The Players stagehand Larry Connatser became involved at the theater in spring 2011, when he and actor Doug Nelson started dating.
Nelson’s previous relationship had ended because of his commitment to theater: daily rehearsals from 7 to 10 p.m.; weekend rehearsals; and month-long runs of performances. Naturally, Nelson was nervous Connatser would also be scared off by his hectic schedule, so he introduced him to his Players family from the start of the relationship.
“Dating” in the couple’s early days involved Connatser sitting in on rehearsals of “Over the Tavern.” Director Kelly Woodland cast Nelson as the lead role, Chet Pazinski. Connatser attended rehearsals daily and, then, a few weeks later, Nelson put him to work backstage.
“I had no interest in theater until I met Doug,” he says. But Connatser fell fast in love with volunteering backstage — and with Nelson.
While Nelson was performing, Connatser set the stage; placed props; changed the set; and moved it off stage after the show. Connatser says 90% of running backstage is common sense; the other 10% is technical. He learned along the way.
“I only told him I’d get involved in the theater to keep seeing him,” Connatser chuckles. “It turned out to be a little joke until he realized I was actually committed.”
It’s common at The Players that one member in a relationship acts on stage, and the other backstage. It’s also common for friendships among the casts and crew to develop: Nelson’s five years acting there exemplify this. His theater friends quickly welcomed Connatser.
When Nelson was cast in “The Full Monty” in April 2012, Connatser willingly joined the backstage crew.
Early into “Full Monty” rehearsals, doctors diagnosed Nelson with throat cancer, and he had to step down — but he encouraged Connatser to continue volunteering. When Connatser would get home from the theater around midnight, he cared for Nelson.
“Full Monty” is Connatser’s favorite production because of the cast’s chemistry.
“(We) still get together once a month a year after it ended — that’s the neat part about it,” he says.
He mentions five individuals he has grown close with in particular: Tim Fitzgerald, Dennis Paquin, Brooke Wagstaff, Michael Newton-Brown and Bobby Burrell.
Despite his illness, Nelson came to see “Full Monty” opening night April 25, 2012. His illness developed into stage three cancer through the next few months. He died Oct. 2. During Nelson’s final hours, Connatser and their five friends stood by him.
To this day, Connatser continues his backstage work — for Nelson and because he enjoys the quick pace.
“You either enjoy it or you don’t,” he says. “God, yes (I enjoy it)!”
The weekend after the wrap of “Sunset Boulevard” Jan. 27, Connatser started work on “9 to 5” rehearsals. He will spend five to six evenings a week working on productions for the rest of The Players’ season.
Connatser orders DVDs of all performances because he only gets a side view during productions. “Sunset Boulevard” is no exception. Connatser plans to have his Players friends over to watch it. And, after The Players’ season is over, he’s going on a cruise with two of his Players friends.
He plans to return backstage next season, and every season following.
“I always said I’d stay involved after (Nelson’s) time came,” Connatser says.
He proudly has his own corner stage left, with his own set of headphones — and he’s considering the role of assistant stage manager for April’s “Side Show.”
Connaster thinks Nelson would get a kick out of how much he enjoys his work.
Leaving a legacy
In late October, The Players held a memorial in the lobby to share memories of the late Doug Nelson. Larry Connatser brought 30 pieces of Nelson’s original watercolor to showcase his talent beyond the stage.
Connatser was saddened when he later found out from theater executives that three former Players actors had died without the means to pay for wills and funerals. So, as an effort to keep Nelson’s legacy alive, Connatser is now in the early stages of starting the Doug Nelson Foundation and will sell Nelson’s work to raise funds to benefit local actors who can’t pay for wills and funerals.
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