As a chaplain, Air Force Lt. Col. Gary Ziccardi is used to speaking in front of audiences. However, in March, he took on a new role as actor and singer in a musical at Columbia\'s Town Theatre.

Ziccardi has long been a fan of theater productions.

"I've loved going to theater and, in particular, musicals," he said. "There's a way that the message is communicated through the theater medium that has reached into my soul."

Until recently, though, he has never auditioned for a show.

"Once you get into the responsibilities of life, you don't have an opportunity to do the things that you would if you had some discretionary time," he explained.

During a yearlong deployment to Qatar - his third in as many years - he vowed to make a change.

"While I was there for 12 months before coming to Columbia to this position, I made a promise to myself," Ziccardi said. "Whatever my next duty assignment would be, I was going to look and see what opportunities there would be in theater and just give it a try."

When he arrived at Fort Jackson in September to be part of the transition team that establishes the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center, he wasted no time in making good on his promise. One Friday, he saw an announcement that auditions for the "Buddy Holly Story" at the Town Theatre were scheduled for the next day. "So, I got my guitar out and picked out a song that I thought I could audition with. I went there on Saturday, and I just sat down and sang my song," he said.

The audition went well and Ziccardi was cast in two roles. Ziccardi admitted that he was not familiar with the musical's story and was surprised to find out that he would actually open the show, portraying the lead singer of the band Hayride.

After eight weeks of rehearsal, it was time for the show.

"The feeling when that curtain went up - I can't describe the emotion I felt," Ziccardi said. "I was just so full of anticipation and adrenaline and excitement - nervous. My one thought was, 'I want to do it like we practiced it over and over and over again. I want to do a good job.'" And that he did. "We did it just fine, got through it," he said. "I didn't drop my pick. My voice didn't crack. I remembered all the words, played it just fine. When we went offstage after the applause, my feet didn't touch the ground for about 10 minutes. It was just an out-of-this-world experience what I felt as I left the stage."

Being able to realize a lifelong dream has been a life-changing experience for Ziccardi.

"What I found from theater is that I feel more alive doing this than I have felt doing anything else in my life," he said. "It's like a whole new chapter. It's a gift. Life has many different seasons and dimensions to it. I'm 52 years old, so I've lived a lot of life. To have something new that I can experience and learn and grow in - and also make a contribution in - is just a wonderful gift."

Ziccardi said that being part of the theater community has also broadened his experience with people whose backgrounds are different from his own.

"As a minister, as a chaplain, as a pastor, most of my affiliations have been with people who come to church or come to chapel or get involved," he said. "So this is really stepping outside of that. It's stimulating. It's invigorating. It's helping me to become more in touch with 'the real world' and what people are going through, who they are, how they see things, how they live their lives. I'm really growing as a person by the affiliation and interaction.

"What I'm discovering is that theater is a form of community. My part means nothing without the others doing theirs. And not only doing them together, but in synchronization with the others. And when everybody is doing their part together, what you can produce is something beautiful."

The "Buddy Holly Story" is no longer playing, but the next show is already on the horizon for Ziccardi. He was recently cast in two roles for the July production of "The Beauty and the Beast," also at the Town Theatre.