A new kind of theater

This weekend marks the final performances of A Broken Umbrella’s library production.
This weekend marks the final performances of A Broken Umbrella’s library production. Photo by Lavinia Borzi.

This weekend, New Haven residents will get one last chance to see their library transformed into a stage.

The New Haven volunteer theater company A Broken Umbrella is presenting “The Library Project,” a production that celebrates the history and treasures of the New Haven Public Library for its 125th anniversary. The show, which debuted on Oct. 20 and ends this weekend, consists of seven different short plays and is staged by 60 volunteer artists who compose the largest ensemble A Broken Umbrella has created in its four-year history. Director Rachel Alderman said that while the show is intended for children, it appeals to audience members of all ages and backgrounds.

Just as public libraries are “great equalizers,” providing all visitors with the same access to services, Broken Umbrella hopes that the show will draw people from all monetary backgrounds. Accordingly, the tickets are sold under a “Pay What You Can” policy.

“Just like the library itself, we aspire to have both traditional and non-traditional audiences,” Alderman said. “The mission of the library and the mission of the company are similarly aligned in spirit.”

While the main peculiarity of “The Library Project” is its setting in a library as opposed to a traditional stage, Alderman said this approach aligns with the company’s philosophy.

“We’re never in a traditional theatre space,” she said. “We let New Haven history inspire the production and match the content to the site.”

Dana Astmann, company member and School of Music press secretary, said A Broken Umbrella began gathering ideas for the show by looking closely at the library’s spaces and researching its history.

During the show, each of the seven short plays explores one of the library’s rooms and uses the space to establish a unique atmosphere.

“In one space we had the audience sitting on blocks covered with drop cloths, [and] in another we set up chairs to make it feel more like a traditional audience,” Astmann said. “Each space has its own feel.”

Alderman said the show’s main aim is to honor the library’s core importance to the New Haven community in addition to its own history. While Alderman said the company found it difficult to assemble the large company needed to do justice to such a great celebration, Broken Umbrella has faced now challenges related to performances in such an untraditional space. Rather, she explained, the library’s unique look and feel brought the production to life.

“The library building is amazing,” she said. “The architecture really influenced the types of stories that we were going to tell.”

Alderman said the performance, which features actors playing librarians and giving tours to small groups of audience members, is designed to allow people to notice features of the building they might never have stopped to notice before. One audience member, she recalled, asked her if the theater company had built the beautiful alcoves in the library, but Broken Umbrella had simply used lighting to highlight the already existing structures.

The show’s focus on teaching New Haven history is evident in both the script and the setting.

“All of our stories ground themselves in the history and explode creatively,” Alderman said. “People end up learning a lot even while they’re invested in a fictional or a partially fictional story.”

Sharon Lovett-Graff, the manager of the library’s Mitchell Branch on Harrison St. and an audience member, agreed that the show highlights the library’s importance both in the past and in the present.

“We wanted to spark curiosity in our history and the show has definitely done that,” she said. “I’ve been a librarian for 15 years, and I found it really inspiring. It really rejuvenated me in terms of our treasures and our mission in sparking people’s curiosity for books.”

Lovett-Graff also said that the show brought back patrons who had not been to the library in years and even people who had never visited before. “The Library Project” reminded New Haven residents that the library is relevant even with the advance of technology, she said.

“Technology is wonderful but in many ways it’s limited,” she said. “Libraries aren’t going anywhere.”

A Broken Umbrella will perform “A Library Project” four more times this weekend.

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