A freewheeling way with history

New Haven’s a stage for Rachel Alderman and A Broken Umbrella Theatre

By Hank Hoffman

rachel_med_res_fmtBicycles and corsets: history’s gift to A Broken Umbrella Theatre. Or so says Rachel Alderman, the not-for-profit theater group’s president, who speaks with palpable enthusiasm about the genesis of the troupe’s new work Freewheelers. The play, a drama with comic moments that also incorporates music and dance, is slated to debut as part of this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

For Alderman, musical theater was “the soundtrack to my childhood.” She saw Annie when she was 3 and attended her first Broadway musical when she was 6. After earning her B.A. in theater at Muhlenberg College, Alderman began her professional career as an actor and teaching artist. But directing has always been part of her theatrical work and these days, directing and producing are her primary focuses.

Alderman emphasizes, however, that “theater is not a solo art and I’m not a solo artist.”

This is particularly true of A Broken Umbrella — a collaborative creative process is central to the group’s practice.

Freewheelers, set in post-Civil War era New Haven, grew out of vigorous brainstorming sessions.

According to Alderman, “We are so grassroots that everybody tends to wear lots of hats.”

The group has had two or three “pitch meetings” in which ideas are proposed for future projects. Broken Umbrella members are always on the lookout for “interesting history that could inspire us,” says Alderman, and in one meeting someone pitched Pierre Lallement’s 1866 bike ride across the New Haven Green and the subsequent patenting of his invention.

But Alderman was hesitant to do a show focused on Lallement, noting that most of the previous shows had revolved around men and their histories in New Haven.

“I thought the bike was a cool idea but we hadn’t found our angle on it yet,” she recalls.

Soon enough, history offered up that angle. Reading a book on women and bicycles, Alderman learned that women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony believed that women on bicycles spurred their movement forward by 10 years. Feeling constricted, women began removing their corsets when they started learning to ride. They were dubbed “freewheelers.”

“This gets me going, this speaks to me,” says Alderman.

Researching the history of corsets, she discovered that the first corset factory in the country was built in New Haven in 1866.

“Within a few months you have the bicycle being patented in New Haven and the Strouse, Adler factory being built. Those two things are in conversation literally blocks apart in our city. They have a fabulous tense relationship that informs each other.

“Suddenly I was enthralled. You can’t make this up! History gives it to you,” enthuses Alderman.

The current incarnation of Broken Umbrella coalesced in 2009, prompted by musician Chrissy Gardner’s desire to create and present a musical performance piece for Westville’s annual Artwalk. (The original nucleus of the current Broken Umbrella was composed of Rachel and Ian Alderman, Chrissy and Ryan Gardner, and Ruben Ortiz, all of whom first met in the theater program at Muhlenberg College.)

“We love living here and love what Artwalk does for the community,” recalls Alderman. “We wrote a piece that celebrated that. Once we got started, we were compelled to make more theater. Where it really took off was when we found more and more people who wanted to make theater and contribute to the quality of life in New Haven.”

Broken Umbrella seeks “to enliven and enrich the community by creating work inspired by New Haven history and lore.” As part of that commitment, the group develops site-specific works that bring attention to locations that are unrecognized “gems.” Among the locations that have served as backdrops for Broken Umbrella productions are the New Haven Free Public Library (The Library Project), Lyric Hall (VaudeVillain), and a dark tunnel under a bridge at Edgewood Park (Thunderbolt).

“The site enhances the story and the story enhances the site,” explains Alderman. “Because of that, you get glimpses into these treasures in New Haven that you wouldn’t experience otherwise.”

An ensemble creation, Freewheelers has been in development for two years. In collaboration with the design team and other artists, Alderman created a curriculum.

“We’d explore through object-theater, free writing, clowning, music, the relationship of these objects to each other,” she says.

Last June, they created the Freewheelers Gallery experiment — an installation art event in their warehouse workspace involving the interaction of the objects, music, and the public.

In “creation meetings,” group members synthesized the mass of material into a narrative. With lots of input from others, Alderman and Gardner collaborated on writing the work.

“Chrissy is an amazing songwriter,” Alderman says. “We have a nice collaborative language together. Her music has informed my writing and my writing has informed her music.”

In terms of her directorial approach, Alderman sees herself as an editor.

“I like to generate a lot of ideas, a lot of material, a lot of conversation and then I whittle it and focus it,” Alderman says. “So whether we’re creating something from scratch or using a script, I like to pull all the voices together.

“Being in a room with people who have something to say and trying to figure out how to say it in a way that’s truly in their voice and as a way to reach people — that’s what really makes me excited,” asserts Alderman.

And with Freewheelers, the rest of us can go along on the ride.

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