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Katie Scarvey, Lifestyle Editor, 704-797-4270

SUNDAY March 28, 2010



It could have been any of them


‘We just acted out my life ...’

Drama workshop participant Terry Jeffery pretends to put Leland Nelson asleep during an improvisation exercise at Park Avenue United Methodist Church last Friday.

Michael Connor’s New Tomorrows drama workshop taps into shelter guests’ creativity — and gives them confidence B Y K ATIE S CARVEY

Leland Nelson wasn’t really sure what to expect last Friday morning when he took the stage with five other people in the basement of Park Avenue United Methodist Church. He probably didn’t expect to be reciting crazy rhymes: “I knew a man from Arkansas who ate a rock that broke his jaw. ‘What do you think,’ he said with a grin, ‘Perhaps it’s best to eat them raw.’” After that particular exercise, Nelson turned to the group leader Michael Connor and laughed. “You know I’m from Arkansas, right?” he asked. A shelter guest at Rowan Helping Ministries, Nelson was taking part for the first time in a drama workshop held at the church several times a week. The workshop is led by Connor, who is a professor of theatre arts at Livingstone College — and a former professional actor and director who has appeared in movies including “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Taxi.” The drama workshop is part of New Tomorrows, a year-old partnership between Rowan Helping Ministries and Park Avenue UMC that helps the homeless become self-sufficient. Connor began leading the drama sessions in January. An outsider might wonder how theatre improvisation could possibly give life skills to the homeless, but those shelter guests who take part believe it has helped them. Plus, it’s simply fun, they say, a time of exploration and play that is relaxing and invigorating. Connor began the morning session with some vocalization exercises. “Cucka-cucka-cuckacucka. “Wooooo-Woooooo!” Following that was an exercise that involved stomping and clapping. Then it was time for some tongue twisting, involving Betty, bits of but-

“People have certain creative abilities that they use every day and don’t know they’re using. You just have to bring them out.” MICHAEL CONNOR Theatre arts professor at Livingstone College and leader of a New Tomorrows drama workshop

The sessions have helped him gain confidence, he says. “It makes you realize you’ve got to believe in yourself.” By the end of his first session, Nelson was a believer as well. Nervous at first, he said he warmed up to the exercises. “It’s all about taking chances,” he says. “And not just here.” It was also the first time for Clark, who’s from China Grove. “I was nervous, but after I got going, I was OK,” she said. “I went with it.” David Abbott, who has been coming to the sessions regularly, says he enjoys improvisation — though he admits he’d never heard of the concept before Connor introduced it. “It helps with your learning skills,” he says. Plus, Abbot adds, “It’s fun.” He gives Connor the credit for that. Abbott appeared to be enjoying himself during an animal sounds portion of the morning. His rendition of a strutting, crowing rooster provoked applause from the few people in the audience. After Friday’s session was over, Leland reflected on it. “I was into it,” he says, “but not at first.” “When I was in high school, I always wanted to do stuff like this. I’ve alMichael Connor, right, interacts with workshop members, ways been shy.” Troy Honeycutt says he including, left to right, Leland Nelson, Terry Jeffery, Shelenjoys participating in the by Carr and Troy Honeycutt. improv. But he also appre-

ter and batter. Things got a little more serious after warm-ups when Connor gave the group a scene to act out. It had to do with a woman who has just discovered that her son’s biological father is not the man who raised him but another man who hasn’t been a part of their lives.” Shelby Clark — who is a parent herself — played the mother. Nelson took on the role of her son in the scene. It hit pretty close to home with him. “We just acted out my life,” he said. “I was raised by my stepfather,” he explained. “My father wanted to be there but my mom wouldn’t let him.” After the improv session was over, Nelson gave Connor some more details of his own life story. “This is what stories and plays are built on,” Connor

told him. “I could write a play based on what you just told me.” And, in fact, Connor has written a play based on at least some material that he gathered during the workshop sessions with the shelter residents — although he used poetic license, he says. The play, “Seven to Seven,” is about the plight of the homeless, and was performed recently at Livingstone College. Connor wants to draw attention to the problem of homelessness through the play. “It helps open a dialogue in the community,” he says. “These people are not invisible.” Terry Jeffery, who has been coming to to the workshops for a while, says that he’s become more outgoing because of them. “I was, like, in the shell,” he says. “I wouldn’t talk at all.”

