Broken Umbrella's 'Exchange:' Before Siri, There Was Mabel


How does a theater company create a work about communication?

First it listens.

That was the approach for A Broken Umbrella Theatre, the New Haven-based nomadic theater company known for creating works inspired by the many inventions, “firsts,” and unique aspects of the community, including re-imagining the beginning history of bicycles, girdles, matches, try-out musicals, and the Erector set, among other subjects.

This time out, the ensemble company is focusing on the special relationship New Haven has with the telephone.

The first telephone exchange, switchboard, telephone book, and telephone subscription system happened in New Haven in the late 1870s. (The first wrong number, too, no doubt, but that’s another story.)

But the theater company found that New Haven telegraph office manager George Coy, who created the first commercial telephone exchange, wasn’t really that interesting.

“He was a fairly unremarkable fellow,” says Isaacs. “He was basically a man who got out there and hustled to get people to subscribe and to invest in the exchange.”

So the theater company decided instead to talk to people of all backgrounds, ages, and neighborhoods in the community about their experience with the telephone—and the telephone company here. (Southern New England Telephone for most of the 20th century.) They spoke with many former employees of SNET (now Frontier), who all referred to the company as “family” and how civic-minded it was to the community.

“We take our inspiration for our work from New Haven history and the community’s shared history,” says ensemble member Aric Isaacs. “What we’ve done in the past is take an invention and inventor and tell that story over 90 minutes.”