On April 13, 2009, Greg Chastain lost his mother to pancreatic cancer. At the time, he was poised to perform in the North Shore Music Theatre’s (NSMT’s) production of Aida; it was opening week. Chastain was forced to pull out of the show, but his castmates and friends rallied around him in an unexpected way: “I was amazed by how many people I knew who have been affected by cancer,” Chastain recalls. “It brought us all closer together.” He was able to return for a performance during the closing week of the show thanks to the support of the cast, and their solidarity had given him an idea.
Chastain called in 22 of his theatre connections—many of whom came from the Aida production—to organize a small cabaret-style show to benefit cancer research. The response was instantaneous: The show raised $17,000 for the Expect Miracles Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes financial services to fundcancer research and patient care programs. “They were so happy with the results that they asked us to perform a similar show the next year, and moved us to Symphony Hall,” Chastain explains. Between 2009 and 2011, they raised over 130,000 dollars for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, through the Expect Miracles Foundation. “In 2012, we decided to give it a go on our own, and form our own nonprofit,” says Chastain.
And Voices of Hope (VOH) was born. Since then, the nonprofit organization has grown to include more than 200 volunteers, each of whom donates hundreds of hours per year to plan, rehearse, and perform in theatrical productions that raise funds for cancer research. “We didn’t want to focus on any specific type of cancer, because each one of us has a connection to cancer in a different way,” says Chastain. The Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Cancer Center has been VOH’s beneficiary since 2013. “They’re an incredible resource—they target all types of cancers with the most cutting-edge technology,” says Chastain. “We’re so lucky to partner with them; the staff come to our shows, and they’ve given us tours of their facility. It’s great to see how the money we raise is helping.” To date, VOH has donated over $200,000 to the Termeer Center; they are the second largest donor group that benefits the center.
While VOH counts song and theatrical performance as their primary fundraising tool, both Chastain and executive artistic director Dana Siegal make it clear that they are a nonprofit first and foremost, and not a theatre group: “The theatrical community can be competitive, but not here,” says Siegal. “We have members who are incredibly talented, but this isn’t a place where anybody is ‘the star.’” Chastain adds, “We don’t have auditions; the only requirement for membership is that volunteers put in the time and help in whatever way they can. Anybody is welcome—there are no egos or divas, because we are all focused on the same cause.”
That’s not to say that VOH performances aren’t high quality and entertaining for audiences. Many members do have a musical or theatrical background, and it’s easy to see that they know their way around a stage. A single show might feature over a hundred members of the group, and many more work behind the scenes to create costumes and sets. Each year, VOH mounts two major productions: in the spring, a full-length musical, and inthe fall, their signature Gala, a performance of song and dance numbers interspersed with moving testimonials from group members. In 2015, VOH’s Godspell sold over a 1,000 tickets, and their October 17 “To Life!” Gala was a smashing success, featuring selections from Broadway musicals, pop songs, classics, and oldies. The bulk of the group’s donations to the Termeer Center result from ticket sales, but each performance also includes pre-show raffles featuring prizes donated by group members and local businesses.
To supplement their twice-yearly large-scale performances, the group sponsors small fundraisers throughout the year, including a golf tournament and a tennis tournament. “Local businesses or residents can also hire us to sing at events,” says Chastain. This has taken VOH members to some pretty interesting places. “We’ve done everything from Christmas caroling to singing the national anthem at a Patriots game!”
These supplementary efforts are essential to the group’smission. All VOH members are unpaid volunteers. “Nobody is here to make money or be a star,” says Chastain. “There’s not a paid position in the entire organization.” VOH also receives donated services from orchestra members, photographers, and other professionals, and a grant from the Conquer Cancer Coalition pays for the group’s rehearsal space. But like all nonprofits, VOH needs to cover their fundraising and operating costs. Currently, all donations pledged through the VOH website go directly to the Termeer Center, but Chastain would like to expand that. “My goal is for 100 percent of our ticket sales and fundraising to go to cancer research,” he explains. “That’s why corporate sponsorships are so helpful—they can reduce our overhead and cover the cost of our shows.” VOH developed a partnership with Walmart in 2015, which Chastain describes as serendipitous. “I had a friend of a friend who worked with Walmart’s advertising agency, and she said that they were looking for a small local charity to support. People who have contacts in business can be incredibly helpful to us,” he explains. “It’s all about getting our foot in the door.”
One of the most advantageous doors VOH has opened is their partnership with NSMT, which in 2013 “just made sense,” according to Chastain. Many VOH members already had a strong connection to the theatre’s work, and nearly 90 percent of members are based on the North Shore. “We’re so fortunate to perform there,” says Chastain. “The general manager, Karen Nascembeni, helps us tremendously.” The theatre offers its space and staff to VOH at a discounted rate, which is key to reducing show costs. “They’ve become part of the North Shore Music Theatre family,” says Nascembeni. “They’re such a large group, and we’re fortunate to have the space to host them.”
“Family” is a word used often by VOH members. In a way, they mean it literally—the group’s six-person board consists of three married couples, including Chastain and his wife, treasurer Jean Chastain; Dana Siegal and her husband, Ed, who serves as the vice president; and secretary/director of membership Beth Consoli and her husband, Mike Consoli, the director of sponsorship/marketing. But while only some of the group’s members are related by marriage, all are related by shared experience. “That’s what makes this group unique,” says Siegal. “When people join us, they know they’ve found a home. Everyone here has a heart for the mission.” Chastain adds, “The group is therapeutic for us all—95 percent of us have a personal connection to cancer, and many members are survivors. We do a lot more than just sing and dance—we support each other.