“Only connect…live in fragments no longer.” These words, penned over a century ago in E.M. Forster’s brilliant Howard’s End, remain just relevant today when the word seems to have been stripped of any genuine meaning. Oh we use it plenty every day in our work and our social lives: “Let’s connect soon.” “Can we connect about that later on?” “Oh I know her/him, we’re connected on LinkedIn.” But are we really connecting or are we all still just searching? In Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant and unsettling musical Assassins, (a production of which I currently have the good fortune to be a part) the final rallying cry of the disenfranchised and infamous cast of characters is an increasingly frantic and violent “Connect! Connect! Connect!” as they point their guns at the audience. That feeling of belonging, of being a part of something, of connecting with another person, of being heard, of mattering can be frustrating in its elusiveness, yet powerful and intoxicating when we find it. Whether we are soldiers serving together, teammates on the basketball court or baseball field, sorority sisters, or cast mates in a play, the memory of that connection stays with us. It reminds us that for a brief moment in time we were there, together, and part of something bigger than the sum of its parts.
That longing for connection runs deep in my life, as that girl on the outside looking in as my childhood friends formed bonds and social connections that baffled me. I remember one summer driving over the bridge from our island home to get ice cream with my family and finding nearly every girl from my 5th grade class in the local dairy queen in various softball team uniforms. Not that I was remotely athletic but I will never forget how envious I was of them for belonging to something, for sharing an experience, and how angry I was that my dear parents, so much older than my friends moms and dads, had no idea that there even was such a thing as softball sign-ups in my hometown, let alone how to get me involved. I spent the rest of my school years in Falmouth trying desperately to connect, and belong and failing pretty miserably. I performed with local theaters and in school plays in a town that prized its athletes and scholars above all else. It wasn’t until my first days “on the hill” as a freshman at Holy Cross led me to the Theater Department and finally I had my home and my place of belonging. Even when I wasn’t waiting for a class or rehearsal to begin, you could find me in the theater department green room (prompting one of my puzzled apartment-mates to ask ‘you just hang out there?’) or in the costume shop where my work study job kept me busy and in the middle of every show, even if I was not part of the cast. I remember one particularly demanding show for the costume staff that required us to work through most of a weekend. The costume designer treated us all to Chinese food Saturday evening and we dined in the acting studio seated around a block draped with a prop tablecloth. That moment was in 1985, twenty-six years ago when I was only 19, and I can still recall the pressing in my chest that was almost suffocating in its intensity. This was what belonging felt like and I wanted that feeling to never end.
That need to connect is what kept me performing, looking for those moments to lock eyes with another actor and really feel the world fall away ‘til it was only me and my scene partner that mattered. In my twenties I was horrible at this, awkward and self conscious and without the life experience to really understand what it meant to open myself up on stage. In my thirties I skirted around it, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not, but mostly playing at the emotion, still unable to fully allow myself to trust that my attempts to connect with another onstage would be returned. Inside I was still that shy weird fat kid that was never included and I didn’t trust that it wouldn’t be that way on stage as well. When I returned to acting in my 40s after a decade away raising my daughter and going through a divorce and coming out I found things had changed. By this time I had found my place and my voice in the world and I was surprised to find that carried over to my acting as well. Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m still self conscious about my body and my age and my talent (or lack thereof!) and costume fittings and photos are enough to send my admitted anxiety skyrocketing. But my coming out had done something transformative to my acting – it had taught me that there was a place I belonged, and the love of my wife had shown me for the first time in my life that I mattered, and that I was beautiful (even if only to her). And for the first time I found I had indeed ceased living in fragments and I was connecting on stage in a way I’d never been able to before. Now, I’m really not all that talented an actor, and I have so much still to learn, but in the past several years I’ve been fortunate to have had generous scene partners whose talent humbles and challenges me and the moments I’ve spent on stage with them are among the finest in my life. And as true as it was in my twenties the intoxicating feeling of belonging that comes over me when I’m blessed to work with a dedicated cast of actors never fails to ground me, and anchor me to something greater than myself, and in so many ways has helped close that chasm left by the deaths of my parents and my sister.
This year marked Liza’s fifth full year participating in the programs, classes, camps, and shows at the Acting Loft where we are both privileged to perform. ( check them out at www.actingloft.org! ) And for the entire year, our life was defined by the rhythms of auditions, rehearsals, tech weeks, and set strikes. I watched her transform into a young actor and take her first tentative steps toward truly opening up and connecting onstage and off. Last week after spending seven straight days with me during tech week and opening weekend of “Assassins” she told me she “just wanted to be at the Loft all the time”.. it was her “best place ever.” And I felt again that pressing in my chest as I realized I was watching her find at twelve what I had to wait much longer to find… that she belonged, that she mattered, and that she was connected.
I was once told years ago that the “problem with me” was that I spent too much time “out there” with “other people” by someone who was naturally more reserved and reclusive. While the words stung, I understood. I was constantly searching for that place I belonged and the people I belonged with, and to someone who was happier alone it seemed an odd and puzzling quest. It’s risky to let down that guard. It’s risky to reach out. It’s scary to truly look someone in the eye. It’s daunting to reveal who we are – whether in our daily lives, on stage, on the playing field, or in a social gathering – and it’s much safer to “live in fragments.”
But it’s much richer to connect… only connect.
Connect. Connect. Connect…
Photo note: this photo is from the production of “Assassins” I’m currently appearing in and features a moment of connection on stage that I cherish. Photo by Haylie Zebrowski.