August 15, 2016

Meet Andrew Connelly, Straw Dog’s First Scholarship Recipient

by Becky Jones

Andrew ConnellyAndrew Connelly was chosen by his teachers at the Easthampton High School as the recipient of the first Straw Dog Writers Guild Scholarship given to a senior with a promising future in writing. Andrew is soon heading off to Fordham University’s NYC campus across from Lincoln Center, to pursue his passion in theatre, especially set production.

Since he entered junior high, Andrew has been involved in set design, lighting, and the Drama Club (including as president for two years), and he does it all with passion, humor, intelligence, and creativity. The Drama Club hosted a 24-hour playwriting and production event last year, and Andrew provided the writing prompts, stayed up all night to co-write a play, and acted in another play. His college essay focused on making Broadway plays accessible to a wider audience through telebroadcasting, as Andrew believes more people will make the effort to attend plays if they can see them affordably ahead of time, and that actors as artists will appreciate having a wider audience see their work.

Andrew lives this value of inclusion. He appreciates his family because of their ethic of working things out together based on respecting each other’s unique contribution. He looks up to his drama and art teacher Amy Davis not only because of her talent, creativity, and spontaneity but also because of her ability to see the good in others. In Andrew’s words, “I wish I could mimic that trait,” and he does. In his graduation speech, inspired by the question “What is a legacy?” from the Broadway musical Hamilton, Andrew named the legacies his classmates leave behind in the memories he carries of them. “I didn’t want it to be a shout-out to my friends, so I made sure to include people I don’t know as well. But then I didn’t want to leave anyone out, so I used a twitter account to write something about every single student in my class [over 100], even those I don’t know too well or have had some negative experiences with in the past.” He said he was chosen to be the class speaker not only because he’s class valedictorian but also because Andrew pays attention. Clearly, if he could give a detailed memory about every student, he’s been paying attention.

The youngest of three sons, Andrew has grown up in a family of readers and theater-lovers. His two older brothers were in the EHS Drama Club before him, so “I grew up in it.” His mom headed the organization that ran the shows, was band booster and frequently took her sons to theatre. Andrew’s oldest brother worked at the library, and his next oldest brother was such an avid reader that the children’s librarian asked him what books he was reading so she’d know what great books to order for the library. Andrew spent so much time there that he didn’t need his library card to check out books.

When I asked Andrew to name a favorite book from any period of his life, his face lit up. He most remembers Gingerbread Man and Make Way for Ducklings because he read them over and over and over again. When I set about to take his photo, we decided to take it in front of the Make Way for Ducklings print on the wall behind him, the backdrop to our hour-long conversation. It was Andrew’s idea to enhance the photo by holding the actual book, so he searched through the large supply of kids’ books on hand because he and his mom regularly care for his young nephews. He couldn’t find it then, but by the time I got home there was an e-mail from Andrew with the photo above.

Now an older reader, he’s getting into Shakespeare. Andrew was thrilled to get the complete works of Shakespeare at the library book sale where he volunteered and admitted, “I have a book-buying problem.” He’s seen a bunch of Shakespeare this summer and loves the way the written words come to life. Andrew enjoys seeing different productions of the same play because “you can see different interpretations and aspects of characters. I love that Shakespeare’s plays lend themselves to be adapted to different times.”

Andrew's set designLast summer Andrew spent five weeks in a program in set production and art at the Savannah College of Art and Design, learning more of the craft of bringing theatre to life. He made a series of 3-D set designs for song and theatre as well as fabric and costuming sketches. At SCAD, Andrew began to see himself having the artistry and creativity that I could so clearly see.

Andrew mulls ideas in his head. “I’m probably writing speeches, never to be delivered, all of the time,” he said. His writing inspiration often comes late at night. He doesn’t mind if his thoughts aren’t organized at this point but tends to pay attention to grammar and having complete sentences right from the start. Later (by which he doesn’t mean that same night) he edits and reorganizes his thoughts. There’s a sample of his writing at the end of this article.

Since his passion is about the three-dimensional aspect of theatre, both Andrew and I were curious about why his teachers chose him for this writing scholarship. While he is not yet a playwright, novelist or poet, Andrew is clearly a writer even when he’s talking. He’s articulate, choosing his words carefully and thoughtfully. He’s a prolific reader, puts his heart into his original writing, and has found a life passion, “which is also the passion of a writer.” He continued, “Theatre is about making literature come alive. Both theatre creators and writers seek to do the same thing, which is to tell a story, and in that sense we share that objective even if our means are different.”

Andrew is engaging, funny, literate, and earnest. He earned this scholarship because of his passion, enthusiasm, and attentiveness, and he happens to be one smart human being who also enjoys making music with his clarinet and guitar (he had to return the baritone sax to the school), searching for old vinyl records, and baking and cooking, taking after his father who was once a chef.

From Andrew’s college essay on making Broadway more widely accessible:

There has to be a way for a kid striving to understand himself, to hear the stories of relatable and diverse characters
. . . . Theatre is one of the greatest human creations. It takes the talents of dancers, actors, musicians, and technicians and combines them into a spectacular show. Theatre gives a voice to its artists, who use it to share their world with audiences. I cannot think of one reason why an artist would not want their world shared with as many people as possible. Therefore, I believe in accessible theatre. Because those worlds not only entertain people; they save people. Theatre has a message and that needs to be shared.

Becky by Carol DukeBecky Jones has had her fiction and poetry published in Peregrine, Patchwork Journal, and The Cancer Poetry Project 2. She is at work on a collection of essays about her former work as a hospital chaplain and her journeys through cancer and loss. She leads bereavement writing groups in the community and has a small counseling practice. She volunteers for Cancer Connection and Straw Dog Writers Guild and is an active member of the Northampton Friends Meeting (Quakers).

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