On a Saturday night in November, I’m sitting in a balcony that overlooks a basement-level theater. The Saybrook College Orchestra practiced here only yesterday, but now the space has been transformed. Battery-operated candles emit a soft glow from round wooden coffee tables, old rugs cover the floorboards, and rice paper dividers with cherry designs span one wall. A dusky sense of warmth welcomes the audience that has come for the Coffeehouse, a biweekly concert in the Saybrook Underbrook featuring student artists and writers alongside Yale-based and touring bands. Minutes before the show starts, I can see from the balcony that already 50 students are clustered around the tables or sitting on the floor in front of a slightly raised platform. “You’re encouraged to sit close to the performers,” says Zoe Reich-Aviles ’15, who frequently attends performances. “It’s not separated into an experience that says, ‘This is the performer, this is the audience. Sit and watch.’ It feels much more intimate than that.”
Community holds the Coffeehouse together. Around noon on the day of the show, the Coffeehouse’s founders — Nolan Green ’12, Oliver Hill ’12, and Eliza Bagg ’12 of the band Plume Giant — and volunteers start hauling amplifiers, drums, wooden canvases, and sculptures to the Underbrook. The founders leave advertising up to the performers themselves because “this is their show. We want it to seem like it’s their venue,” says Green.
Before the Coffeehouse, Green co-founded the now-defunct Yale Music Scene, which hosted student musicians every week at various off-campus venues. But long walks from campus and the Scene’s unofficial status hampered it from taking off. The organization also offered only music — no poetry or artwork. “We put a lot of time into Yale Music Scene,” Green says, “but we weren’t getting great turnouts.” Attendance at concerts was closer to 30. With an approved space on-campus, average attendance at the Coffeehouse is double that.
Tonight, the show begins when student artist Will Hutchison ’12 directs the crowd’s attention toward the wall to our right, where he has arranged dozens of posters of all sizes. He explains his feelings about advertising as an art form — it can cultivate interest in something new. I had glanced at posters of Master’s Teas plastered around campus, but I hadn’t thought of them as art.
Hutchison is followed by Lindsay Gellman ’12, who reads her short story aloud. “It would be difficult to get a much more supportive and interested audience than what I found at the Underbrook,” Gellman says.
Two musical acts, one Yale-based and one touring, play next. Their music is folksy, indie: Laurelin Kruse ’12 croons while playing her guitar, and Boston’s The Friendly People lets out an occasional scream. When the concert is over, students linger, talk to the performers, pick up CDs, and trickle out into the cold.
Before the Coffeehouse’s founders graduate, they will pass the reins to a new team of students responsible for recruiting performers. Green, Hill, and Bagg hope to move together and perform as Plume Giant in Williamsburg, NY, but they plan to continue booking outside bands for the Underbrook. “I don’t anticipate that requiring a ton of pressure or time,” says Green. Eventually they won’t be needed at all.