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International Festival of Arts & Ideas: Where elevators, bicycles and fairies meet

AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day

Publication: The Day

Published June 09. 2013 4:00AM
Photo by Kevin Berne
Julius Ahn performs in "Stuck Elevator."

New worlds, big and small, will emerge at this year's International Festival of Arts & Ideas, kicking off June 15 in New Haven.

The festival theme, "Dreaming New Worlds - Big and Small," reflects a full palette of dramatic performances, dance events, live music, food, art projects and more.

On stage, the creative team behind the Tony Award-winning Broadway and West End hit "War Horse" will present Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream," featuring the Handspring Puppet Company, at University Theatre, 222 York St., starting June 15.

Among the smaller theatrical worlds to explore during the festival are two nontraditional musicals: "Freewheelers" by A Broken Umbrella Theatre, exploring the history of the bicycle and corset in New Haven and "Stuck Elevator" a collaboration with New Haven native Aaron Jafferis and Seattle-based Byron Au Yong, examining the hopes and dreams of immigrants to the U.S.

'Freewheelers'

Broken Umbrella Theatre is an award-winning ensemble company that creates site-specific works, inspired by the city's history. It's newest piece, "Freewheelers," came about when Rachel Alderman - Broken Umbrella writer/producer - discovered two parallel events in 1866 that affected women's ongoing fight for equality: the bicycle was patented and the country's first corset factory opened, both in downtown New Haven.

Freewheelers were women who rode around on bicycles in the 1890s - a shocking thing at the time, notes company member Chrissy Gardner - a singer/songwriter/musician, who is a member of the show's creative team and performs in the onstage band.

"We did a lot of research, read a lot of books, and learned that women riding bicycles had to take their corsets off to ride - they couldn't breathe," Gardner explains. "Bloomers were initially worn by women because of the bicycle. They couldn't wear skirts; they got caught in the bicycle wheels."

"So," Gardner continues, "the bicycle was a surprising catalyst in the women's suffrage movement. Women were being seen in a different light. And people didn't realize a lot of this was happening in New Haven. The corset factory had to make changes once women (began wearing) rational dress."

The creative team came upon a quote from the time in a New Haven publication that mocked a woman who rode around on a bicycle in men's attire making a "spectacle" of herself.

"Who was this woman? What gave her the courage to do this? We had no actual information on this woman, but she sparked the first character and (subsequent) storyline," Gardner says.

Gardner explains that the plot is built around two women. One is from the lower class, works in the corset factory and rides her bike to work - her skirt keeps getting caught, so she's always late. The other is the upper class wife of the foreman of the factory, who is suffocating in her role as a rich woman who doesn't have to work.

"It's about how the two women's lives intersect, their relationship around the bicycle, and how it propels them out of their situations," Gardner says.

The band, she says, is on stage, acting as a master of ceremonies for the play and representing the inner monologue of the female characters.

"I'm thrilled by the band - it's really going to be a treat. People will be completely wrapped, hopefully, in the music."

She describes the original music as "feminine, classical parlor music of the period, interlaced with contemporary."

The production is staged in the former Horowitz department store, across from the old corset factory, which the company transformed into a theatrical space with a grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism.

"We peeled back the layers, but didn't add anything so that it will bring people back to an actual space where something like this might have happened," Gardner says.

"People will enter through the basement and come up on what we're told is the oldest elevator in New Haven, past an exhibit of old sewing machines - elements from that history on display as you walk through the underbelly of the building, up into the theater. It should be a very cool experience."

'Stuck Elevator'

An elevator and bicycle also play major roles in "Stuck Elevator," a libretto by Aaron Jafferis, New Haven hip-hop poet and playwright and music by Byron Au Yong, which will be performed at Long Wharf Theatre during the festival.

The musical is based on the real-life story of Kuang Chen, a Chinese immigrant in New York City who got trapped in an elevator for 81 hours.

He was attempting to repay a $60,000 debt to smugglers for his passage overseas, delivering take-out orders (by bicycle) for Happy Dragon restaurant.

The show was performed as a reading at the 2010 Festival of Arts & Ideas. In April it premiered as a full production at A.C.T. in San Francisco, to critical acclaim. It comes to this year's festival with the same director, Chay Yew, and lead actor, Julius Ahn, in the role of Kuang Chen.

Jafferis met Au Yong in the graduate musical theater-writing program at NYU in 2004 and they've collaborated on various projects since then.

"We have a similar interest in nontraditional musical theater - and the arts connection to social action," Jafferis says. "Byron had a few different ideas for shows that he pitched to me and this was the one that resonated with me."

Jafferis says an initial impulse for him in turning this news story into a theater piece, was to explore the ways in which Kuang's status keeps him trapped (hence the elevator metaphor) and the ways in which changing his status legally through something like comprehensive immigration reform could have helped prevent this situation.

"There is also the part of the story that is almost a universal American story, in terms of sacrificing physical presence with one's family in exchange for the physical need to provide for one's family," Jafferis says. "This crazy love equation that so many people in the world face that to help the people you love, you have to distance yourself from them…

"We have no idea where immigration reform is going to be at the moment-when this audience or the next sees the piece," he points out.

Jafferis explains that the performance is almost entirely sung, which makes it closer to opera than musical, and that Ahn comes from the world of opera, although he isn't singing in operatic style.

"It's a hybrid-a quarter of the songs are rap-centric, the rest are sung," Jafferis says. "The musical styles are an eclectic mix of pop, classical, Asian, Western, and new music.

"It's comic and tragic and everything in between," he adds.

Jafferis notes that the A.C.T. production was in a huge theater with "nosebleed seats up in the orchestra," and that he's excited about it being at Long Wharf's smaller Stage II, since it's an intimate story.

"We'll still have a ghost of the elevator shaft, not as high and much closer to Kuang, so my hope is we'll feel more like we're in the elevator with him, rather than watching from afar," he says.

"The sound design will be really important. The elevator transforms into different things sonically and through what Kuang's saying. The other exciting thing about this performance is the musicians will all be in view on stage and because there are some interesting instruments, it will be fun to watch the musicians as the show is being performed."

Referring to the process of creating this piece, Jafferis says, "It's easier for us to dismiss people we don't know and we don't care about, so hopefully, I feel I've gotten to know this guy Kuang infinitely better than when we started, and my hope is the audience will as well."

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IF YOU GO

Two plays, "Freewheelers" will be performed June 15 to 29 in the former Horowitz Brothers department store, 760 Chapel St., New Haven. "Stuck Elevator" will be presented June 20 to 29 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven.

For tickets, times and a guide to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas 2013, visit artidea.org.

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