T he stacks are odd, and the odds are stacked in favor of The Library Project. The celebratory, cerebral, community-based theater/history/rediscovery project is a marvel of shared resources, shared visions and a shared excitement about the glories of New Haven.
The shelves of books in the main Ives Library on Elm Street are subdued for this show, yet speak volumes. The central objects of the library—its bound reading materials—have become background scenery for a succession of short, sharp scenes about the building itself. Large rooms are sectioned off into corridors. Audiences are beckoned by dancers, 19th century historical figures and young pixies. Glowing umbrellas guide the crowds through this newly redefined and disorienting space.
This rare first-edition theater piece, devised and performed by the local A Broken Umbrella Theatre troupe, was commissioned by New Haven Free Public Library as part of the ongoing celebration of that hallowed literary institution’s 125th anniversary. The Library Project collates, archives and indexes the talents of two directors (married Broken Umbrella co-founders Ian and Rachel Alderman), over a dozen designers, around 20 performers, six “librarians” which bring the ambulatory audience from room to room, and dozens more people who serve as crew members, tech assistants, “props artisans,” stage managers, scenic artists, “creators,” caterers, concession-stand servers, box office workers and gentle readers.
After a dazzling prologue of projections, flurries of paper and puppet birds in the building’s main entranceway, audience members join one of five groups. The groups are led about all three floors of the library, where they check out half a dozen separate one-act plays—short stories, if you will—inspired by great moments in the library’s storied 125-year history and staged within what Ian Alderman calls in an introductory statement “seven of what we think are some of the library’s best rooms.”
A Broken Umbrella Theatre has been doing original theater pieces in New Haven for the past five years, and has grown its company to a core of 30 members. Most of the shows have been inspired by New Haven history. Vaudevillain, based on a real-life murder case, was staged at the Lyric Hall in Westville, the neighborhood where the crime took place a century or so earlier. Another Westville-set piece, Play With Matches, was staged in a renovated factory building, evoking the Industrial Age era of the play.
Some of the shows, including A Broken Umbrella’s last production before this one, Head Over Wheels, have been expressly for children. This one is an all-ages affair; Broken Umbrella deems it appropriate for ages 8 and up. Even the actors range in age from grade-schoolers (the flitting fairies of “Branching Out,” which uses a forest metaphor to encompass the joys of reading and the distinction of branch libraries) to the elderly (a portrayal of Mary Ives, who had the main library building built in honor of her late husband).
For local theater enthusiasts and library cardholders, The Library Project is a must-see and a must-read without a hint of mustiness. Each scene is staged in its own style, and though a lot of factual information is imparted, there are wonderful fantasy moments and fictions to break up the researched bits. The scene “Noah & Sam,” for instance, dramatizes a friendship between dictionary editor and pioneering American linguist Noah Webster and painter-turned-communications-expert Samuel Morse (of Morse Code fame).
On the basement level of the building, the scene title “RIP” stands not for “Rest In Peace” but the murals telling the legend of Rip van Winkle which adorn the walks of what was once the children’s book section. Painter Salvatore DeMaio, who crafted the paintings thanks to the Works Progress Administration, is shown in a dream state, watching other artists restoring the deteriorated paintings decades after his death.
The Library Project isn’t entirely a celebration. It suggests, for instance, that the mural restoration project was insufficiently funded. In another playlet, the very establishment of the New Haven Free Public Library is discussed in stark and occasionally hostile terms by actors representing the city, philanthropist Willis K. Stetson, the Institute Library (a private lending library which existed decades before the NHFPL and which expected to be the recipient of considerable funds that had been bequeathed to the city to establish a free public library). In the presentation (titled “Balance a Dime”), the Institute Library (still an active concern, located in a walk-up space at 847 Chapel Street) is portrayed by its current Executive Director, Will Baker, while the NHFPL is played by its own new Executive Director, Christopher Korenowsky.
A Broken Umbrella Theatre has been given unusual freedom in rearranging the Free Public Library building for theatrical use. All the “new books” stacks have been moved from their accustomed place in the circulation area to a temporary spot. The tables in the reading area near the periodicals section have become dance spaces, where women denoting various eras of the 20th century brandish not just books and magazines but laptops and iPhones while they leap and strut and twist around the room.
The books in The Library Project may be backdrops and props, yet they power the whole project. It’s also appropriate that A Broken Umbrella has gotten sponsorship enabling them to sell tickets to a show about a free public library on an affordable-for-all “Pay-What-You-Can” basis.
Each of the five groups at each performance of The Library Project views every one of the disparate scenes, just in a different order. The actors thus stage their scenes multiple times a night. The entire experience clocks in at under 90 minutes, and you get the sense of having flipped through a number of volumes, having your own personal experience with prepared material while others around you are having theirs.
Just like a library.
The Library Project
Ives Main Library, 133 Elm Street, New Haven (map)
Saturdays October 27 & November 3 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Sundays (October 28 and November 4) at 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Janey Alexander.