A Basement That Breathes // by Robyn Hussa Farrell
It’s the imperfect togetherness of the early days of TG that Co-Founder Robyn Hussa cherishes most, 20 years later.
There are several recurring snapshots in my mind that have gotten me through Covid – and the last 20 years of life. In particular, I have had a recurring dream … a “snapshot” … of the basement of The Connelly Theatre. Located in New York City on East 4th Street between Avenues A and B, The Connelly’s unfinished and un-prettied late 19th century basement was comprised of makeshift tables and chairs. An occasional music stand. A string of lights and peeling paint dripping from the walls, unapologetically. It is an unlikely setting for a recurring dream, and yet …
The Connelly was a respite and a kind of magical playground for all of us who started Transport Group. The camaraderie, the sharing of makeshift spaces under that stage together in our theatre family home. The rickety tables and chairs we cobbled together to create some semblance of “dressing room” safety. The friends and family in the audience—my parents and all of our relatives meeting us at Lavagna (the neighborhood Italian restaurant we frequented), then watching every show that we did there. My sister who would fly in from Milwaukee and patiently snap photos at 3 a.m., while we painted the stage floor back to black after strike.
Each time we rented the space, we went through various load-in rituals. I distinctly remember cleaning the toilets and prettying the bathroom like I had my own version of HGTV’s Love It or List It. The snapshot in my mind is—generally—“all of us” together: cast, crew, and tribe. Sitting, sharing in that dressing space, I recall how absolutely perfect it was, in its imperfection. The cacophony of nothingness was everything to me.
We had been planning on presenting Thornton Wilder’s Our Town for over two years. In the wake of 9/11, it was a strange time to be embarking on a show, yet an absolute necessity for all of us. “Now more than ever,” we said, “we need this play.” On the opening night in the winter of 2002, I remember the segue from the dressing area downstairs to standing in the wings. As always, I was—generally—terrified in anticipation. The unknowing.
I remember, specifically, Tom Ligon turned to me and said, “Allow yourself to have an experience.” There were two veteran actors in our company: Barbara Andres, cast as Emily and Tom Ligon, as George. Each were in their 60s, enabling us to explore time-honored themes in Wilder’s classic play through Jack Cummings’ (our director and my co-founder) new lens. Tom and Barbara each shared grace, wisdom, and a calming tone throughout our process. In this particular moment, Tom was mentoring me to let go of everything we had rehearsed and … trust. Have faith that we have done the work and allow everything now to transcend to another level.
And that’s what we did. We all did. We leaned into the safe space we created together. We trusted. Possibly ourselves, and definitely each other.
20 years later, I’m looking right now at two of our late set designer’s chairs from the show. John Story had been one of our professors at the University of Virginia. Like Lee Kennedy (our lighting designer) and Kathryn Rohe (our costume designer), we all stayed together as we segued to New York City and embarked on this journey called Transport Group. Each of John’s chairs was hand-painted by him. Referred to as the “Our Town chairs,” they now face me in my living room. Weathered from life and time, I have moved them from New York to South Carolina to California presently. They are textured by my dog’s teething marks on the bottom rung from when I first brought her home—shortly after my grandmother had passed away. The sight of the chairs and my dog’s teething marks propels me back. In an instant I am preparing for the show and asking my 93-year-old grandmother if she would ever aspire to be like Emily and choose to repeat a day of her life. Gram said, “No—it is too difficult. Life has been wonderful, but I wouldn’t want to relive any of it again.” And now I can see why.
Gram said that each day she woke up and saw the face of that 93-year-old woman looking back from the mirror. And each day it surprised her because—inside—she felt as if she were in her 30s, yet there’s an old woman looking back at her. Her comment wasn’t as much about aging, as it was about time. The central thesis of Our Town asks us if we are paying attention. Are we “having an experience” … are we noticing the tiny moments enough? Are we present?
Today, I’m 51. I wake up on the pillow wondering if this will be the day that I see that 93-year-old woman staring back in the mirror. Somehow 20 years has passed in seconds. A flash … and here we are.
And so, I ask myself the same question I posed to my grandma 20 years ago—would I want to relive any of it over again?
Close your eyes with me. Let’s go back and be together in that dressing room basement at The Connelly. Breathe in … smell the mustiness of the damp, winding corridor. Feel each piece as you attempt the jigsaw puzzle sitting there on the coffee table. Listen blissfully to the hum and buzz of actors in the dark space beyond. See the whirring dimmer board humming to a start. There is sweet 12-year-old Emma Orelove waiting in the wings, ready to lead us on our journey as The Stage Manager.
In the words of Thornton Wilder, she will soon tell us all, “I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young.”
I think of Emma, Tom, and Barbara … all of our friends and theatre family working together, designing, performing, and playing safely in the belly of The Connelly. I remember … I feel … Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s original score and composition. I feel the air of another planet when her first note is played. Underscoring our very inhalations and exhalations through music, it was all I could do to breathe some nights on stage. It was decadence. It was like nothing I have ever felt or known.
Mortality and quality of life have been front-of-mind during Covid and, although the snapshots and moments of truth extend far beyond this article, for me Transport Group was never “just” a theatre or theatre company. It was and is the safe space from which we could all take risks. We could try things, learn about ourselves, screw up, breathe in, and muster the courage to allow ourselves to have a genuine experience. To get out of our own way long enough to listen and respond. To allow ourselves to create something greater than all of us. To experience presence … with and for each other.
To love. With our entire being. As if our lives depended on it.
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