Hailed by the New York Times as one of the best things to experience at Christmastime, the Chorus of Westerly's "A Celebration of Twelfth Night" has elevated the chaos of community theater into an internationally renowned extravaganza. Its triumph, over nearly four decades, remains a mystery - a blend of hard work, good cheer and holiday miracles.
A clue, though, lies in a long tradition of creativity and talent flowing to Westerly from New London - Connecticut College students, professors and alumni who have been dancers, actors, singers, directors, technicians, choreographers, even ushers.
"For magical reasons that may elude us, the alumni at Conn have always been very seriously involved with 'Twelfth Night,'" says Peter Leibert, professor emeritus of art. "I've been involved for about 35 years. The connections are rich. It's magical and mystical."
Magical, mystical - "and insane, too," says Derron Wood '88, who has directed "A Celebration of Twelfth Night" for the last 10 years. "It's truly unlike anything else in the world that you can see."
The show - which the Boston Globe once praised as one of the best Twelfth Night celebrations on the planet, comparable to shows in London and Washington, D.C. - was originally conceived in 1973 by the late Anne Utter, who based it on a similar song-and-dance spectacle called "The Revels;" the Chorus of Westerly began its own production in 1975.
"A Celebration of Twelfth Night" features more than 350 performers, including the 200-member Chorus of Westerly. Each year is different, a blend of amateur and professional actors, children, dancers, acrobats, court jesters, puppets, poets and a pit orchestra, all combining in a story that celebrates the Epiphany, the last of the 12 festive days of Christmas and sometimes known as "the Feast of Fools." It's a day - and a show - where the familiar is reversed and strange and wondrous things can - and do! - happen.
"It's actually one of the biggest, most challenging things that I direct," says Wood, artistic director of New London's Flock Theatre. "It's a giant pageant. We had trapeze artists one year. But it's a lot of fun. As a director, I get to work with all types of people performing in all sorts of styles. Where else can you do that unless you're putting on the Macy's (Thanksgiving) Day Parade?"
Damon Leibert '00 is the show's technical director, but, as Peter's son, he first took the stage in "Twelfth Night" as an infant, wearing a knitted cap sized from a grapefruit half. "My mother carried me on stage. All I did was look cute and keep my mouth shut. … It's funny. Now I have friends who have kids and they're in the show at a few months old. It's nice to see the cycle repeating itself."
There are many family connections. Aimee Blanchette '98, production stage manager, also was in "Twelfth Night" as an infant, when her mother, Stevie Young Blanchette '71, sang in the show. Stephanie Bewlay Sullivan '92 originally performed as a chorus girl and sang when she was 8 years old.
"By the time I was 16," she says, "I was cast as a tree. … I was a theater major at Conn, and Anne Utter asked me in my junior year to be the assistant stage manager. I never went back to acting, and this propelled me to become an Equity stage manager."
Sullivan's father, Jeff Bewlay, former manager of the College's custodial services, also was in the show, and she recalls her dad's story of trying to coax a live donkey onto the stage. "I also have some great stories about live chickens that were supposed to be 'Three French Hens,'" she says. "We sent out three cooked chickens rather than the live ones."
There are more stories, of course: of the Westerly police stepping in to help children don their costumes in time for their scenes, and the legendary Morris Men dancers (founded by Peter Leibert), high-spirited and with bells on their feet, manhandling a 40-foot whale onto the stage.
"There have been many themes," Leibert says. "I recall, among others, 15-foot stilted characters, a 20-foot dragon, an 8-foot horse, very realistic wolf packs with red eyes - very scary ..."
Ryan Saunders, executive director of the Chorus of Westerly, says the impact Connecticut College has had on the show can't be underestimated.
"The Conn College arm has been crucial to the direction and leadership of the production for over three decades," he says. In fact, Saunders adds, "I think it's safe to say that the show would not have been able to continue without the work of the core of Connecticut College alumni. They've not only helped make it great; they've helped it survive."
This year's show is Jan. 13-15. For tickets and more information, visit www.chorusofwesterly.org.
- By Bill Hanrahan