‘Freewheelers’ Takes A Second Ride

Lucy Gellman PhotoLisa Daly leaned into the glowing, white screen of her Macbook, where top-secret (OK, semi top-secret) material lay fleshed out in small black letters. The wind picked up around her shoulders.

A group of fellow actors, seated around a very 21st century table strewn with sushi and soda, prepared to step back in time. A stage materialized around them: the long-forgotten roads of a simpler New Haven, c. 1866; the whirr of pedals and Singer sewing machines; a distant clop clop clop of horses still on the street.

It was time to make a statement.

“Horses will weep!” she proclaimed.

A strange prophecy? Perhaps, but much more than that. The reading, held in late August at A Broken Umbrella Theater‘s headquarters in Erector Square, was part of a greater effort to rework, expand, and re-present a new and improved version of Freewheelers, an original play first performed by the site-specific theater troupe at the 2013 Festival of Arts & Ideas.

After a power-filled three days of workshopping the show at the PiTCH Musical Theater Festival, the cast was back to look through the changes that had been proposed, and add new, often character-specific suggestions to the revised script.

Courtesy of A Broken Umbrella Theater CompanyFor those who have not yet seen Freewheelers, this will ultimately be a good chance to make up for a missed opportunity. Based on two historical events in 1866 – the corset’s celebrated production in New Haven and the riding of a freestanding bicycle across the city’s Green – the musical revolves around a world where town-gown issues are not so different from those the city faces today. As the women who have interface – first grudgingly, and then willingly – with those who have not, they realize that their idealistic divide is not as insurmountable as it once seemed.

Oh, and that rich white guys run the show way too often. (No date or location has yet been scheduled for staging the new version.)

The decision to keep working on Freewheelers came when the cast realized that the story was not just about New Haven, but about human decency and historical class struggle more broadly. Three core members of the troupe, Writer/Director Rachel Alderman, Composer/Arranger Chrissy Gardner, and Choreographer Robin Levine, headed to PiTCH to find out, in Alderman’s words, “if it has a life beyond New Haven.”

During their work-filled stay in Auburn, N.Y., the three discovered that it certainly does – but that that life will require a lot more artistic collaboration before a new version of the play is debuted. Take a listen to the practice in the video below:

The troupe’s first stab at revision was the anatomy of a play at its finest. Laid bare on the butchering table that is a room of actors, dramaturges, and techies, the script received both heaps of praise and critical feedback. Characters still needed to be fleshed out, argued Lou Mangini, who plays a good humored, cycling-enthused doctor against Ian Alderman’s stern factory owner.

Or what did cast members think of one character having a child, Chrissy Gardner asked. Were there scenes that still felt too short, Alderman wanted to know. Mumbling, slightly overlapping discussion broke out across the table. Words were whispered between ensemble members.

One thing they could agree on? The play had serious, strong legs on which it could stand. “Are we going to keep going from here,” Alderman asked? She was greeted by a chorus of enthusiastic “yess!” and head nods before the cast dispersed into the cool night.

Stay tuned, because the troupe is about to take a wild ride. And if the play has already taught New Haveners one thing, it is this: it is in everyone’s best interest to hop on, and try to keep up.  

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