Westerly has a reputation for being a summer destination, but the truth is that there’s actually plenty to do even when there’s a bit of a chill in the air, like warming up beside a bonfire for a rousing celebration of Guy Fawkes Day right at the beach.
For those who may not know, here’s a mini-history lesson for you. There was once a conspiracy, known as the Gunpowder Plot, to blow up the House of Lords in England in the hopes of killing its members and King James in 1605 led in part by Guy Fawkes, who wanted to protest against Protestant control of the country. Following this botched attempt on November 5, Fawkes was captured, tried, and executed and a day of national thanksgiving in England was declared.
This holiday has been celebrated annually ever since with parades and fireworks, meant to represent the explosives that failed to detonate as part of the plot. You may recognize the popular rhyme “Remember, remember the fifth of November,” an English folk verse that references the fateful day and popularized again in recent years by the film V for Vendetta.
Having the celebration come across the pond to Westerly was brought on by two factors. First, current Misquamicut Business Association Executive Director Caswell Cooke had spent a semester in England in 1995, working for a member of the British parliament as an intern, and then a year later attended a bonfire at his friend Tro Cottrell’s house in North Stonington.
“He was wearing a kilt and had brought in a bagpiper and I was just like ‘What are you doing?’” he laughed. “And then he reminded me it was Guy Fawkes Day and it kind of took off from there, so the next year we headed down to the Andrea and lit a bonfire of our own.”
Selections from a play, which covers the trial and execution, are traditionally read out during the celebration in England and became an essential part of the celebration at the Andrea as well.
“Chris, Caswell, Matt and I are all fans of British humor, so we decided to augment the play with a few Monty Python skits, and then play around with the rest of the script, like how Chris always plays King James as a character inspired by Rodney Dangerfield,” laughed Ryan Zamanek, who typically plays the Archbishop of Canterbury. “We usually stick to our usual roles but sometimes we switch it up, like in 2008, when the Apprentice was so popular, John Flemming took on the role of King James as Donald Trump,” Dipaola added.
Another year, Caswell had the idea to have the performances be inspired by Joe Cocker’s iconic slurred speech. All performances skew towards PG-13 humor, but families are welcome to use their best judgment. In fact, many members of the younger generation of performers grew up attending the event as children, so the experience is deeply connected to their roots.
The first performance took place in 1997 before the MBA even existed and its future members were just thinking of ways to extend the season on their own, so that first year was very informal and impromptu in most ways. “A lot of it was improvised and the costumes were pretty thrown together, and that first year we only had a crowd of 15,” script co-writer Zamanek shared. “It was just a bunch of us getting together from the old high school days and having a good time, really.”
Over 20 years later and it’s now an official MBA event and the audience has grown from barely more than a dozen to almost 500.
“Caswell and I work year-round to write fresh new scripts, and we’ve been able to bring in some exciting people to sing and perform, including magicians and illusionists and even Denny Lane, former member of the Moody Blues and Wings,” Zamanek said.
The costumes have improved, too, with a vibrant and varied stock inherited from the Chorus of Westerly’s production of 12th Night, which allow the performers to really lean into their roles as kings, bishops, and knights in shining armor. The one exception to the costume upgrades is the king’s crown, which has always been and will always be supplied by Burger King. “We thought about making it more dignified, but that was quickly vetoed,” Zamanek explained.
The bonfire and performance will take place on Saturday, October 19, at 6:30 p.m. and this year marks the first time the event will be hosted at the Windjammer. The show is free, with donations requested to help benefit the MBA.