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About 30 New Haven residents gathered at the New Haven Free Public Library on Monday to listen to stories on topics ranging from finding belonging after losing a family member to adapting to life in America.

The library’s Community Conversations event took place at the Mitchell Branch and was co-sponsored by Long Wharf Theatre as part of the community engagement efforts for its new musical Crowns, a coming-of-age story about a young woman who is sent from Chicago to live in the American South with her grandmother. Participants only had to sign-up to be part of the “story slam” and were encouraged to address the question: Where have you found belonging or when have you needed it?

“I think that storytelling, and particularly telling stories out loud, is one of the most excited ways to connect as human beings,” said Elizabeth Nearing, the community engagement manager at Long Wharf Theatre. “I think that’s something that’s really at the core of the oral history in Crowns, as well as in the practice of theater-making.”

The event opened with a performance from the cast of “(Be)Longing,” a musical about the Virginia Tech shootings which premiered at Long Wharf in June 2017. Nearing said the themes of the musical, which are about connection and community, align well with the goals of Monday’s event.

Herb Kolodny shared his story of becoming a political advocate for other amputees after losing his leg to cancer several years ago. In March, his organization successfully lobbied to obtain insurance parity for people who have lost limbs.

He heard about the event through an email from the library and decided to share his story with the group after Nearing encouraged him to do so.

“I never intended to be an advocate, but look where it’s gone to so far,” Kolodny said.

Nina Lesiga shared a lighthearted story about learning how to embrace performing in public last year on Global Elevator Performance Day, when she was inspired to take her ukelele to a New York City Macy’s and perform “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” for people who were riding the elevators. She said she was able to stop being a “closeted musician” and is now helping to organize the Bridgeport Make Music Day.

Nearing said the partnership between Long Wharf Theatre and the New Haven Public Library has enabled these kinds of community sharing events. They have started a program in which the theater creates a mini-library of books with themes related to the current shows and, six years ago, launched a community ambassador program to spread the word about Long Wharf’s productions to Elm City residents.

Nearing also advertised a program where the theater provides tickets that can be “checked out” by anyone with a library card on a first-come basis, which elicited excited reactions from attendees.

Sharon Lovett-Graff, who is the manager of the Mitchell Branch of the library, also expressed enthusiasm for the partnership.

“It brings a lot of new people into the library, and it gives people the opportunity to see plays,” said Lovett-Graff. “Some people have never seen a play or haven’t been to a play in a hundred years.”

Crowns runs at Long Wharf Theatre from April 18 to May 13.

Carolyn Sacco |