When Harvey Blanchette joined the Chorus of Westerly at eight, he followed in the footsteps of his parents and grandparents. Membership in this intergenerational group is often a family affair, which is part of its charm; it’s one of only two independent choruses in the country in which children sing alongside adults at every concert. Blanchette, who sang with the group until the age of 18 and rejoined last year, also serves as playwright for their annual A Celebration of Twelfth Night show. Here, he and executive director Ryan Saunders offer a behind-the-scenes look at the musical extravaganza.
“In the Rhode Island landscape, it really is the wrap-up to the entire holiday season, going all the way back to Thanksgiving,” Saunders explains. Twelfth Night heralds spring and celebrates renewal and rebirth. It draws elements from Epiphany, medieval revels and winter solstice festivals. Featuring dance, drama, puppetry, pageantry, music and more, it’s a mammoth production with a cast and crew of about 300 — and an audience numbering ten times that each year. This season, the creative team welcomes new choreographer Khadija Griffith. It also bids adieu to chorus founder and beloved music director George Kent, conducting his last Twelfth Night before retirement.
“It’s a spectacle. It’s theatre. There is some truly beautiful acting that happens, but there’s also startlingly gorgeous music,” declares Blanchette. “The costumes, set and light truly make it feel like a different world. You forget that you are sitting in an old converted church and find yourself on a ship at sea or deep in a wintry forest of dreams. It’s some kind of magic.”
For Blanchette, crafting the script takes extensive research and a fair share of late nights. It also requires flexibility after auditions are held, as the work evolves to showcase the talent. His challenge is to incorporate surprising angles and new story ideas within the show’s firm, familiar structure. There are specific themes to maintain as well, such as the triumph of good over evil and the resurrection of spring from the death grip of winter. He notes, “I sometimes wonder how I could ever manage to do this job if I hadn’t been involved with the production since birth. The rhythm of the show feels completely natural to me so it is, if not perhaps easy, rather enjoyable to experiment with what is possible to achieve without breaking the fundamental rules of the Twelfth Night universe.”
This year’s production takes place in a mysterious, mythical land called Mahabala. It’s the fourth installment of a five-year story arc, through kingdoms ruled by the elements – last year, fire; now, air. Inspired by his off-stage role as a new dad, Blanchette also works in themes about coming of age. He reveals, “I wanted to express how important I feel it is for kids to feel comfortable and safe with who they are and to not be ashamed or feel they have to hide themselves. I worry that too often young people think who they are isn’t good enough, or is wrong in some way, and I know a lot of those thoughts and feelings made it into the script.”
A recent first-time father himself, Saunders mentions the tradition of giving infants cameo appearances in the show’s curtain call — nap schedule-dependent, of course. In keeping with the spirit of Twelfth Night, this cycle suits the multigenerational nature of the chorus and its long-standing place in the community. “We have all these future cast and chorus members itching, ready to go. It’s neat how we kind of repopulate the performance with children every few years,” Saunders laughs. “It’s all about a minute of stage time — but might as well train them while they’re young.”
The Chorus of Westerly presents Twelfth Night from January 13-15. Tickets are available online.