Sonoma stories: A star named Grace Anne is born
Today’s another big day for Grace Anne Doyle, a 9-year-old with a voice that soars and a spirit unimpeded by a disorder that disrupts her gait and often enough causes her to pick herself up off the ground.
This is opening day of the Transcendence Theatre Company’s Kids Camp. Grace Anne and other day-campers from 8 to 18 will sing, dance, act and prepare for their appearances in outdoor shows Friday and Saturday at Jack London State Historic Park.
Grace Anne, a fourth-grader who lives in Santa Rosa with her parents and brother Charles, who’s 7, first attended the Transcendence camp in Sonoma Valley last summer. If at the beginning she had any doubts about what she wants to do with her life, they were resolved by the end.
“I’ll probably be on Broadway,” said the blue-eyed, chirpy and soulful kid, “or be a famous singer.”
She’s renowned already to those who’ve heard her sing in productions by the Broadway-inspired Transcendence, praised as one of America’s best outdoor-venue performing companies, and on several other stages. She was wildly cheered when she sang the National Anthem at Petaluma’s Giant Steps therapeutic equestrian center.
She said to sing and dance at camp last summer under the direction of Transcendence cast members, some of whom have appeared on or just off Broadway, made her more confident. When she sings, she said, “I feel really happy and joyful, and I feel unlimited.”
That’s an excellent way to feel, especially for someone with cerebral palsy. Grace Anne was diagnosed with the neurological disorder at age 2.
Her parents, attorney Jon Doyle and Charlotte Nytzen Doyle, a former opera and theater singer, took her to specialists because of the difficulty the toddler was having with walking.
Today Grace Anne undergoes physical therapy, walks and runs with her feet turned inward and faces the prospect of extensive, corrective surgery on her legs. She said she tends to fall a lot.
Her mother recounts the moment not long ago when the idea of surgery had her in tears. She said Grace Anne told her, “Mom, don’t be sad. I’m not sad that I have CP, it makes me who I am.”
That the child is a singer isn’t terribly surprising, given that her mom sang professionally and for years ran a singing school, Baby Birds Music, in Marin County. Charlotte Doyle has been coaching her daughter nearly all her life.
But the songbird experienced a transforming moment a bit more than a year ago as she and her mother took in a Transcendence Theatre show at Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.
She was spellbound by one particular actress: Shannon O’Bryan. She told her mother, “I want to meet the really pretty girl with the big smile.”
The Transcendence cast came out to mingle after the show and Grace Anne was able to meet and declare her interest in theater to O’Bryan, a veteran of Broadway. A friendship was born.
The Doyles learned then, in the summer of 2015, about the Transcendence Kids Camp. Grace Anne’s mother inquired and learned that though the camp had sold out, one child had just canceled. Grace Anne was in.
She said the week was wonderful. “We learned about singing and dancing. We wrote a song. It was really fun.”
Each year, the camp concludes with two nights of special performances of the Broadway Under the Stars show that Transcendence calls its Fantastical Family Night. It happens within the ruins of the Kohler and Frohling Winery at the Jack London park, the operation of which benefits from the ticket proceeds.
Grace Anne and all of the other kids from last year’s show performed both before and during that presentation. The 2016 show happens at 7:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday.
Another most memorable night for Grace Anne came last fall at the annual Transcendence Theatre Gala, held also at the state park near Glen Ellen.
She was brought onto the stage by her new best friend, Shannon O’Bryan. The actress introduced her as “one of the most special and specially-abled humans I have ever met in my life.”
Grace Anne sang “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Defying Gravity.” She looked to be feeling utterly unlimited.