they would forget the words, but you do that a few times and you can do anything, right?"
They have 10-year-old twins, Brock and Blythe. Brock loves fishing, especially at Wildwood, and hockey, and Blythe loves to sing and dance.
Keating is trying to emulate his father not only by supporting his children's passions and bolstering their talents, but in putting in manual labor when necessary. Zadorsky jokes that he's become a park ranger, and he doesn't disagree or dismay. He recently prepared flower beds at Wildwood so volunteers could plant daffodil bulbs.
"When I'm working in the woods, clearing brush with a chainsaw or planting gardens, it really allows me to think differently than being in my office," he says. "I love it, but I wasn't doing that until covid hit."
There won't be a Christmas program at Wildwood this year and Lanterns, the park's biggest annual fundraiser, is up in the air because of the pandemic.
"Maybe Lanterns, for one year, looks a little bit different, with more performances over a longer period of time with smaller groups of people. I think Music in the Wild is the way that we're testing the waters to see what our communities are comfortable with in still supporting the arts," Keating says.
He returns to Canada often most years, to visit family and friends and to conduct musical performances. With the borders still closed, he won't make it back for Thanksgiving or likely even Christmas.
"You always have these preconceived ideas of where you think your life is going to go and what should be the next step," he says. "My friends, after almost 15 years, still keep saying, 'Why aren't you coming home? Why are you still in the deep South?' and then I tell them all beautiful things about the South, and they get it. Canada is a lovely place, and my heart's definitely there, but the people here in the South are so warm, and I've been given such opportunities, my family included, through the arts. It has turned out to be the place I never expected to be."
Bevan T. Keating
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Nov. 10, 1968, London, Ontario, Canada
A MOVIE I RECENTLY SAW AND ENJOYED: I took my kids to see “Back to the Future” in a big theater with social distancing. It was so fun to see one of my favorite movies through my kids’ eyes. Once Blythe found out that Marty McFly was Canadian, she dressed as him for Halloween!
IF I HAD TO EAT THE SAME THING EVERY DAY IT WOULD BE: Meat and potatoes.
MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY: Sunday dinners with my family.
TO RELAX: I guess if you can call being chased around the ice by goons with graphite sticks and metal blades on their feet “relaxing,” then hockey is how I go about it.
SOMEDAY I WANT TO: Take all my friends from Arkansas to Canada with me for Boxing Day and have a huge party.
MY PET PEEVE IS: Cell phones in rehearsals! You can ask some of the actors and singers I work with how intense I can be about being present and engaged while we work.
SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME: I once nearly got myself and a fairly large portion of a choir kicked out of the Hotel Frontenac in Quebec because we were having a spirited disagreement about who would win in a fight: Captain Kirk or Yoda. (Of course, Kirk would win, but you just can’t reason with some people.)
THE MOST FUN I’VE EVER HAD: Truly, the most fun I’ve ever had happens every time we mount a new production or event. There’s no joy quite like bringing together the incredibly diverse array of people that put their talent and expertise into a stage production, festival or concert.
I WISH I COULD: Do more for the people around me. I find myself always wanting to be the person with all the solutions or plans, even though that’s not generally how life works out.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Passionate.