A Tree Grows On Elm Street

Thomas MacMillan PhotoFertilized by book-borrowing memories, a tree has sprung up in the New Haven public library. Librarians are waiting to help visitors check it out—along with six other tales of yesteryear circulating after-hours in the library this month.

The tree was planted in the children’s section of the main library branch on Elm Street by A Broken Umbrella Theatre company, New Haven’s own site-specific thespians, known for bringing local history to life.

As part of its 125th anniversary celebrations, the New Haven public library commissioned A Broken Umbrella to create a piece about the history of the institution. The result is A Broken Umbrella’s largest and most ambitious work yet, debuting Saturday.

The piece, called “The Library Project,” is actually several pieces. It’s “a semi-choose-your-own-adventure,” said company member Rachel Alderman (pictured above), sitting outside the library Tuesday morning. Theatergoers will take in seven performance pieces in a variety of styles, from puppetry to dance and musical theater.

Given the tasks of commemorating 125 years of history, “we took it and exploded it, as per usual,” Alderman said.

A Broken Umbrella productions are born out of a freewheeling collaborative brainstorming process involving on-site inspiration from unexpected performance spaces, deep research into New Haven history, and flights of fancy.

In this case, the process began with a top-to-bottom company tour of the library, including the rooftop, given by library director Christopher Korenowsky. “You never know where ideas are going to come from,” Alderman said.

She said she leaped at the chance to put together a performance in the building, which was designed by Cass Gilbert, one of the most renowned architects of his generation, who also designed Union Station. “The opportunity to create in his temple and celebrate our city—it doesn’t get better than that.”

A Broken Umbrella put out a call for creative people of all stripes who might be interested in working on the production. The company wound up with over 70 volunteers, twice the size of its biggest previous production. All are working for free.

“We had to go outside our regular crew,” Alderman said. “The city is just teeming with amazing people.”

The end result is a theater experience in which audience members will travel through the building to take in various performance pieces. The show commences with a gathering in the lobby, where five “librarians” will greet the audience and divide it into smaller groups, each of which will take a different route through the 10-minute performance pieces on offer.

Each of the pieces is inspired by the history of the library, some more loosely than others. One piece, called “Balance A Dime,” takes on the founding of the New Haven public library, at a time when New Haven’s other book-lending institution, the Institute Library, was already in existence. In a mash-up of time and concepts, the New Haven public library and the Institute Library are both personified in the piece by their present-day directors, Korenowsky and Will Baker. Lou Mangini, in real life a staffer for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, has the daunting task of playing a character representing the entire city of New Haven.

Another piece, called “RIP,” works with the history of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration murals in the basement of the library, which depict the story of Rip Van Winkle. It tells the story of the muralist going through a Rip Van Winkle-esque time warp himself, and dealing with the effects of a 1980s restoration on his artworks.

“Branching Out,” written and directed by Alderman, draws from a series of storytelling workshops—sponsored by START Bank—that she has held in various library branches. She placed card-catalog boxes in each branch, with library-related writing prompts. The collected results form the leaves of a tree growing on the third floor of the library, part of a forest of books that host a trio of young sisters on a bedtime adventure in “Branching Out.”

Other pieces trace the history of the last 125 years of music and dance in reverse chronological, and bring friends and famous New Haveners Daniel Webster—of dictionary fame—and Samuel Morse—of the eponymous code—back to life in the present day to see what they make of the current state of information communication.

The variety of stories in “The Library Project” is meant to mirror the experience of visiting the library and choosing from a host of subjects and styles of books to check out, Alderman said.

Alderman said it has been an experience to be in the library after-hours working on the show. “You can hear the ghosts. They whisper to you.”

Hear them yourself in upcoming shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 4:30 and 7 p.m. on Sundays during the next three weekends.

The show is pay-what-you-can, thanks to underwriting support by First Niagara bank, along with other local businesses and institutions. Phone ahead with a group of 10 or more people and there’ll be a cake waiting for you, to celebrate the library’s 125th birthday.

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