Twenty Years, Eternal Thanks // By Irene Carney
With Transport Group from Day One, Board Member Irene Carney reflects on 20 years of essential experiences.
“Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at ‘m very often…Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.”
Stage Manager, Act III, OUR TOWN
It is a challenge and a privilege to have this opportunity—While We’re STILL Home – to “take out” and “look at” my long friendship with Artistic Director Jack Cummings and relationship with the work of Transport Group. My friendship with Jack predates the founding of the company.
(I live in Jack’s hometown of Richmond, Virginia, where – for a period of years, Jack returned annually to direct productions at a regional theatre. It was our good fortune that our daughter Emma, who has single-mindedly pursued life as an actor since the age of 8, had the opportunity to work with Jack two years and running.)
My relationship with the company is from its inception. I joined Transport Group’s Board of Directors as it was being formed to govern this new, non-profit theatre, and have remained on the Board for the duration. I am so moved (and in some disbelief!) that we are in our 20th anniversary year!
On this date, 20 years ago, the company was in the final days of rehearsing our inaugural production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. While I wasn’t in the rehearsal room (or even in the city), I was tracking the preparations eagerly as my–by then–young, adolescent daughter Emma prepared to play the well-known, sometimes well-worn, part of the Stage Manager.
Emma’s and our family’s experience during the run of Our Town was unprecedented and ephemeral, unrepeatable. Emma’s experience was thoroughly informed by sharing the process with Jack, a director who trusted and respected her, and with a cast of serious, intelligent, generous actors, led by veterans Barbara Andres and Tom Ligon. I will never forget how those adults surrounded her with some measure of guidance and protection, but an even greater measure of professional regard and respect.
Our experience was one of enormous pride to see our child step up to the challenge of the role, and also of enormous gratitude to have that transformative experience take place in the context of such a powerful, beautiful production. The many Transport Group followers who did not have the good fortune to have seen this production, it having been the company’s first, will not be surprised to know that it was, for one thing, visually arresting. The cumulative impact of John Story’s set, Lee Kennedy’s lighting, and Kathryn Rohe’s costumes was an achievement of a clear and coherent aesthetic that elevated and heightened the language of the play. Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s score and music direction taught me to never again overlook or underestimate the critical thread, the heartbeat, being provided by the music and the musician. In the wake of 9/11, which had befallen us just five months before, the cast delivered, collectively, what amounted to a prayer—“We’re all together…Let’s look at each other,” as Emily Webb beseeches her mother on her return from her grave on the hill. It was an extraordinary time.
Our Town could so easily have been the Alpha and Omega of my Transport Group story. I assumed, at the time, that that would be the case. That was until I returned to The Connelly Theatre—a year after Our Town—for the company’s second show, Requiem for William, an evening of short plays by William Inge. My intention was to go to support Jack and to see some of the actors with whom Emma had worked the year before. My reaction was something quite other. As I watched one act after one act—enchanted by the beautiful design; transported, again, by the music; and fully engaged with each character and narrative—I named my observation and made a promise to myself. “This is important. This director, this vision, this company is important. The theatre needs this. We need this. I want to help.” Little did I understand what a gift I was giving to myself.
Over years of Board service with Transport Group, I’ve had the opportunity to witness from the wings as Jack, and his counterparts in leadership—co-Founder Robyn Hussa (2001 – 2006), Executive Directors Lori Fineman (2007 – 2019) and Denise Dickens (2019 – present)—have delivered first rate, often award-winning productions with a coherent sensibility and a consistent mission: to investigate and illuminate the human experience, as we have lived it and seen it in America, for better or worse.
As satisfying as that has been, it has also been impressive and rewarding to see the culture that the Transport Group Board and staff have developed over our first two decades. It is a culture that insists on curiosity and embraces disequilibrium. (As an educator, I have long believed that disequilibrium is the source of our deepest learning. I have loved reading the numerous essays in the “While We’re Home” series, in which artists of all stripes have spoken to that springboard in their Transport Group work, and to the safety that Jack and the culture of the company have afforded for valuing artistic intuition and supporting the artists’ risks.) The company ethos also breathes a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect. It has been such a privilege to witness, from the wings, the truth and beauty that can emerge from such a culture.
As a full-time school leader, living hundreds of miles from New York, one might say that I certainly didn’t need another commitment. But, as I reflect on 20 years with Transport Group—as I, in the Stage Manager’s words, “take’m out and look at ‘m”—I realize that I did need that commitment. I needed, as a buffer from the vicissitudes of life, the complexities of the world and the realities of my work, to be reminded, often, that “…something is eternal.” I can’t imagine a better source of that reminder than the beautiful, intimate work of Transport Group’s leaders and artists. I’m grateful, beyond measure, for these 20 years.
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