Dominick Farinacci’s ‘Modern Warrior LIVE’ returns to help veterans heal through jazz
Farinacci was named a 2022 Cleveland Arts Prize winner this month. The award celebrates area artists who excel in dance, music, design and visual art.
A world-renowned jazz trumpeter and composer, Farinacci heads the Tri-C Jazz Fest Academy in Cleveland.
Music education and mental health advocacy have always been important to him, and Farinacci has worked to end the stigma around trauma using music as a way to heal.
He created “Modern Warrior LIVE,” a jazz and storytelling performance, with Army veteran Jaymes Poling.
Poling spent three years in Afghanistan and constructed the narrative of the project from his experiences overseas and returning home.
Poling narrates the show, while Farinacci performs his originally composed music to highlight the emotional storytelling.
The project aims to humanize returning soldiers and encourage veterans to share their experiences.
“Music and the arts have such an incredible and profound power in the healing process,” Farinacci said.
Developing the storytelling stage show
In 2015, Farinacci’s mother was diagnosed with stage-three cancer, prompting him to focus on taking care of his mental health.
Around this time, he first heard the 1983 Tom Waits song “Soldier's Things.”
This inspired Farinacci to release a cover version. Through his connections at Tri-C, he connected with Poling to collaborate on a music video that would tell the veteran’s story.
“My kind of conception of that veteran transition is kind of limited to the quick soundbites that we hear in the media, you know, of the damaged veteran or the liability or the hero. And what I'm hearing from James in his story is a much more nuanced and deep and complex situation,” Farinacci said.
He said he was so inspired by Poling’s story that he wanted to continue working together.
The two discussed expanding the collaboration and turning it into a stage production. They started workshopping their concept at Tri-C and Playhouse Square, eventually naming it “Modern Warrior LIVE.”
“It was a life-changing event to be able to meet him and to hear his story,” Farinacci said. “You know, first-person storytelling is a great vehicle for me to really kind of gain some musical inspiration.”
During the production, Poling narrates his journey in the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, where he spent three years in Afghanistan across three separate tours.
His narration is accented by Farinacci’s trumpet playing, along with other performed music— from original compositions to covers of Leonard Cohen and CeeLo Green songs relevant to the story.
They launched a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for a video pilot of the program, which brought in $10,000.
This allowed the collaborators to hire additional cast members and a technical director.
“Modern Warrior LIVE” made its public debut to audiences in Cleveland in November 2017, and it has since traveled across the U.S. to locations like VFW halls, trauma centers and medical conventions. It has been performed more than 125 times around the country.
Expanding on the production
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Farinacci and Poling created a film adaptation of “Modern Warrior LIVE.”
This allowed audiences the opportunity to experience the production in smaller or remote environments.
Breakout sessions and speaking engagements were paired with the film for organizations seeking resources on topics like storytelling, combat and post-traumatic stress.
“It's a general kind of mental health story,” Farinacci said. “It talks about trauma and how trauma shapes you as an individual and as a society, family and friends. And so it really kind of ended up serving that larger purpose of people, even outside of the veteran community.”
Next week, they'll bring the production back to the stage in Cleveland for the first time since 2020.
“[That] was our big coming-out year where we had an incredible year of dozens and dozens and dozens of performances slated. So obviously, everything was canceled there,” Farinacci said.
The in-person performance is part of a two-year, $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant awarded to the “Modern Warrior LIVE” organization.
A portion of the funds will also be used to launch an eight-week experience program in Ohio to help more veterans.
Funds will be used for the “Modern Warrior Experience,” where Farinacci’s artistic team will coach veterans over the course of eight weeks on expressing their fears, frustrations and hopes on stage.
Like the original “Modern Warrior LIVE” concept, each veteran’s story will be integrated with music and multimedia pieces that best capture and express their personal stories.
“We integrate all those things together, and we also do it live,” Farinacci said. “And it's just the beginning—we're really looking to build this out, this experience program out, on a national front.”
Farinacci said they’ve partnered with the Veterans History Project to introduce Vietnam veteran and WKYC news anchor Leon Bibb into their upcoming live production at the Library of Congress Nov. 10.
Poling and Bibb will be interviewed as part of the production, and those interviews will be entered into the Library of Congress’ archives in perpetuity.
Using art as a tool for healing
“Modern Warrior LIVE” returns to Northeast Ohio Nov. 17 at the Simon and Rose Mandel Theatre in Highland Hills.
The production will include stories from Poling and Bibb, taking audiences through their experiences in Afghanistan and Vietnam, respectively.
“You see all the commonalities, but then you see a lot of differences, particularly when Jaymes came back home from Afghanistan versus when Leon came back home from Vietnam,” Farinacci said. “A whole other world.”
The performance will be followed by a panel discussion and audience Q&A.
Farinacci has worked for years to expand the link between music, mental health, wellness and education.
He has received numerous grants to establish arts programs in Ohio and served as music consultant to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which helps young people manage their emotional wellbeing through music therapy and related programming.
Farinacci said people from all walks of life have been exposed to trauma, and he is continuing his work to bring the “Modern Warrior LIVE” experience to others.
He received a grant from the Char and Chuck Fowler Foundation, which specializes in arts access and advocacy.
“We're going to work with seven formerly incarcerated individuals in the Cleveland area, bring them into this experience program, help to empower them, share their stories and their experiences,” he said.
There is a stigma around trauma, despite how common it is, Farinacci said.
“Jaymes always says, in this just incredibly important line, he says, ‘Why is it that somebody who survives cancer is considered strong, whereas somebody who survives combat is considered damaged, a liability?’” Farinacci said.
Through the grants and programs Farinacci has been involved with, he said an infrastructure is being built to help artists “take a breath for a moment” and focus on creating something meaningful.
“If we had more of that kind of thing here in Cleveland in terms of like supporting our artists in that capacity… realizing that philanthropy is really a key to our success in the arts community, I think, one, it would help to increase the artistic output of our community,” he said. “Two, I think it will help to build a bigger audience for our community.”
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