Ian Alderman, a cofounder and core ensemble member of New Haven’s A Broken Umbrella Theatre troupe, is the physical embodiment of classic New England weathered wit and charm. With a thick, red beard and eyes that squint in the late summer sun, during the day, Ian gets his hands dirty as the yard boss for his family’s scrapyard business – the oldest in town. After work, though, he eagerly reconvenes with his wife, Rachel, and theater team for what they call “kitchen conversations” to research and brainstorm ideas for the company’s next performance.
During these nightly huddles (and over a few large communal Pepe’s pizzas), the walls of Rachel and Ian’s kitchen slowly transform into a veritable collage of images and ideas all centering around the rich and unique history of New Haven. Adhering to the company’s founding mission and principles, the troupe seeks to enhance community appreciation, education, and awareness through live performance and theater. With such past productions as Play with Matches (a retelling of the spooky story of Ebenezer Beecher’s invention of the automated matchstick machine) in an abandoned Blake Street warehouse or Vaudevillain (a famed Westville murder mystery) in the Lyric Hall Antiques & Conservation showroom, A Broken Umbrella Theatre thrives on researching and renovating site-specific spaces to illuminate the legend and lore of New Haven’s historic past.
As Ian notes, “New Haven is the birthplace of so many ideas, inventions, and stories that still affect us today. The city has such a rich history to draw from, so we’re constantly feeling inspired. And since A Broken Umbrella is driven entirely by the volunteer efforts of not only trained actors, but writers, artists, dancers, etc., it’s clear that we’re all coming together out of a sincere love and respect for live theater. Not only that, but it’s important for us to bring this type of art and these kinds of stories to the neighborhoods we live in.”
Originating as a sketch and improve-comedy trio outside of Pittsburgh, Ian and his fellow ensemble members, Ryan Gardner and Ken Baldino, toured the country professionally for several years by conceiving, creating, and performing all of their own original material. And, after a brief stint in Chicago, once Ian and Rachel decided to move back home to New Haven, they wanted to utilize the exact same creative aesthetic and ethic in parlaying their own venture back into live theater. But why New Haven, given that they’d be sandwiched right between Broadway and Boston? While Ian represents the proud fourth-generation of a working-class family here in town, Rachel (a native New Yorker) marvels at the abundant amount of artistic talent and support right here in town.
“New Haven is Connecticut’s creative capital,” she says. “You can really feel it in the air. The environment here is extremely tight-knit and becomes a kind of domino effect once you start reaching out to peers. Once we meet someone who shares our vision – in whichever artistic discipline they find themselves working in — we’ll meet five more people who feel the exact same way about the kind of community we’re all working hard to build and sustain. We’re not competitors. We always want to be working together, and living in this city allows for that type of natural camaraderie.”
In the fall of 2010, Christopher Korenowsky was appointed executive director and city librarian of the New Haven Free Public Library, and, as a way of integrating himself into the community he was brought on to serve, he attended a live performance of A Broken Umbrella’s Vaudevillain production. Blown away by the group’s ability to transform spaces into stages and to tell local stories in new and exciting ways, the performance struck a resonant chord with Korenowsky and the seeds for a future partnership were planted.
“I grew up loving live theater, so when I had the opportunity to come to New Haven from Ohio, I was really excited to be living just a stone’s throw away from Broadway; but I hadn’t realized how strong the theater presence was here in New Haven – how much real talent is right here. Once I saw Vaudevillain, I couldn’t believe how talented this local, neighborhood troupe was. It was inspiring,” he says.
Currently, the NHFPL is celebrating its 125th year of serving the City of New Haven. Since Korenowsky has taken the reigns, the library has kicked off a series of new initiatives and public programs aimed at better sustaining and servicing the community: engaging young minds, literary learning, economic sustainability, and cultural connectivity. And, as a testament to the city, draped between the columns of the palatial brick building, banners reading “unleashing potential – creating community” have made those words a mantra for a community looking toward the future.
In looking to the future, Korenowsky knows that one must learn from the past. Therefore, in reinforcing the library’s mission of creating and serving the New Haven community, he approached the idea of storytelling in entirely new ways by commissioning a project from A Broken Umbrella. With an original piece of theater designed to underscore the importance of the library within public communities, the roles in which it serves, and the amount of information contained within its hallowed halls, the project aligned perfectly with the company’s own brand of community revitalization and accessibility.
As Rachel excitedly explains, “It’s a natural fit. A Broken Umbrella and the NHFPL both seek to enliven and contribute to New Haven. And, more generally, theater and literature invite all of us to explore and discover new worlds. We take an active journey every time we encounter a new book, a new play, a new piece of music, or a new piece of visual art. The NHFPL and our theater company are interconnected in spirit and in mission.”
Sponsored largely in part by some of the city’s newest community-driven banks (First Niagara and Start Community banks), Ives Unbound will proudly present the history and emphasize the importance of the library in a series of five choose-your-own-adventure vignettes. Additionally, by keeping the discourse and dialogue open between the public and performers, A Broken Umbrella will conduct intergenerational storytelling workshops in each of the four branch libraries to collect stories from the city’s diverse communities to add an integral element to the play.
Thrilled at this inclusive aspect, Korenowsky remarks, “Ironically enough, libraries don’t necessarily do a good job of telling the stories of the people in its community. Hearing these voices and being able to reflect them back to the public in this way is really exciting.”
By exploring the notion or entity of the library in relation to the past and present, A Broken Umbrella plans to spin some sly and scandalous secrets that many in the city haven’t been privy to just yet. Ripe for the picking, though, Ian keenly notes that “the library has historically been one of the only public places in the world where you can see all socioeconomic backgrounds inhabiting one space with access to the same information. A lot of interesting stories can come out of that kind of scenario.”
One of these stories in particular has got Korenowsky and A Broken Umbrella even more excited about the upcoming performance piece. Drawing on the drama of a rather large dispersion of funds in Thomas Merritt’s unclear legal will caused the New Haven Free Public Library to become pitted against the city’s other historic literary landmark, The Institute Library. Korenowsky and Institute Library Executive Director Will Baker will uproariously act out this particular parable for live audiences.
“We’re so excited to be partnering with the library and we can’t wait to see how he (Korenowksy) does on-stage,” Rachel says with a wink. “When he just moved to New Haven and saw our group perform for the first time, right away, Chris asked if he could join us or get involved in some way. This kind of communal spirit is exactly why we love doing what we do so much.”
On a more serious note, Rachel recalls the time when an (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services volunteer brought one of her client’s families to one of A Broken Umbrella’s performance as a way of introducing them to the community they’d be calling home as one of the highlights of her career so far.
“I’m not even sure if they spoke English, but the idea that our company was their first experience and memory in this country is overwhelming,” she says, her eyes misting a bit. “Getting people involved and welcoming them to the community, through storytelling, is really just about the most rewarding thing we could ever ask for.”