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The American Story Project, a theater company comprised of Wesleyan students and alumni, will perform We Can't Reach You, Hartford at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival held in Edinburgh, Scotland Aug. 7-19.
Posted 07.28.06

Students, Alumni Bring Fatal Fire Story to Life through Play

In 1944, the Hartford Circus Fire caused more than 150 deaths during an afternoon circus performance. Although the cause of the fire remains officially undetermined, five employees of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus were charged with involuntary manslaughter, and the circus was forced to accept full financial responsibility for the fire that occurred during their show.

This tragic, yet compelling story, will be retold and performed by the American Story Project, a new theater company comprised of Wesleyan students and alumni. The seven-member group will premier We Can’t Reach You, Hartford, a play by Jess Chayes ’07 and Stephen Aubrey ‘06, at the Bedlam Theatre during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival held in Edinburgh, Scotland Aug. 7-19.

Under Chayes’s direction, the audience will witness the story of sad clowns, unlikely heroes and the forgotten tragedy under the big top. Performers include Annie Bodel '08, Edward Bauer '08, Elissa Kozlov '08, Mike James '07 and Hayley Stokar '06.

In We Can’t Reach You, Hartford, Bauer plays the role of Emmett Kelly, a sad clown from the Depression-era 1930s who once performed as an actual member of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1942 to 1956. One of the most memorable pictures to emerge from the Hartford Circus Fire depicted Kelly, in full sad clown makeup, attempting to extinguish the flames that had already engulfed the entire circus behind him. Even until his death in 1979, Emmett Kelly never discussed what he saw that day in July.

James plays Meryl Evans, a band director who continued to conduct during the fire until the flames forced his musicians to flee.

“Jess really wanted to make the play a living document without following docudrama rules,” James says. “She and Stephen made something surprising. The play focuses mostly on the disaster’s periphery; it’s an eerie stage poem.”

This will be a second venture to the Fringe Festival for Chayes, James, Stokar and Kozlov. Last year, the American Story Project’s production of Tone Clusters premiered at the Bedlam Theatre and brought critical acclaim. The American Story Project has also performed at venues in Connecticut and New York.

“Each of our plays strives for honest, powerful expression among the more bizarre channels of the human experience,” Chayes says. “Each piece tackles difficult, haunting questions, striving not for answers, but for illumination, insight and a journey into the human condition.”

In 2001, a comprehensive history of the Hartford Circus Fire was published. Novelist Stewart O’Nan, author of “The Circus Fire: the True Story of an American Tragedy,” attended the company’s workshop performance in May. Afterwards, he wrote of the production: “We Can't Reach You, Hartford re-imagines the tragedy of the Hartford Circus Fire with a strange and compelling immediacy. It's a weird, nearly overwhelming tale, but director Jess Chayes, writer Stephen Aubrey and the players bring an intimate scale and bracing range to the material. Creepy, funny, touching--it's a tour de force.”

A benefit performance of We Can’t Reach You, Hartford runs in Manhattan, N.Y., Aug. 2; and in Scarsdale, N.Y. on Aug. 3. For more information visit americanstoryproject.com.
 
By Olivia Bartlett, Wesleyan Connection editor