Shaun Parry celebrated the 20th anniversary of his college graduation by returning to Brigham Young University to accept an alumni achievement award from the College of Fine Arts and Communications in October.
Parry has achieved a lot in two decades. With his bachelor of arts degree in music, dance and theater, Parry has gone on to perform in Broadway shows and around the world. He has called Manhattan home for the past 18 years and has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera and danced with the New York Theatre Ballet. He has been honored with many awards and accolades. He has promoted the arts through speaking engagements and contributed his experience to various boards and councils.
In 2005, Parry founded a nonprofit organization that teaches life skills to impoverished youths in developing countries through training in the performing arts.
The tall man with dark hair, a beard and chiseled features was also honored when a photographer asked him to be a model for Jesus Christ.
In a recent interview with the Deseret News, Parry reflected on his colorful career, LDS faith and charitable work. He summarized it all with a reference to one of his all-time favorite songs, “The Impossible Dream,” from “Man of La Mancha.”
“I’ve lived that song and sentiment throughout my life,” Parry said. “It’s been a theme. It has stuck with me through the years.”
Although baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 8, Parry, a native of Mesa, Arizona, claims to be convert.
“There was definitely a time in my later teen years when I had to figure it out for myself, when I went deep in that conversion process,” Parry said. “If I am going to give 110 percent to this the rest of my life, I better know its right.”
The spiritual conviction he sought came, Parry said, but a more powerful confirmation followed about a year into his service as an LDS missionary in Japan. It happened when his mission president instructed the missionaries to take a day off, fast and read the entire Book of Mormon in one day. The mission president patterned the exercise after an experience described by early Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt, which led to his testimony of the Book of Mormon and Latter-day Saint conversion.
Parry started at 5:30 a.m. and finished around 9:30 p.m., he said.
“It passed in front of me like a movie. It was very different than studying concepts or studying a chapter at a time. It was a sacred experience for me,” he said. “I took Moroni’s promise and found out for myself.”
Not only did the experience cement his faith in the gospel, but Parry said it also helped him to better understand the process of seeking spiritual guidance, receiving it and having the courage to follow it. This has been a great blessing in his career, Parry said.
Read, pray, church
During one “beautiful” stretch in his mission, Parry and his companion taught and baptized a large number of people. Prior to each baptism, Parry remembers asking converts to promise three things: first, daily reading in the scriptures; second, daily, sincere prayer; and third, to show up at church each week.
“If you do those things, you will make it,” he said.
Parry knows those three principles also apply to him. Most shows include a Saturday night performance, followed by a Sunday matinee and evening show. It would be easy to skip LDS worship services due to fatigue and the time involved in finding the local meetinghouse. Once when he was in China, Parry got up at 4:30 a.m. and used a Mandarin dictionary to get him from a taxi to a bus to a train and a three-hour ride into Beijing, where he attended sacrament meeting. He then made the long trek back and arrived just in time to prepare for the show’s matinee.
Remembering the sacrifices of his pioneer ancestors has helped Parry to stay true to the gospel. It’s also easier to live gospel standards if you decide where you stand before being confronted with a situation, he said.
“It’s not that challenging if you know who you are,” Parry said. “If you are waffling and wavering, then yes, it’s incredibly challenging. They will invite you, entice you and bring you, but if you walk in the door standing firm, they will watch out for you.”
Parry remembers his time at BYU with great fondness, not because he was a star pupil but because of the faculty and students who put their arms around him and helped a struggling student.
“It was a huge transitional time for me. I went into the music-theater-dance program with very little training," he said. "They accepted and worked with me. That nurturing and not giving up on me was absolutely crucial to setting a foundation in my journey. Those moments of them not giving up on me are beautiful and powerful in my memory.”
The inspiration that led Parry to found his nonprofit organization, Promethean Spark International, came as he was teaching professional acting, dancing and singing classes in Peru in 2005.
During some free time, Parry went on a drive with a friend through some of the poor sections of a city where they noticed a group of children begging for money by dancing on a street corner. Parry and his friend wanted to help the children and offered to teach them dance in a free class before returning to New York.
There was a big turnout, but Parry said the kids struggled to listen and tended to congregate in the corner. He spent four hours “pulling his hair out” trying to teach the group something worthwhile. He tried again but with no success. Parry was ready to return to New York and give up on this little experiment, but said he sought spiritual guidance. That’s when the inspiration came, he said.
“The same things that are keeping them from doing the class will keep them from getting an education, a job and having a good family life,” Parry said. “I’m not here to teach them dance, I am here to teach them the basic life skills they need for success.”
The next day, he went in with a different approach. He challenged them to concentrate for more than 30 seconds at a time individually, then as a group. He did some exercises with them and said he wanted to teach them some “simple, stupid steps his grandma could do” but that they didn’t have what it took to learn them. Then we walked out of the room. The reverse psychology had the desired effect, and suddenly the kids wanted to prove they could learn. At that, Parry set some serious ground rules, such as everyone participates and not one person can quit. That approach was much more effective, Parry said.
“I was helping them to understand the process of becoming something,” he said.
While many charities want to build schools or offer educational opportunities (and schools are important, Parry said), he realized that few children off the street have the discipline, focus or perseverance to learn in a structured environment. Most drop out or stay in school but fail to learn anything and return to the streets. He felt strongly that those life skills could be gained in the process of doing something physically active, such as dancing, in an ongoing program.
Out of that experience came Promethean Spark International. The organization has produced highly successful programs for hundreds of children living in orphanages, prisons, slums and leprosy colonies from South America to Africa and Asia, Parry said.
“We are hitting 80-90 percent of them going to school and finishing. In some places, like Peru, we are hitting 100 percent. Not all get good grades, they are still human, but it’s a powerful environment of life coaching that can’t be replicated with anything else,” Parry said. “We’ve just started. Impossible dreams they didn’t know how to dream have opened up to them.”
For more information on the organization, visit prometheanspark.org.
As part of returning to campus to accept his alumni award, Parry gave a lecture he titled “Impossible Dreams I Didn’t Know Enough to Dream.” Citing examples from his own life, Parry’s remarks centered on the idea that people across the world can develop unity and friendship through the performing arts. It’s a message he will continue to share wherever he goes.
“Culture is identified through the arts; everyone has that. Music, dance, theater, it’s beautiful, and we can use that as common ground to reach out to all different types of people across the globe,” Parry said. “To touch lives and lift humanity in very real ways with the arts is a powerful, beautiful and miraculous tool that touches the soul of every human being. It crosses all boundaries.”
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