The magic began seven years ago, with an order from my loving mother: “You are either doing it this summer, or there’s chores. Pick one”.
This “it” that she described was auditioning for the East Hartford Summer Youth Festival production of Footloose—a production that would be directed by my father, Joe Connolly.
Never have I loved obeying my mother that much, for it eventually led to four summers of extraordinary emotional resonance. There was laughter. There was heartbreak. There was love—tons of love, actually. I don’t know if I’ve ever been involved in a community theater group with so much heart in my life. During these past four summers, I was surrounded by a bunch of saps, and I’m all the better for it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. A very good place to start, indeed.
My first experience of the East Hartford Summer Youth Festival was the one that started it all. With Footloose, I played Travis, one of Chuck’s bad boys. It was good that I had a small role, considering I was just getting introduced to this theater group. And if I may say, it was one perfectly timed introduction. With adventures such as going bowling at Vernon Lanes, along with going to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at midnight (my first midnight screening!), it was the first time where I truly understood the non-biological definition of “family”. Now, when some hear that word, they could automatically think of their biological parents, siblings, cousins, and so forth. When I now hear that word, I think of something much more profound, yet just as familiar; to make it brief, the majority of the cast and crew members I’ve met during that time were some of the best brothers/sisters I’ve never had. It was sad when it was over, but I smiled because it happened. That, and I also had another incredible summer to look forward to.
So I kept moving forward, and made it to another summer. I was involved in a production of Kiss Me Kate; I played Gremio, and was able to perform in a number called “Tom, Dick, or Harry”. While there were former cast members I missed dearly from Footloose, I was able to meet new people that I would eventually become lifelong friends with (one of them even writes for this blog. He knows who he is!). One awesome aspect about our production was that we had a rotating set, similar to how The Barricade was designed in earlier productions of Les Miserables. It’s a little complicated to explain, but I shall do my best: One side of the rotating set was backstage of “The Taming of the Shrew”, and the other side was where “The Taming of the Shrew” was being performed. The tech crew continually rotated the set with each scene, and it was quite an undertaking. More proof that those behind the stage are just as important as those performing on the stage. Overall, it was an experience I enjoyed just as much as I did with Footloose.
And then, one summer later, there was The Wiz.
I’ll put it like this: if the earlier two productions represented The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, then this easily represents The Return of the King. Hands down.
I was fortunate enough to have played The Tin Man during this experience, and let me tell you, out of all the performing experiences I’ve had within the past twelve years, this might easily land on top (with only Harvey and Godspell possibly rivaling it). It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced; there was laughter, there was yet another midnight experience at the movies (I may or may not have used a stick from the front yard as the Elder Wand), there was a toy balloon that was stuck attempting to fly to the end of backstage, only to have it eventually saved by Lori Brunette—or as we now call her: “SuperLori”. Most of all, there was love. We all came together like one big family during the whole experience. The entire cast and crew were in tears at closing night, although that could have been my fault considering my speech caused me to break down in front of everyone. Regardless, there was a strong case of separation anxiety coming from all of us; nobody wanted to leave, nobody wanted to forget, and nobody wanted to say goodbye.
Unfortunately, we had to.
In the early morning hours of November 12th, 2011, my father—who was responsible for directing Footloose, Kiss Me Kate, and The Wiz—died unexpectedly. It came as a shock to all of us who knew him, which made the adjustment all the more harder. His last production was You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, for which he produced the show while his good friend, Murry Philips, directed EHSYF alumni who played the major roles. In my opinion, it was the best possible way to go out for him; this was considered one of his passion projects from the very beginning, and it clearly showed. Why wouldn’t he fall in love with a message such as
“Happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you”?
We moved forward with the final EHSYF production before I headed off to college: Once on This Island. This production was directed by Valerie Nettleton, one of my Dad’s former students from Timothy Edwards Middle School, and I was fortunate enough to play Agwe, God of Water. I will not sugarcoat it; it was rather tough. We had to adjust to a lot of things that summer, and there was off-stage drama that was flying from left and right (some of it, admittedly, caused by me; I won’t get too technical here, but I did what I could to learn from my past mistakes).
Then, just a couple of weeks before the show opened, something amazing occurred. Most of the cast and I went bowling at Silver Lanes, and during that time, we sang “La Vie Boheme” from Rent a capella (I sang as Mark; probably one of the best days of my life). A moment like that would normally happen in the movies, but then again, this experience was anything but normal, and I mean that in the greatest way possible. At that moment, any grievances we had about the experience were gone. This was one of those moments when a community theater group came together and rebelled as a community.
Two weeks later, the show closes, and once again, we were all in tears by the end of it (not as brutal as The Wiz, but just as bittersweet). The last number of the musical—“Why We Tell The Story”—couldn’t have come across as more of a parallel to those who were parting ways for their college experiences, including myself. It reminded me that we all tell our stories not only to enlighten and broaden the minds of those we know and love; we tell these stories to remind ourselves of where we came from, what we have accomplished, and how our pasts can affect future generations for the better.
That, my friends, is why I chose theater over chores. Now excuse me while I go thank my mother over and over again.