Poetry for Southern California
The main thing about Steve Connell is his spirit. That spirit has infused all his work. On stage in his poetry persona, it is one of unbending light, questing for humanity’s greatness amidst its rubble. In 40 DAYS, Connell does something very few would dare to do: he goes underneath his own persona to see what makes it tick. This is a courageous act and he does it with death-defying grace and an energy that would light up a New York City August blackout.
Call it hubris. Taking on the laden image of 40 days — from the Flood to Moses on the mountaintop to Jesus’ bout with Satan — Connell has given his little writer’s struggle a framework of biblical proportions. So what. From Greek tragedy to Luis Alfaro’s retelling of Electra the geometry of scale benefits theatre. Shakespeare’s works about humanity’s minute invisible dilemmas were almost always set against the largest framework he dared from the gentry to royalty.
So here we are, with a writer in a room, facing the struggle to tell his story. The story of another white, perhaps privileged son of America. In a sea of one- and two-person shows about struggle, about gender politics, about anti-war rhetoric, about art as a cruel mistress, about racial identity and its attendant infinite politics, who cares? He does.
The thing you know about Steve Connell if you’ve ever seen him perform is this: he really cares. By extension, so does the audience. Often only for 3 minutes in a poetry slam, but at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, for close to two hours, the audience cared enough to listen with their hearts to what he was putting forth.
What does Connell bring to the table — literally, the set is basically a desk, a chair and a few props that look leftover from a stage crew, but come in handy — that makes people listen attentively?
He starts with about 200% of himself. I have rarely seen a theatre artist have such mastery over his own energy and physicality. Connell’s UCLA training stands him in good stead to change gears on a dime, to modulate his voice and pitch for exactly the right affect and to endure the brutality of the ritual he puts himself through on stage. Director Kristin Hanggi sculpts the night handily, using all of Connell’s gangly lankiness to full advantage, keeping the entire stage in play while still creating moments of tightly-focused intensity, and carefully coaxing visual and physical elements into a storytelling idiom which often only stubbornly lends itself to theatricality.
Then there are the words. Steve Connell is in the business of words, it would seem. His body and voice used as their instrument. Maybe this isn’t how he came to it, but this is how it has turned out. He has a gift for the inspiring that isn’t insulting, for the wrenching that isn’t sentimental, for the questing for truth that doesn’t lay blame. In a theatre and poetry scene often dominated by the search-and-destroy formula which celebrates victim status, Connell is a refreshing antidote. His candor allows him to show strength and weakness, exploiting both for the connective tissue that binds the audience to him:
Sometimes I think I want to fight for justice.
Other times I think I don’t want to get shot…
Sometimes I am determined to make the world better.
Other times I am determined to sleep late.
This is universal — Connell is inclusive — but it never descends into cliché or cloying. Connell has the ability to make words beautiful and to make the real and pressing into elegant abstraction:
no pretenses of greatness
I am propelled by the ordinary I hate this
The deliberate slowness of weightlessness.
His writing has a maturity not often in evidence in our popular culture, and wears its references lightly and feels artful while never truly leaving the realm of mainstream entertainment.
Entertaining is Connell’s big dilemma, in fact; his persona and his self-imposed need to please is one of the show’s central themes. Interspersed between the journal entries that serve to bind the show together, desperate musings on the state of the world and bouts of his stellar poetry, are the dying embers of his stand-up comedy routine. “I have lived inside the dream of being funny for so long that the reality of not being funny scares the shit out of me,” he says. The comic bits are used cleverly to alleviate the audience’s stress at listening to its own darkest fears, although in some cases stand out as his underestimation of his own power as a performer and his confidence in the material. He does not need to be funny quite as often as he thinks he does, but then, this is reflective of the theme itself.
Connell spares no one in his self-dissection. He looks under his 5-year-old bed to find the demons of a lifetime and brings them out, dresses them up and parades them until you see yourself in their mirror. Tough luck if you were just out for a fun night at the theatre. Straw to gold, in his words, if you were hoping for catharsis, something we used to go to the theatre to achieve back in the day, say 400 B.C.
I love Steve Connell’s spirit. The show could be a bit shorter, and in this one night stand the lighting and sound cues challenged this inveterate improviser’s ability to stay on target. Yet what comes across, what makes the buzz in the lobby of the theatre after the show is most definitely his spirit. It is his willingness to cast his own personal struggle in the light of everyone’s struggle — from Hitler to MLK to the guy in the aisle seat in row 3 — and then to actually pay off on his promise to show you that we are in fact all connected that lights the stage.
He vows to go into himself all the way and does, touching on our responsibility as citizens — something he probably delved deeply into while on the Declare Yourself tour — embarrassing his parents and girlfriend, taking all the skeletons out a day at a time until he can swear he faced his own version of Satan. He even has the courage to admit his own responsibility for happiness:
are the moments that define us.
It’s not about is there light or is there dark.
It’s about what you surround yourself with.
Sometimes light will fight to be with you.
Sometimes you have to fight to be with light.
It’s a relationship.
Now this is rare.