A Theater Primer for the Uninitiated

Rhode Island theater, for the uninitiated, can be a complex mess of posters, social media events and pages of listings in the local papers. Even those folks who have been going to see shows at Trinity Rep or Theatre by the Sea for 30 years are shocked to hear that, on any given weekend, you may have a choice of over a dozen different theatrical performances available to you without even leaving the state. While the internet has given any old group of friends graduating college with a theater degree the chance to start their own company with little to no startup costs, there have always been a fair number of smaller operations in existence besides what can be found in Providence. Community theaters from Barker Playhouse, Pawtucket, Academy Players and many others have been around for far more than 50 years and are still going strong. Independent “off-Trinity” outfits such as Alias Stage, which evolved into one of our professional mainstays, The Gamm, have a long history while others such as NewGate Theatre, Perishable Theatre, North Kingstown Players, and Providence Black Rep were pushed into insolvency as upstarts created more competition and the economy made audiences wary to try anything unfamiliar.

From Foster’s Swamp Meadow Community Theatre to The Granite in Westerly, from the Newport Playhouse to TheatreWorks in Woonsocket, the state is filled with company after company. Some performances are in libraries, some in small black box theaters and others are established in majestic spaces such as Woonsocket’s Stadium Theater, home to Encore Rep and the Rhode Island Stage Ensemble.

And, of course, this doesn’t include the amazing work presented by RI’s universities and colleges – besides the gorgeous facilities at RIC, Salve Regina, Roger Williams University, PC, URI and CCRI, Brown’s MFA program even has its own space right around the corner from Trinity Rep and next door to the often used 95 Empire black box theater. Scanning the listings in an entertainment calendar may give you an idea of what is playing, but how to make sense of it all, especially as a newcomer to the state, can be daunting. And, while it is easy to just give in and pay up to see shows at the Big Three (Trinity, Gamm and 2nd Story), there is fantastic work being done within convenient distance  from downtown Providence — not that anything is *really* that far away in Rhode Island. Thirty minutes by car can take you to even the most far-flung locations. And, of course, there is always the Providence Performing Arts Center. PPAC is not Rhode Island Theater, however. Touring productions of Mama Mia and Wicked are a lot of fun, but no different from the shows you’ll find in Boston or any major city with a venue to host them. I’m highlighting theater produced by and for Rhode Island. And only space restrictions keep me from mentioning every one.

As a start, Kevin Broccoli, RI playwright, actor and artistic director of Epic Theatre Co., currently based out of two different small theaters in Cranston at 50 and 82 Rolfe Square, down the street from yet another performance venue, The Park Theater, gives us his top picks for new students coming in from out-of-state who want an idea of where they should start:

Best Deals for Broke Students — Almost every theater in Rhode Island offers discounts for students, but some are willing to do one better — “pay-what-you-can” performances. So, even if your bank account is barren, you can still enjoy some good theater. Established companies like Trinity Rep, the Wilbury Group (both in Providence), the Contemporary Theatre Company (327 Main Street, South Kingstown), and others are willing to let you pay as much or as little as you want, on selected dates. Most PWYCs are at the beginning of a show’s run, but it varies from theater to theater, so plan ahead. Trust us, it’s worth it. All it takes is to follow these companies on social media to get announcements on when these shows are available and you can grab what is normally a $45 or $15 ticket for only $5 or whatever you have in your pocket.

Best Theater Day for Parents Week — When the folks are in town, it’s always tricky to find things to do in the area. So why not use it as an excuse to get out of the city, and head to Warwick where you can take in a show at Ocean State Theatre Company? Mom and Dad will be impressed with the comfort and high production values of one of OSTC’s musicals or plays, and you can enjoy some time away from campus — then drop the parentals off at the airport when the show’s over. OSTC is located on 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick, and schedules can be found at oceanstatetheatre.org

Best After-Class Entertainment — Looking for some mid-week, post-seminar theater that’ll keep your mind in shape for that big test the next day? Then spend an evening at The Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket where the shows always give you something to think about in an intimate and engaging setting. It’s the perfect place to bring that study group that never gets around to studying, and then go out for food to discuss the show. And if you’re a little late for class the next day, well … your professor will understand. The Gamm is located at 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket (tip: always show up early, as parking can be tight) and performance info can be found at gammtheatre.org

Best Matinee Day — There’s no better way to spend a Sunday in Rhode Island than by heading to Warren to see one of the fantastic productions at 2nd Story Theatre. Like Trinity, 2nd Story has two spaces — one upstairs, one down — and sometimes even a third in nearby Bristol. The theater offers a wide variety of programming, but all of it is high-caliber. 2nd Story’s close proximity to many of the East Bay’s best restaurants and shops means that a great afternoon of theater can be just one part of an awesome day exploring what Rhode Island has to offer. 2nd Story is located on 28 Market St., Warren. Visit their website at 2ndstorytheatre.com

Best Theater for Students by Students — The Trinity Rep Consortium has long been known as one of the hidden gems of the Providence theater community. Not only are the shows inexpensive, but they’re usually some of the riskiest and most rewarding productions in the state. The shows don’t run for very long, so mark them in your calendar now. Performances are at the Pell Chafee Performance Center, 87 Empire St., Providence and range from Shakespeare to local playwrights to Sam Shepard and beyond. More information can be found at browntrinity.com

It’s easy to think that staying in Providence to take advantage of the theatrical possibilities all within walking distance would be a no-brainer, since there are so many choices available for dinner and drinks both before and after. Don’t assume, however, that you can only get a full date night in by remaining Downcity. And, since Theatre by the Sea and its lovely Bistro are only an option for those around during the warm months, consider the quaint café located at Theatre 82, the larger of the two Artists’ Exchange spaces on Rolfe Square in Cranston. Besides the daring and contemporary work being produced there by Epic Theatre Co. (www.epictheatreri.org), other independents have teamed up with Epic to use the space. Burbage Theatre Co (btctheater.wix.com/burbage) often performs there and this upcoming season features a collaboration with the equally eclectic OUT LOUD Theatre (outloudtheatre.org). A hop on the RIPTA 22 bus from downtown to Pontiac Avenue (get off at Auburn and Pontiac – www.ripta.com/22 for a complete map) will put you within short walking distance from Rolfe Square, and a complete night of theater and dining is yours only a short trip away from Providence.

Epic Theatre is also a part of the Rhode Island Theatre Alliance, dedicated to closing the gaps, both literal and figurative, among the geographically dispersed companies around the state. The three current members of RITA are Epic, Contemporary Theater Company (contemporarytheatercompany.com) and the always majestic Mixed Magic Theater located at 560 Mineral Spring Ave., Pawtucket (mmtri.com). This alliance means more collaboration among theater artists in the state, but also a chance for shows that may only have been available in one location performing in a RITA member’s space. So, if a trip to South County seems out of the question, as it seems for far too many people north of the Cranston-Dixon line, then a CTC show moving to Cranston or Pawtucket, and vice versa, is always a possibility.

The options for theatrical experience in Rhode Island are almost endless, and there are still many other community and independent companies that didn’t even make this article. Explore, discover and enjoy the truly unique array of possibilities out there for a state so small, but so brimming with talent and expression. Maybe next time we’ll help you figure out the difference between “theater” and “theatre.”

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