ArtsLink: Connie, the Bridgeport Stage Crafters and Why Words Can be More Valuable than Money

By Jason Young on June 01, 2013 from A&E Blog via

I hate money. 
I hate what people will do to acquire it. I hate not having it. I hate how not having it makes people feel and behave. I hate that it is simultaneously the root of and motivator for almost every endeavor. I even hate the way it makes your fingers smell after you touch it.
When I proposed to my wife, I told her that with her desire to be a teacher and my desire to be an artist we could never promise each other riches. She knew that, and she knows that. But we work hard every day to cultivate riches in our relationship that aren’t solely dependent upon money, but it seems as the world spins on in its ever accelerating pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, our cultivations become harder and harder.
However, earlier this week, I met someone who told me the story of her treasures, and it gave me hope for myself and for the human condition.
Her name is Connie.
I was attending the Wilsonburg Lions Club meeting to speak about Vintage Theatre Company and our upcoming production of Golden Horseshoe.  Lately, I have been making the “circuit” of any civic organization that would host me to let them know about VTC and its vision and to invite them as a group to celebrate the Sesquicentennial with us at a performance of Golden Horseshoe. 
In an attempt at full disclosure, about an hour before the 6:30 p.m. meeting, I shared with my wife how tired I was and how much I was dreading another public “appearance.” Now, as I look back upon the happenings of that evening, I am so thankful that her response to me was simply, “Too bad.”
When we arrived at the meeting, my hesitance in going quickly turned into apprehension in staying as I worked myself through the room, shaking hands and sharing introductions. This was my sixth such speaking engagement in the last month, and all of them have had relatively the same crowd and the same atmosphere, but this was strikingly different. 
This gathering felt less like a cordial meeting and more like a family reunion. Folks were very jovial and even a little ornery. Most had come straight from work, blue-collar proud working jobs. I met a mechanic, a farmer, a state road worker, a teacher, and a nurse. Some even brought their children with them. I was very concerned that perhaps this crowd wasn’t going to be interested in what I had to say about theatre and our new musical, but I was already in the door and short of asking Sarah to fake labor pains, which no one would have believed anyway, we were stuck.
Meetings like this always start with a meal. Over the last month as a guest speaker, I have had a combination of free home-cooked and free restaurant-prepared meals. And just as the old saying goes, “Nothing fits better than a free t-shirt, and nothing tastes better than a free meal,” this particular potluck was quite tasty. 
Perhaps it is the United Methodist in me, but a comfy potluck may be my favorite type of gathering. It’s like going to an international buffet where the menu changes every night, and you are never surprised to find the oddest combinations of dishes sitting right next to each other on the table. They are also the only place where you run the risk of offending a fellow diner if you don’t at least try a spoonful of whatever they provided to the buffet.  Potlucks are truly extreme adventure dining. 
After the meal, I was given the opportunity to present my program. My apprehension for audience acceptance was quickly dispelled as I began to talk about my pride for West Virginia and my desire to build a company of West Virginia artists to create great art for a proud state. I was met with smiles and the nodding of heads. There truly is more that unites us than divides us, though we rarely act like it.
My program concluded, and the Club then moved quickly through its business items and adjourned the meeting. I always stick around to chat with people face-to-face and answer any questions anyone may have or to provide any further information they desire. At some meetings, folks have even made donations towards Golden Horseshoe, but it never fails that at every meeting my time gets monopolized by the most talkative individual in the room, and I never get to speak to as many people as I would have liked.
On this particular night, my monopolizer was Connie. 
Connie was the elder stateswoman of this Lions Club. In fact, at this very meeting she was given a twenty year membership pin, and in her acceptance speech she noted that at the young age of eighty, she had been involved in the club for much more than twenty years, but it was only in her sixtieth year that women were allowed to join. During my program, when I surveyed the group for theatre experience, she was the only one who raised her hand.
As we stood by the doorway to the kitchen watching others collect their dishes and head home, she told me about her involvement with the Bridgeport Stage Crafters, a community theatre guild that used to exist in our town. She told me about every role she ever played, and the very touching fact that she never performed in a single show that her husband, who has now passed away, didn’t also perform in. They would talk with the director before casting and ask that if one of them was going to be cast in a major role, that the other be cast in a minor role, so the one with lesser responsibility would be available to help and support the one with the greater responsibility. 
She shared how she was living at Maplewood now but still performing, traveling the halls of the assisted living area singing jazz standards and old country tunes to the residents. Then, she took a deep breath, let a smile stretch across her face, and told me the story that I simply can’t get out of my head. 
Years ago with the Bridgeport Stage Crafters, she was playing Mamma Rose in a production of Gypsy. One night the actor playing Gypsy Rose Lee, whose name Connie tried desperately to remember to no avail, had a mind meltdown and excused herself to the dressing room to make a costume change one scene too early, leaving Connie on-stage to maneuver through a two-person scene alone. She said that she panicked but then quickly improvised a monologue that was a hypothetical conversation between her and her daughter that contained all the things she would have said to her daughter had she actually made it to the stage and what she believed her daughter’s responses would be.  As she came off stage, her husband met her in the wings, threw his arms around her, and whispered in her ear, “You nailed it, kid.”
Connie then let out another heavy sigh, put her hand on my shoulder, and let another smile creep its way across her face as she repeated her husband’s words from so many years ago, “You nailed it, kid.” She told me that the memory of that moment was a treasure for her that she thought about every day.
The theatrical situation isn’t what astonishes me about this tale. Mistakes like this happen in live theatre all the time, even though most actors work very hard to prevent them. What astonishes me about Connie’s story is that in the midst of the panic of the moment she just experienced, at a time when her mind and her pulse were racing, and across decades, she remembers four words that her husband whispered in her ear in the dark coffers of an old theatre.
This is supposed to be an arts blog, but I am not sure it qualifies. Maybe the fact that Connie’s stories focused on her life in the theatre will be enough, but I doubt it. At this blog’s very best, it is a lament about priorities.
Sarah and I have embarked on another summer long Netflix journey. It won’t be nearly as epic as last year’s trip through LOST, but most nights this summer we plan on watching an episode of Arrested Development, starting with the pilot and concluding with the brand new finale. We do lots of silly things like this: like eating pizza together every Wednesday, to enhancing our monkey collection by marking every special occasion with a monkey gift, to spending hours agonizing over the perfect name for our new primates. 
I don’t know what Sarah’s treasured memory will be in fifty years when I am passed on, and she is left to her dotage. But I am certain that I know what she won’t remember: money. The time we spent pursuing it, worrying about it, arguing over how to spend it, or being excited when we came into a little bit more of it than we expected. Even though this topic dominates the lives of a lot of families, Connie taught me this week that things work out and we survive because the meaningful and eternal moments are what inevitably emblazon themselves on our memories and truly stand the test of time, and the trivial and benign struggles of life have a beautiful tendency to just serendipitously fade away.  

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