A Message from Kenn


There is a song playing in my head somewhat distant and soft. Images of 2020 light like fire before me. And my fingers type away trying to capture the fading smoke... 

My family story is that of a very traditional Irish Catholic early 20th century immigrant family with seven children—all boys; the breadwinning father, the stay-at-home mother, the Catholic schools. But by the time I was six years old, my father—riddled with asbestosis from decades in the building trades—fell seriously ill and my mother became the sole source of income for our home.

Unskilled in anything beyond “homemaking”, with no driver’s license or professional training, she began her work-life at 38 years old running the cash register at our local grocery store. Even greater hardships followed with the death of my 17-year-old brother just a short time later.  I am finally at an age where I have some perspective on this and other parts of my youth, and I am of the mind that my parents were two of the most remarkable humans I have known. And I assure you they both have dropped their heavenly harps to see me reach this conclusion.

I intended this writing as a reflection on this last year but my musings led me much farther beyond the parenthesis of time that frames January and December.  Perhaps you, too, experience this phenomenon now—time no longer feels as it once felt; time is more fluid, less distinguished—a river rather than a road. Where once I was squeezed my daily life through 10 work-filled waking hours, I now move through my days with more reflection and mindfulness, more consideration, more stillness. I didn’t ask to slow down—none of us did—but I stand among the fortunate forced to pause when the world grew ill.

And I take the moment here to note the heroes of this year who have never once slowed their pace but rather accelerated their walk in life so that we—all of us who benefit from the care and toil of others—could survive this plague. I reflect. I think of them first—healthcare workers, those in public safety, the woman at the grocery store—who have kept this world alive by the labor of their hands and the commitments of their hearts. You many who will go to history unnamed have saved the entirety of the world by simply doing your work every day. I write of you in gratitude.

This year began with celebration beyond my wildest imaginings. Burned into my soul is the image of our lobby at The Gordy—the public space of our beautiful new building—packed with people, people lined up outside unable to get through the door, people cheering as we cut the ribbon and launched Stages into the future. Seven weeks later I walked the same space now empty as my steps sent lonely echoes across an acre of still concrete. I sat silent and wept beside our empty platforms. I shivered at the prospect of what was yet to come. And I prayed, too.

The set of The Fantasticks holding space untended. The unfinished shell of Sensitive Guys with four arches to mark the grandiosity of institutions. The laundromat in teal green with string lights hung above. All of it wrapped in dust and quiet. And soon a staff meeting on Zoom. I have rarely been more wrung with emotion than the day we faced—it was Zoom so we LITERALLY faced—each other as a company for the first time since we shut the theater down on March 12.

Stages' Managing Director Mark Folkes and I decided that the first thing we would do in the meeting was give space so every member of the staff could express what they felt at that moment. For hours, the fragile family of Stages shared. Anxiety, pain, tears, fear, hope, terror, silence, silence, heartbeat, heart, story. I remember very clearly thinking that if this was the only moment I would ever have again, it was enough. In the shattered world that was the story of Stages in 2020, the one true thing—the people—held on. To each other.

Long delayed, oft denied, an American reckoning with the specter of racism gained unprecedented force and inspirational zeal in early summer. By summer’s end the aspiration that a full and inclusive human community could be gathered became an operational imperative for our company. It is one thing to say you care, but it is another thing entirely to act upon your care and love of others. The walk to manifest our highest hopes of a full human community gained great strength this year. I think we are yet toddlers. But we are standing up and we are staying up.

By fall our theaters were broadcast studios, our work product delivered in bytes and streams. Stories written to be shared live were captured, frozen in time, and sent into thousands of private rooms. We met on The Gordy parking garage roof, we made a cabaret in the lobby, we used Zoom, YouTube, Streamyard, Facebook, Overture, Chrome, Safari, and Microsoft to reach you, we made a live TV show, we recorded two radio plays, and we filmed a movie. The full staff met every other week to study and respond to the seminal demand letter from We See You White American Theater, and we learned surviving and thriving, to quote our own Austin Abernathy.

We stood on the foundation of care and hope built by so many others around us. And we stood tall.

Once, when I was in fourth grade, I wore a pair of blue-striped bell bottoms handed down to me from someone at our church. I added to my look by wearing a pair of my teenaged brother’s platform shoes that were five sizes too big for me. They were black and shiny and I had stuffed them with paper bags to make them stay on. I looked totally original. I felt amazing. I entered the school with pride. I was mocked incessantly that day. I don’t know exactly why that story or my family story fired up as I write this but I do know that one bad moment, one tough year, does not define the whole of the world for any of us.

All that is behind us lives forever in story. All that is before us comes to pass through our works. I won’t let 2020 be consigned to history as a stain in the log of my lived experience. Like the strange day I wore bell bottoms and big shoes, 2020 has been both painful and remarkable. Personally, I plan to look back on it and reach more for its joy. I am privileged to do so—I have lost no one near me to this plague. I lost countless of my dear friends to an earlier plague so maybe the universe was being fair. Probably just dumb luck.

Or maybe Mom and Dad became my angels and protect me. They most certainly were when they lived alongside me. I didn’t see them like that then. I didn’t really see who they were at all. I saw me, my life, and my stuff. If 2020 has taught me one thing, it is to look at those around me. And to see the angels.

And there are so many angels to see if you shift your perspective and open your eyes.

To all of you who have held us up all year—thank you. The stewardship of this theater has been in great care from all who have given to support us and all who continue to do so. And lest you think me shy—a gift to Stages, no matter the amount, brings us strength and joy always.

Goodbye 2020. Thank you for all you have taught us. Imperfect as you were, you were our time for a short time.

The song is clear now. I sit back and listen for it—a lullaby about counting blessings instead of sheep. And before me is a bright fire in our chimenea—it amazes me how one little log can be so bright and warm.

Happy New Year, dear friends. See you in 2021. Until then, I wish you much peace,
Kenn McLaughlin                                             
Artistic Director