All Over Creation: Acknowledged Gains
When we honor the living, we all get something out of it
Last week's column was about recognizing the achievements of friends when they've passed. This week's is about recognizing the achievements of friends while they're still among us.
You can't always trust theatre people to be up by 10:30am on a weekend, much less presentable in public, but at that hour last Saturday, the Z'Tejas banquet room was filled with actors, artistic directors, stage managers, and designers (plus some riffraff from the newspaper game), all as chipper as you please. And how could they not be? They had the opportunity to show their respect and affection for one of Austin theatre's dearest and most devoted members, Connie McMillan.
If that name doesn't ring any bells, not to worry. You won't have seen her onstage (unless you happened to catch a production of Die Fledermaus at the University of Texas some 40 years ago), and you won't find her name in a program among the designers or technicians. Where you will find her name in a program is with the people who contribute to the companies that produce plays. And if you see much theatre at all, you'll have seen her in the house, because she goes to see damn near everything slapped up on a stage here and has for the more than 40 years that she's lived in Austin. She's the 4-foot-short, bespectacled gal with the silver hair and the smile that stretches from here to Lubbock (her hometown, from which she escaped after getting two degrees from Texas Tech). And while she's remarkably cheery almost all the time, the smile you'll see on her in the theatre is because she's in the theatre, her favorite place to be.
Connie – forgive my familiarity, but I've known her too long to follow journalistic convention and call her strictly by her surname – was receiving a rare honor from the Actors' Equity Association Western Regional Board: the Lucy Jordan Humanitarian Award. Named for a field representative who not only worked with union members but also often served as their adviser, confidante, and friend, the award is presented to individuals "who demonstrate a lifetime commitment to the theatre and, especially, helping other theatre artists."
Add together Connie's 23 years as box office manager at the UT Performing Arts Center, a dozen years and counting as an administrator in the office of the University Interscholastic League One-Act Play Contest; multiple seasons on the B. Iden Payne Theatre Awards nominating committee, as well as describing live performances for patrons with vision impairments; and, of course, four decades of attending more productions than even the critics and supporting all those theatre makers, and you have, without question, a lifetime commitment both to the form and to helping its artists and patrons. It was a joy listening to actors Ann Armstrong, Richard Craig, Tom Parker, and Mike Sullivan; actor and UT theatre professor Lucien Douglas; Austin Shakespeare Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella; and director/actor/stage manager Robert Tolaro, who nominated Connie for the award, pay tribute to her devotion and beneficence. Summing up my own admiration for Connie's generosity, fairness, and openness to experience, I said: "It's hard for me to think of a better friend to the theatre in Austin than Connie McMillan."
Accepting the award, Connie recalled a conversation with her old friend Paul Beutel in which she wished we could have our funerals before we die so we could hear the lovely things people say about us. Hearing the testimonials in support of her nomination, she felt she'd gotten her wish. I'm glad about that, and glad that I and others got to publicly proclaim Connie's achievements. But that recognition felt different than the kind offered after someone's death, which, as I stated last week, provides comfort in the face of loss through a sense of the individual accomplishments and community progress that occurred in the person's lifetime. When that person is still alive, the acknowledgment of achievement provides inspiration, a vision of commitment that's ongoing. The simple shift to present tense – not who this person was, but who this person is – rouses us, adds momentum to the work we do. When the living are honored, they gain the satisfaction of knowing their efforts are valued, but the rest of us get something, too: a renewed sense of purpose to push forward, to do more.