ciates Connor performing for them. Connor has presented the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. Connor understands how to draw creativity out of people, even if they may initially be reluctant. “People have certain creative abilities that they use every day and don’t know they’re using,” he said. “You just have to bring them out.” Connor enjoys his sessions at Park Avenue UMC. “I’m making a difference in their lives,” he says, “and by doing that, I’m making a difference in my life as well.” One surprising moment for Connor came when he was showing the group the movie “The Color Purple.” Connor, who has been a professional actor, appears in the film. One woman, he says, would typically not participate in the group; she would sit, all curled up and everyone would think she was falling asleep, he said. But during “The Color Purple,” they were all shocked when she began to spout the movie’s dialogue — before it had been said on screen. As it turned out, she knew the movie well — it was her favorite film, she said. Connor is often surprised by what comes out of the sessions, which, he’s convinced, help build bridges. “We’re all part of humanity, he says.”

It could have been any of them. It could have been any one of the competitive cyclists who spend hours on North Carolina roads and highways, stretches of pavement that motorists are required to share but often don’t. It could have been Suzanne’s Ryan. Sarah’s Bret. Sonja’s John. Laura’s Derek. It could have been my Charlie. But it was Melissa’s Adam. Adam Little, a guy who loved to ride his bike so much that he was commuting on it from his home in Mount Pleasant to his job in Charlotte when a motorist struck and EMILY killed him on FORD St. Patrick’s Day in Concord. At the funeral, hundreds of North Carolina and South Carolina cyclists filled the pews, standing two and three deep around the chapel and spilling out into the hallway. Many had arrived with gleaming carbon fiber bicycles perched on top of their vehicles. Many had raced that morning, changing into suits and ties at the funeral home, pinning black and orange ribbons to their lapels in Adam’s memory. It could have been any one of them, and they knew it. They’ve all been honked at, cursed at, buzzed by angry motorists. They’ve all had near misses. And it could have been any one of us as well, the ones who stay home during the long rides. Any one of us, rushing to the hospital, hearing the unthinkable, suddenly planning a funeral when we should have been planning a life together. But it was Melissa, mourning the loss of her high school sweetheart and father of their two children, delivering the most brave, insightful and loving eulogy I’ve ever heard. I wish I’d known Adam. His wife, teammates and friends described a hilarious, hard-working 35-year-old who was fanatical about his bike and his kids. He always ordered the most obscure item on the menu. He forgot his cycling shoes for a 30mile ride through the desert and wore leather boots instead. He sustained himself and a friend on a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter during a 26hour drive halfway across the country. He laughed when a supervisor asked if he could weed whack a section of trail at a Cabarrus County park by the end of the day. Along with his future brother-in-law and a bag of candy corn, Adam trimmed the entire 26-mile trail in one day while jogging. Most of the cyclists at the funeral raced against Adam, not with him. But team rivalries meant nothing that day as cyclists faced the tragic result of a universal risk they take every time they ride. Adam died after a 24-yearold woman struck him while driving on N.C. 49. Cyclists were shocked to learn that she was charged with misdemeanor, not felony, death by vehicle. Rumors circulated that it had been a hit and run. But Cabarrus County District Attorney Roxann Vaneekhoven said she has no evidence that the driver left the scene. As for the misdemeanor, the DA’s office will consider upgrading the charge when police finish the investigation. In a split second, Melissa’s Adam was gone. When you encounter a cyclist on the road, please be patient. Be alert. Pay attention. If you don’t, your actions could kill someone. Contact Emily Ford at

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